This Travel Photographer Thinks You Should Look at an Actual Map Before Your Next Trip
And bring some good coffee with you, while you’re at it.
For eight months out of the year, French photographer Alex Strohl is on the road, taking pictures and chasing water. (His Instagram, besides having a dedicated following of nearly 2 million, is overwhelmingly blue). Strohl is the kind of guy, and his are the kind of photos, that make urbanites and homebodies want to renounce their Netflix subscriptions and go chop some wood in the pouring rain. After returning from his latest trip, a no-big-deal expedition up to the dramatic ice caves of Canada with Cole Sprouse and a hefty English bulldog named Mister Bentley, Strohl told us about his secret to memorable trips and the importance of little indulgences, even in the remotest locations.
GQ: When you’re preparing for a big trip, where do you start?
Alex Strohl: I usually start with a map. Like a proper map. A topographic map. I don’t want to start with a Google image search because it’s going to spoil it a bit. I’d rather read the landscape on the map. I think it’s way more exciting because I can see what the bodies of water are, what the bigger mountains are, what the deepest valleys are. Then I move on to Google satellite. Then Google Earth: I look at the elevation of the sun, what is facing west, what is facing east, sunrise, sunset. Then I continue on to look at the state. Is there anywhere around to sleep? Or do I have to tent?
Do you have any short cuts?
Most of the places I go, I try to have someone in advance who I know there, someone I can trust who can help me figure this out. Someone I find through social media, or through old school methods like calling a hotel. That’s the best, when you go somewhere and you already have a fixer on the ground. Someone who’s like, “Yeah I’ve got a sailboat,” “Yeah I’ll give you a hand.” There’s always somebody, somewhere. Somebody from there who has a shared appetite in adventure. If you can connect with that person, you’re golden. You can sit back, and not do much research, because you know it’s going to be good and it’s going to be unique.
What are the things you never leave behind when you’re going out on a long trip?
There’s tons, unfortunately. When the trip’s for the photography, I travel with two huge suitcases. Then I’ll pack my Aeropress, my coffee grinder, my coffee beans. I’ll take a little bean bag for the way, then get another when I get there. A stove, so I can make coffee anywhere I am, everyday. That’s a big one. Whenever you go somewhere remote or complicated, it doesn’t mean that you have to start compromising on coffee and food.
Speaking of food, do you have any secret, maybe slightly disgusting camping food obsessions?
Gummy bears. I’ll never eat them anywhere, except camping. But I respect food so much that I will also pack good cheese and some good dried ham or some smoked salmon with me.
Well, it’s stuff that keeps well, right? If you take a dry cheese like parmesan or manchego, it’s going to keep well. You can’t take, like, mozzarella. You can take prosciutto, because it’s going to be fine for five days up there. Smoked salmon will be good for a week.
It sounds like your one big travel extravagance then is nice, long-lasting food stuffs.
And coffee. Because there’s all this rough stuff when you’re out there, and it just lifts the mind, you know. When you’re able to make a good cup of coffee for the whole crew up there, they’re going to work way better after that. And you get them to do the work, too. Everyone grinds their own beans. It builds team spirit. When I go out with a new crew on a shoot, by day two, everyone’s already like, “Oh, after lunch, it’s coffee time!”
Do you have any camping pet peeves?
Snoring. I’ll have people set their tent far away, when I know they have a history. I don’t want to take my chances. And when you go to mountain huts, and you share a room with like 18 people, there’s always two or three. So, in the middle of the night I’ll go down and sleep in the kitchen.
That’s pretty extreme.
Yeah, well, I cherish silence so much. I’m going all the way up just to hear the wind through the trees and then there’s someone snoring next to you!
What’s the least glamorous thing about your style of travel?
Well, there’s some places in the U.S. where you’ve got to bring Biffy Bags. [Note: Otherwise known as pack-out poop sacks]. I get it, it’s for the environment. But it’s not “Instastory” material. Or maybe it is…? But that’s mild compared to dealing with airports.
What don’t you like about airports?
What do you mean!? [laughs] The whole thing. As soon as I step in, I’m stressed already. I start sweating. I’m like a wild dog. My goal is to get to the gate as fast as possible. So whatever, NEXUS, pre-check in, I’ll buy all the things just so I can be through it. Of course, it’s obviously still a very privileged thing to do to get on a plane…when you look at it with perspective.
What’s your favorite means of travel?
Everything that will make you see differently I like. Like a train or a walk.
Who was the most memorable character you met shooting your book, Alternative Living?
This farmer in Switzerland, on a high plateau in Maderanertal. You can only get there in this little red Wes Anderson-looking cable car. We walked towards the end of the village, where there were a few more remote cabins. And I came across this guy who was cutting the grass by hand with [a sickle]. He would put everything in this old, wooden basket on his back and then walk to the farm up the hill, drop the load, and then go down again and start over. Very old school. I knew we had to go talk to this guy, take some photos of him. So, he was explaining that he lives in this little hut, all year except for the coldest months of winter because there’s no heating; that it’s his happy place, and he really enjoys cutting this grass. We have this whole image of him living up there in this hut and then, in the end, he’s like “What’s your email?” and pulls out an iPhone. [laughs]
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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