A few years ago, if you asked if I would scramble to the top of a rock formation, I would have looked at you like you were nuts. I’m terrified of heights, specifically if it entails a life-threatening level of exposure. I am also clumsy and leave most physical activity with bruises.
But on a recent trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I pushed myself to face situations that scare me.
Chalk it up to a love for photography. I took courses in high school but slowly drifted away from photography as sports and school took over. In college, I grappled with what I wanted to do with my life and how to know if I was choosing the right path. The answer came with my first smartphone. It had a pretty decent camera and it went with me everywhere. I was taking pictures again and wanting to share my captures as sharing platforms, like Instagram, were becoming popular.
With my upgrade to a DSLR, photography was once again part of my life.
At that time, my social circle was filling with climbers and surfers. I wanted to document their stories through my camera. But outdoor sports were new to me and my friends’ adventurous lifestyle was way out of my comfort zone.
But as I would learn through an upcoming climbing trip, fear can be part of adventure.
The climbing mecca
California’s Joshua Tree National Park, a high desert climbing mecca with a seemingly endless number of routes, is a favorite amongst my friends. Camera in tow, I was tagging along for the weekend; it was going to be the first time I climbed outdoors.
Our first stop was Cyclops Rock. Though my friends picked an easier route for me to try (“The Eye”), there was a part of me that wanted to stay at the bottom and watch everyone else attempt the climb. The braver part of me, however, wanted to be a part of this story. As I climbed the sandpapery monzogranite rock, my body shook — both from the chill of the rock and from my fear of falling. The texture tore at my skin and my faith wavered in my climbing gear.
I didn’t make it to the top.
My hands were too cold. My skin was too soft. And I was too scared. But I had done it: I had chosen to put a harness around my waist, a helmet on my head, chalk on my hands, and climb up a tall rock wall.
But I still wanted to see the view from the top. While my friends climbed The Eye on the frontside, I scrambled up the backside of the rock, feeling my intimidation increase as I gained elevation and exposure.
My friend was silhouetted in The Eye’s namesake, an opening of a small cave at the top of the climb.
I captured the shot, then climbed to the very top of the rocks, above the cave. The view from the top thrilled me, but so did the fact that I had worked through my fears to get there.
After I descended, we went to check the message board, a tool climbers use to communicate in the park, since it lacks cell service. A message on the board indicated that our friend was with a group of highliners at a campsite nearby.
Breaking the ice
Conversations sparked by the topic of photography is my favorite part of being a photographer. I’ve always struggled with shyness and social anxiety; it takes me an extra minute to break the ice with new people.
But my camera makes it easy to approach people or for others to start conversations with me: I can ask to photograph a person or their dog; others might ask me about my camera or my career. Photography opens the door for conversation and human connection.
And the same was true when approaching this group of highliners.
We chatted about where they were from, how long they’d been living in their trailer, and where they were headed to next. This was a conversation that probably wouldn’t have happened just a few years ago. Or, at least, I wouldn’t have been the one to initiate it. But with my camera acting as an ice breaker, I have a tool to help me face this anxiety.
We followed the group to their highline.
I wanted to capture the sport from their perspective which would require a climb to the top. I moved through the crawl spaces, doing my best not to look down as I wove my way to the top. Focusing on my movements, I placed my feet and hands on the rock, engaging my core and controlling my breathing.
It took some grunting, determination, and working with my fear, but at some point I found myself sharing the view with the highliners.
And as I watched, I found something else in common with them: When a highliner lost his balance and fell from the line, he let out a yell, almost like he was afraid. And he was. They all were. We all were. But we were each using something we loved—either a highline or a camera—to help us work past it.
Facing and embracing the fear
Though photography helps me face some fears, I realize there are things outside of its power, things I may never face. Still, it helps me share in experiences. For example, highlining isn’t something I see myself doing, but my desire to get the shot with the group that day allowed me to witness, and be inspired by, others who put themselves in the face of exposure.
Fear is just emotion, and it’s a passing one. Highliners and climbers don’t see their fears as a wall, but a hurdle. Likewise, I don’t need to fight being afraid, I just need to change my perspective on it. Using my camera as a tool to handle that fear, I’ve challenged myself to move outside my comfort zone and, literally, climb higher.
About the author
Shani Leead is a Los Angeles based photographer with an affinity for the outdoors and a case of the doodle bug. Through her art, she shares stories she hopes will both inspire and entertain. You can find her work at shanileeadphotography.com and by following @shuh_knee on Instagram.