Q&A: Professional Runner and Photographer Sarah Attar

Q&A: Professional Runner and Photographer Sarah Attar

The talented Olympian talks finding time to shoot and developing her style

Sarah Attar is talented. Doing things is in her blood. And doing them damn well is what she’s staked her life and career as a runner and artists on. In 2012 at the London Olympic games Attar made history as Saudi Arabia’s first female Olympic runner. Since then she graduated with honors from Pepperdine University, where she studied art and graphic design. Now a professional runner (shout out the Oiselle Team) living and training in Mammoth Lakes, CA, a life of constant motion affords her ample opportunities to develop her photography style and count endless shoot locations.

We first stumbled across Attar’s Instagram a year or so ago, and hit the follow button a half second later. An email turned into a phone call, which turned into this interview. Read on for a snippet of our conversation where we talk balancing running and art, how the two lives influence each other, and the origins of Attar’s interest in photography.

As a professional runner, how do you find the time to take photographs and further develop your artistic side?

Since my move to Mammoth last June I’ve settled into a running lifestyle—which I’m still learning, because it’s a lot of hard work, but also a lot of rest—that has allowed me to really dive into dedicating myself to developing more of a style with my photos. And being in a place like Mammoth, there are so many accessible places that are insanely beautiful that I don’t have to go on crazy hikes to get to. Even a nice recovery stroll around the neighborhood allows me to see so many things.  

Do you feel like your runner self and your photographer self are two sides of the same coin or are they two separate entities?  

I feel like they’re definitely connected. A lot of places that I photograph are places that I was exposed to because of a run. And there are so many times when I’m on a run and I just wish I could photograph it right then because the light is perfect. You know, certain moments like that, they feel so connected.  

"My style is forever evolving, I’m constantly learning and experimenting"

For example, for my first marathon back in 2012 I did the Big Sur Marathon, and I love that area of the coastline, so I took a disposable camera with me. It had 26 exposures on it, so I took a photo each mile. It became this really cool series, documenting my first marathon.

I feel like I’m always trying to find ways to combine the two. My mind is always thinking of how these two passions of mine can connect and where they do already connect. 

Do you often run with a camera or your phone? 

I don’t always carry my phone to take photos on runs, but I’ll often return to photograph places that we run, so it’s become a way for me to share where running takes me and the kind of things I get to experience, which is one of the reasons I love running. It’s taken me to some of the most insanely beautiful places I never would have expected to see in my life. And it’s kind of cool to share that aspect—share where my own feet took me and what they allowed me to see.

Running can also feel very creative for me. For a lot of people, our most creative hours are in the morning. And I love running in the morning, so it’s almost like it’s become blended with my creativity… it’s a kind of meditation with the land and with the world around me.  

What do you usually shoot on?

Most of what I post on Instagram, which is kind of where I’ve been developing my style and interacting with more people, most of that is taken on my phone.  And I have the 6S, so it’s a pretty decent camera. I also do have a Canon Rebel T2i I bought a while ago and that’s been fun to really learn now to use. And I have experimented with my dad’s old Canon film camera he lent me. That’s sometimes fun to work on.

But really, probably like 90% of what I have been doing has been on my phone just because it’s what I always have on me. And they say the best camera is the one you have with you, so I find that to be very true with what I’ve been doing lately. It’s just so convenient. 

We’ve noticed a reoccurring theme of pathways—literal trails and more visual ones, like rivers, sight lines, etc—in much of your work. Is this intentional?

It’s a perspective that I’ve just become really drawn to, since it’s how I see a lot of places—on these trails. I never really thought about it too much, but I think that’s where the emphasis is because that’s how I experience the world a lot of the time. So that’s what I choose to capture. And a lot are trails are those that I’ve run on, so I like to share that part of it too.

As a native Californian, is there a single favorite trail, mountain range, or region you like to photograph above all else?

Honestly, I don’t know if I could pick one. I do really love the area that I’m in right now, in the Eastern Sierra. I hadn’t spent much time here before, and so it’s all pretty new. I’m definitely getting to experience more of the seasons changing.

I went through my first winter and it was so cool to have snow covering everything—it was a whole new landscape, totally different from when I was here in the summer. It became this whole new world to experience, so I think my favorite places to run are new places because they’re just so interesting and enticing, and I like to see what’s out there. 

I do really love running in Big Sur. That’s always such a special place.

"It’s become a way for me to share where running takes me"

Much of your work has a certain moodiness to it. Is this an intentional style or just something you’re just naturally drawn to?

Yeah, I don’t know. I definitely have noticed a theme with my editing style, but I don’t think there’s been any intention in playing around with the moodiness or tones. I think I work on a photo to get it to a place where it feels like how I felt when I was there.  And so I guess that connection has a feeling it gives off. I feel it’s very connected to the areas that I’m in. And I think it’s also the tones that I’m drawn to—my favorite weather has always been really cloudy, foggy, like beach, coastal vibes.

So they’re very desaturated and kind of a grey scale with some blues here and there. But I also make it a point to photograph those times. It’s not that I’m totally desaturating a very saturated landscape. I like to go out and get a shot when the storm’s coming in, or you know, when it’s those weather conditions that I really like.

My style is forever evolving, and I’m constantly learning and experimenting with different ways to get the photos to feel like what I felt like when I was there capturing it. 

You’ve spent a considerable time training and developing as a runner, of course. But what about photography? Have you always been interested?

I’ve always been pretty creative, but didn’t really get into photography until my freshman year at Pepperdine. I was already majoring in art, but it was a general thing—there were no photo classes and you didn’t major in painting or anything specific. My freshman roommate had a fancy camera, and one of my other friends also had a camera, so that year I bought a Canon and just started playing around with it. We would go out to some mountains in the area and do night shots and just experiment with just all kinds of things and have fun with it. Then I was an outdoor trip leader for campus recreation at Pepperdine, and I started photographing the trips just because I had my camera with me and wanted to document them.

It’s always been something that’s more of a fun thing to experiment with and document where I go.  

Also, I’ll go through a roll of my film and the photos, they really help create memories for me, which is true for a lot of people, but sometimes I even just photograph certain places or moments because I want to have a concrete emotion connected to that moment. So it started to become a deeper memory thing—experiences through photos—and it’s always fun to go back through them.

There are so many women artists and athletes doing great things right now. Is there anyone specifically in the outdoor space that you feel particularly drawn to?

Oh, I have quite a few because I seek them out, and have connections with them, but there’s a site called She Explores, and it’s all about women and the outdoors, especially artists who document their time in the outdoors through those experiences. And I connected with them. That’s been a really cool bank of people that I’ve gotten to follow and look into. It’s a lot of creative minded outdoor enthusiasts—I really connect with that type of person.

That's been a cool resource. I also follow a lot of runners through social media and that I've been able to connect with in person around the world, at races, and who are on the same team. It's amazing to see the global connections that our pursuing our passions can bring.

read up on Sarah Attar here, and follew her on IG. Lead portrait images courtesy Meagan Bourne

Brooklyn-based writer, photographer and founder of The Field. Graham apologizes in advance for his many mispellings.
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