Gina Danza is a creative force to be reckoned with. The thirty-one-year-old New Jersey native’s nature photography is so captivating that scrolling through her beautifully curated Instagram account can certainly alter your physical and emotional state—your breath instantly slows down and your start to feel more at ease.
Having spent most of her adult life in New York City living a very cookie cutter life—climbing the corporate ladder as a producer and regional representative in television—Danza knew something desperately needed to change when she found herself dreading going to work in 2017. It was around the same time that Danza started to take her passion for photographing her hikes and road trips, once a hobby, a bit more seriously.
As she puts it, the goal was more epicness.
"Everyone can take a photo, but not everyone can be a photographer. You have to have an eye."
Her life now, as a full-time outdoor and adventure photographer and creative director, has a lot of just that—epicness. Danza spends her days chasing and photographing jaw dropping moments in nature. She’s swapped the corporate world for the desert—nature is now her coworker, boss, and office. Having recently relocated to Arizona, Danza explains doing so, in the midst of a global pandemic and the political uprisings against racial injustice, felt necessary and like a returning home of sorts.
Danza is even more steadfast in her commitment to encourage Black folks to get outside and explore, which doesn’t always mean going on a 10-mile hike or solo camping. Keep reading to learn why nature photography is her favorite sport and what lessons nature has taught her thus far.
Tell me a bit about your childhood. Were you always super creative or into the outdoors as a child?
I was never really creative, but I was into the outdoors—I was in summer camp, Girl Scouts and really enjoyed connecting with other people in the outdoors. I’ve always been interested in being in the dirt and jumping over things and running up hills.
My mom took me camping once and I can remember how the sun came into our tent through the trees and it just kind of created this mystical light event early in the morning that was so magical. Maybe that’s why I wanted to go into photography and that’s probably why I like to shoot sunsets and sunrises.
What was your first transformative experience in the outdoors and why did you decide to share that with others?
When I was in camp and I became a counselor, I’d see these kids transform their lives doing any and everything in the outdoors. Those experiences made me really emotional. I feel like there is so much growth in the outdoors, whether it was playing manhunt or going camping or having campfires. There are certain things about being outside and connecting with one another in spaces like that, that you can’t really describe. It’s a movement almost.
You have a really interesting career background. Can you tell me a bit about it?
I worked in TV for 10 years at places like MTV, CBS, and ABC Disney. During my time at ABC, between 2016 and 2018, I realized I didn’t want to work in corporate any longer. I would sit at my desk and cry and be like, this is not my passion, this is not my purpose. I was just forcing myself [to go to work] and I almost became depressed because of it. I also just kind of knew that after 10 years I didn’t belong in that kind of a structure.
I really looked forward to the weekends to hike, or to travel, or road trip to Acadia National Park. And I started to realize I loved the outdoors—that’s when I started outdoor photography.
When did you decide to just go for it and pursue your passion of outdoor photography?
I knew I wanted to move out to California. I was just done with the East Coast because that’s all I’d ever lived on. I’d never seen Utah, and while I’d been to California before but I’d never really explored the other areas. I wanted more epicness. In the fall of 2018 I moved to LA and did a cross country road trip from New York to California. Once I hit Utah and saw it for the first time, it felt like home.
What is your favorite outdoor activity and why?
Being a photographer is technically an outdoor activity. I always tell people being a photographer is like being an athlete—you have to either wake up really early and you have to carry all this gear or you have to drive somewhere, set-up, and chase after that shot. It’s an art and a sport in one.
Your work sits at the crossroads of art and nature. Why is this space important for you?
I really didn’t start to realize until maybe the last couple of months, that I was really starting to dive more into the art side of nature. When you edit, that’s really when you’re putting in your true emotions, because it’s the colors and the light and the shadows that tell a story about how I’m personally feeling in that moment while I’m editing a photo.
Everyone can take a photo, but not everyone can be a photographer. You have to have an eye. And having an eye is very similar to you having a voice to sing or being able to really dance really well—it’s a gift. I didn’t know I was born with an eye until over the last couple of years. So now I’m starting to shift to what nature really means to me in the world personally.
"Being a photographer is like being an athlete. It’s an art and a sport in one."
You are super adventurous when it comes to exploring and outdoor activities. Were you always like this or did your comfort level buildup over time?
It definitely built up over time. I never really did any camping or shooting until 2017 when I started taking nature photos. That’s when I started to get interested in the outdoors. I think Instagram was a huge factor in my shooting the outdoors and finding friends and connecting. Once I got out to California that’s when I realized I was stronger than I thought.
I drove to Yosemite and slept in my car by myself—that was scary but there was the adrenaline of waking up and knowing that I was okay, too. Looking back at my childhood or teenage years and I think, Gina would never do that.
What has been your most humbling experience with nature experience so far?
Monument Valley and Navajo Nation. I went there for the first time when I road tripped across the country [in 2018], and then again for a second time recently. It was so weird because it was like the winds were in my favor. There’s a shot that I have from there, where there’s wind coming at me from my car and people love that shot—it’s like the winds that day were meant for me. I felt like some kind of spirit was calling me and I felt very connected to the land in some way.
The outdoor space has traditionally been a very white space. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience being a Black woman as an outdoor enthusiast?
When I first started going out in the outdoors, I didn’t really see a problem. It wasn’t until 2017, I went to a popular outdoor retailer to pick up some climbing shoes that a salesperson came up to me and was like, "we’re all surprised to see you in here, Black people don’t hike or climb." I remember looking at all the advertisements around me and realizing that they were all white people or Asian people. I didn’t see anyone that looked like me, and I was like, okay there’s a problem here.
"As a Black photographer shooting someone Black, in the outdoors, I realized I could really make a change."
That’s when I started shooting content for brands. As a Black photographer shooting someone Black, in the outdoors, I realized I could really make a change. I started really small, and I really just wanted to get my voice heard at the time. That was my thing, getting my voice heard as a Black woman in the outdoors by sharing how much I loved it and sharing what I like to do.
When I moved out to California, I then started to share other people’s stories as well, and it’s been so rewarding.
So much of your work is about pushing people outside of their comfort zones. Why do you think it’s important for folks, especially Black folks, to get out and explore?
Black people are most themselves when we’re out in nature. Before we were slaves, we connected with nature more than the colonizers did—our ancestors knew this land very well. Indigenous people obviously know this land very well, so we belong in nature.
When most people think of Black urban culture they think of the street and they think about the city. And in reality, we learned how to fish and did all these outdoor types of things that are now considered white sports.
It’s just frustrating because a lot of people look at the outdoors and they think it’s a white people thing. And it frustrates me because Black people need to release so much trauma and so much stress and where else can we go that is capable of holding us in ways that are that essential to our wellbeing, like nature?
Nature can be a great teacher. What is the greatest lesson that you’ve learned from being out in nature?
Nature is always telling me that everything is going to be okay. I always feel like I go out into nature as this chaotic mess where I’m seeking answers, and nature just stops me and is like, you’re going to be fine.
It teaches me that I am able and that I’m going to be okay. I can worry about 5 million things that are going on within my life, and it tells me that there are bigger things happening in this world that need to be taken care of. It also makes me realize and think about the present moment—it’s like this is the sunset, you’re going to watch, it’s going to be beautiful.
What advice do you have for someone who may want to go outside and explore but is maybe a little scared?
It’s really scary, even for me—I just can’t deal with animals and critters. So, I would say to start small. The outdoors doesn’t mean going out in the woods on a trail and getting lost. You can go to your local park, or even go on a jog. You’re outdoors when you’re playing tennis, you're outdoors when you roll down your windows, and you’re on the highway.
"You’re outdoors when you’re playing tennis, when you roll down your windows, and you’re on the highway...when you leave your doorstep, no matter where you are, even if it’s an urban city you are in the outdoors."
I think people have this thought that you have to leave your car and hike ten miles and then you can say you’re in the outdoors. But no, when you leave your doorstep, no matter where you are, even if it’s an urban city you are in the outdoors. Wherever you seek comfortability in what the outdoors means to you, do it. There’s no type of way to enjoy the outdoors, just do what you think is safe and comfortable for you.