Academy Award-winning film “Free Solo” took the climbing world by storm in 2018 and, at the time of this posting, had a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. One of the men behind the film, cameraman Samuel Crossley sat down with us to explain how he got into climbing photography, his favorite gear to take to the wall and what it means to be an expert.
ExpertVoice (EV): Let’s start with a pretty broad question, how did you get to where you are now?
Samuel Crossley (SC): How did I manage to become a professional climbing filmmaker and photographer? Basically, I love to climb but I’m not good enough to be sponsored! Filmmaking and photography allow me to make climbing a center of my life while pursuing my other passions.
EV: Tell us more about your passion for photography.
SC: When I was young I took photos on a disposable camera when we went on family trips. Not only did I enjoy taking photos, when my mom developed the photos, everyone thought mine were better than the photos my two older brothers took. It felt good to be good at something they weren’t, it felt rare. When I was in elementary school my dad bought a DSLR and taught me the basic controls. I would play with it but he only let me shoot on manual. So from a young age, I learned how to use a professional camera and analyze light. I continued to shoot and became confident that it was something I was good at. What challenged me the most was saying something meaningful in a photo, which still challenges me today and is why photography is my passion. Photography is a storytelling art form that makes it easy for anyone to take that initial step towards understanding a perspective outside of their own.
EV: You recently wrapped up more than 2 years working on the Academy Award Winning documentary, “Free Solo.” How did you get involved in that project?
SC: Jimmy Chin was looking for a photo assistant with climbing experience who could also shoot video for the film, and Alex Honnold needed to know and trust this person, so Alex recommended me!
EV: What was your favorite part of working on such an epic project?
SC: Learning how to make a great film. And the people: Chai Vasarhelyi, Clair Popkin, Jimmy Chin, Mikey and Jim Hurst.
EV: Aside from your camera, what gear do you rely on when you’re shooting on a wall?
SC: When I’m shooting on a big wall like El Capitan, I rely on a few pieces of gear:
- Harness, (Metolius Safe Tech Waldo)
- Static ropes (200m Bluewater 9.5mm BWII+)
- Rappel device (Petzl Gri Gri)
- Ascenders (Petzl Ascensions, left and right)
- Daisy chains (115cm and 140cm Black Diamond 12mm Dynex Daisy Chains)
- Foot stirrups (Metolius Easy Aiders, left and right)
- Gloves (Metolius Fingerless Climbing Glove)
- Approach shoes (La Sportiva TX3)
When I’m shooting a single pitch I often just bring my Petzl Gri Gri, the left ascension and a foot stirrup.
EV: What’s your favorite location to shoot and what makes it special?
SC: El Cap. Living in Yosemite during climbing season… and the images are just big!
EV: Do you have a favorite place to climb without a camera?
SC: I bring my camera everywhere but that doesn’t mean it leaves the backpack. Sometimes I don’t shoot because the light isn’t good, or I just care more about climbing.
EV: Not many people get to combine their two passions and call it their full-time job. What advice do you have for someone looking to make their passion their profession?
SC: I get asked this question every week on Instagram and each week I answer it differently. It’s difficult at times to work toward my career goals but I’m open to how the path toward these goals arises and develops. It took me years and a lot of hard work to combine my passions into a career. It took a constant high level of commitment to the unknown, trusting that everything would work out. It was easy to make the initial leap into this career after college because I had worked hard to get to the point of leaping. Even though I’ve combined my passions into a career, at times it’s still difficult and not fun. There’s still a lot of hustle involved and I constantly learn as much about myself as I do anything else. It’s not easy being your own boss! So I’d say the easy part is having long term goals. The hard part is figuring out how to start, and then how to keep going!
EV: The sport of climbing isn’t known for its diversity. As an openly gay man, how are you working to bring light to diversity in the climbing community?
SC: I was in the closet until the last month of high school, which meant I suppressed my identity and I didn’t learn much about myself until college and I’m still learning about myself in regards to what it means to be openly gay and why it matters. Being gay is a lifetime sort of thing so a little backstory before we get to the climbing — while in the closet, I wasn’t able to express myself in fear of being outed. Things that would be normal for a straight person really messed with me. Like when I took a girl to prom because her friends said she wanted to go with me. I thought it would be a nice gesture, even though it would be terrible for me. And as if that’s not bad enough, she kissed me so my first kiss was with a girl instead of a boy. She cried immediately after I jerked my head back in a repulsive manner. In those following moments I couldn’t muster up the courage to be honest with her about my sexuality and have her be the first person I came out to. I felt terrible for her but that’s when I realized I asked her to prom simply because I was petrified of anyone even thinking I was gay. I really didn’t want her to think I was gay but I also didn’t want her to think she was ugly or something like that. It was just a terrible scenario. I wasn’t okay with being gay and hated the fact that I was gay. I didn’t identify with the gay community and I thought life would be easier if I was straight. I participated in sports, photography, filmmaking, theatre tech and learned as much about these things as possible — while avoiding dealing with being gay. The only way I learned about myself as a gay man was by secretly reading gay blogs, forums and articles on the internet. I didn’t have any LGBTQ folks in my life that I could look up to and more people made fun of gay people than thought they were cool.
I’ve always been a part of the sports community. I grew up playing soccer, football, hockey and swimming and have been generally decent at sports and athletic activities. I stopped playing organized team sports in high school, trading them for outdoor adventures but I filmed every varsity football game. My friends were on the football team and the team gave me a jacket with my name on it. Senior year, I flew with the team down to Los Angeles to photograph on the field during the state championship. I felt like I fit in but nobody knew I was gay because I suppressed that part of me through self hatred. Therefore I didn’t really feel like I fit in. Even today, not a single NFL player has concurrently been out publicly while playing a regular season game. Players of pretty much all professional sports only come out publicly after their professional career. This is why I find it important to be visible as a gay climber. Times are changing and the only fear someone should experience while climbing should have nothing to do with who they are. I stand as an example that everything will be okay. While in the closet, I felt so alone and had no one to look up to. The climbing community felt like that to me because I didn’t know of a gay climber until more than four years into my climbing career. Now I finally feel comfortable with who I am and I’m proud to be gay. Someone may not understand why I list gay at the end of my Instagram bio along with filmmaker, photographer and climber, I put that word there for the person who sees it and feels welcomed into the climbing community.
EV: What’s a goal you’re currently working toward?
SC: My goals line up with the projects I work on. Right now I’m trying to grow as a filmmaker in- and outside of the climbing industry. This summer I’ll be the director of photography on a feature length documentary about a wilderness painter as they make their journey down the Green River. I’ve got a few film projects going that I’m stoked about but I like to keep these things fairly under wraps!
EV: And what does being an expert mean to you?
SC: An expert is confident in what they know and do but understands there’s always more to learn and improve upon.
Follow along with Samuel’s many adventures on Instagram: @samuelcrossley.