Q&A: Photographer, Filmmaker, and Van Lifer Thomas Woodson
How the young designer quit his desk job, sold it all and hit the road
Late last spring, while attending Boulder, Colorado’s monthly design presentation series Caffeinated Mornings, we were introduced to Thomas Woodson, a budding designer, photographer, and filmmaker. By the end of his talk, we felt we’d met a new hero. No joke.
Thomas had moved to Boulder post college to pursue and further a career in design, learn to ski (with the big boys), and bike a bunch. In no time he’d managed all that, quickly earning a reputation among the tech and design community for his tenacity and vision. He even co-founded his own agency, Human Design. But his camera and a yearning for adventure were pulling him to new places. So he sold it all, and leaned into his passion to become a full-time adventure photographer and filmmaker.
More recently, to fully embrace the nomadic lifestyle, Woodson converted a 2015 Ram Promaster van. He took six months to research, plan, and 3D model each detail, and two months to build it out. He wound up with wood floors, 300w of solar on the roof, a propane range, electric water pump, fridge, and propane heater for winter. And on 1 August 2015 the Promaster became a full-time mobile home, office, and studio for Thomas, his kind loving lady Brittani, and Malcolm, their ~~house plant~~ dog.
The following is a bit more about all of the above.
Was there an "aha" moment that lead you to leave your professional career in design? To think, I'm going to be an adventure photographer no matter what?
In 2013 I went to 5 Point Film Festival to see Joey Schusler’s film, “The Bus: A Journey Up North.” When he was on stage speaking about his work I immediately knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. The next year of work was draining on me. I went from feeling like I achieved my childhood goal of having a design office in a city that I could bike or walk to, and only accepting socially conscious work. That was no longer enough and I desperately wanted to inspire people with adventure films, so that they could feel the feeling I got when I moved west and started biking, climbing and skiing. Joey invited me on a trip to Peru a few months later, and before I knew it I was standing on stage introducing our film at 5 Point the next year.
What single moment from your recent travels feels like a metaphor for your choice to follow a passion?
Summiting and skiing Pico de Orizaba (18,491’) on a weekend trip felt a lot like many of the other work projects I’ve thrown myself into. You always have to get in over your head with the vision that everything will work out. No matter the outcome, you’ll learn so freaking much and it will influence everything that follows. I think we all do this in our careers though. A client calls up and asks, “Hey can you make this?” You say, “Sure!” when you really mean, “I have absolutely no idea if that’s possible.” Then you fight and fight until you pull off some magic.
So how did you finally make the decision to sell all your shit, throw caution to the wind, and go?
I pretty much blew all my vacation time getting started with commercial video projects. The other guys at work were encouraging me to make the leap and chase this new path. After releasing a second adventure film with Joey, work from our film sponsors began to pick up for the upcoming year. I think I spent a solid 6 months doing touch and go’s from my place in Boulder shooting in New Zealand, British Columbia, California, and all over Colorado. It was getting pretty taxing on my relationship and I hated all the packing and unpacking. Britt and I decided to stop paying rent and ditch the societal norms. Living in a sweet adventure van allowed me to be home at every video shoot, spend more time getting strong in the mountains, and have more opportunities to get out with professional athletes.
Describe your new home on wheels in three words.
Welcoming. Warming. Wild.
Outside of tools for work—computer, cameras, etc.—what is the one thing that you could not live without living as you do in the Promaster?
My co-pilots! It feels like home anywhere the three of us are together, even if Malcom sleeps 23 hours a day.
You’ve proudly bragged about skiing a crazy number of months in a row. Let’s hear it.
I think I’m at 40 months now. I’ve skied every month since I started. This summer I was living in Jackson and searching for leftover snow in Grand Teton National Park. The every month deal was starting to feel like a prison sentence, but having a new zone to explore and search for snow was pretty refreshing.
Worst thing about your job?
Keeping up with professional athletes. In New Zealand we climbed straight up Cheeseman Peak to capture a sunrise bike descent for a Smith series last year. On my back was an FS7, 5D, 3 lenses, a tripod and a crane—with my mountain bike resting on top of my shoulders. Skiing at 18,000ft would also have been a little more enjoyable without the extra gear.
I think the biggest fear a lot of creatives, including myself, have is staying relevant and creating new work that is always more impressive than the last. I also think a lot about getting injured. What that would put my partners through, my family, or even just myself if it impacted my ability to work. I’ve been a certified Wilderness First Responder for a year now and I think that helps put my mind at ease.
If you only had one camera and lens, what would the setup be?
I’d be stoked. It would force me to be light and creative. For big days in the alpine I like to carry a 7D mkII (10fps for sports shooting) and a pretty wide lens. The contrast in closeness of an athlete, and vastness of a wide background shot really appeal to me.
Since you've been on the road, what's the longest you've gone without a shower?
Nine days while being parked off the grid and climbing in Indian Creek! The desert is a wonderful place to disconnect and you definitely get over being dirty.
You’ve been an early and avid supporter of Ello. Why?
The beautiful simplicity of Ello clearly makes it all about the content. Viewing art on other networks can be difficult because it’s either tiny on your phone, or low resolution and surrounded by ads. It’s great to be able to follow artists and see their work large and uncluttered. I’m sure this perpetuates more and more sharing of content because it is incredibly engaging.
What do you gain from surrounding yourself with a community of artists?
TW: Having a strong community of artists around you is a crucial way to reassure you that you’re on the right track. It’s a pretty tough way to make a living at times, but seeing the joy of the creative community is inspiration enough to keep going. Nobody wants to rot away at a “job” 40 hours a week.