Q&A: Alex Strohl on Pandemic Perseverance and the Future of Photography
The influential photographer talks the end of Instagram, supporting women photographers at Wildist, and how to land clients in the pandemic
Alex Strohl has well over 2 million followers on Instagram and a growing YouTube channel. He’s 30 and lives in Whitefish, Montana. By way of France and Spain. He loves good coffee and hard cheese (separately). But you already knew that. What you likely didn’t know is that he thinks Facebook killed Instagram, TikTok is a waste of his time, and at age 15 he was sent to foreign boarding school for problematic—and often super smart—kids after getting kicked out of high school for, as he puts it, “being a little asshole” and “having a healthy disrespect for authority.”
You may also know that after discovering photography at university in Quebec he moved to Vancouver, BC and opened his content agency Stay And Wander. But maybe not that he won the government of Canada as a client by bribing them with muffins, and a little sweet talk. And what brought him to the US? Dreams of following in his father’s footsteps—the man had spent the Sixties roaming the U.S. working jobs ranging from ranch hand and lumberjack to private chef and personal driver.
You already know he regularly spends eight or more months of each each year on the road, exploring the world’s most naturally beautiful and remote places photographing for blue chip clients. But just like for the rest of us, that pre-COVID life is no longer. When we recently got Alex on the phone to catch up and talk about the launch of his newest endeavor, Wildist, he had just received news that a major client had canceled a shoot scheduled for upcoming weeks. After our call he’d have to break the news to a whole crew that that gig—and its paycheck—was off the table, pre-production be damned. In other words, even for big time outdoor influencer Alex Strohl, shit is real right now.
"You better sell your best ideas, only. No B-roll ideas right now. That won't fly anymore."
The following conversation touches on many relevant topics, from reflecting on the difficulties growing as a business and the downfall of Instagram to initiates encouraging diversity in the outdoors and advice for creatives struggling with pandemic-induced client dry spells. But it also has a sense of levity to it.
This was a fun conversation to have, and one that has directly inspired me. I hope it does the same for you, too.
Where and how did your love of photography really grow into a career?
My love for photography started in Quebec City. I got really thrown into it and started shooting professionally locally while I was studying graphic design. I would rent gear from the university lab and just go door to door, knock on cool stores and ask to take photos for them and or make them a website.
After we had finished our studies we moved to Vancouver with Maurice Li and Rishad [Daroowala], and then started our agency Stay And Wander. That's where we did the first travel gigs for the government of Canada. The first Instagram trip—it had just came out. I went in there with a bag of muffins and these cool stories like, I want to do the first Instagram trip to the Yukon. I'm gonna take all this photographers from the U.S. up there and it's going to be awesome.
I had developed an audience already at that point—not a lot but you know, tens of thousands—and when I went into their meeting, the government of Canada didn't even have Instagram, so I was ahead of the game for them.
You’re Instagram following is now well over 2 million. Is there even anywhere for you to go from there? Or are you focusing more on like other platforms, like YouTube, now?
Yeah, that's a good question. You know, there used to be some organic growth before Instagram got acquired by Facebook, and even after for a year or so. I was sort of treated as an Instagram ambassador. They were like, if we can keep these guys happy, they'll keep talking about Instagram. And every month you could pick up tens of thousands of followers—just post a photo a day. It was so simple. I mean, there's more to it than that, but assuming [the images] were good, it was essentially that. Then [the Facebook acquisition] automatically changed it. It just halted everything. It was like a party, where everybody is getting rich. And then the party ended and there was a hangover the next morning. Like, Oh man, what now? Where's the growth?
So I’m just using it as a billboard now. I mean, it's a very valid currency and will be for the next few years. And I still treat it with a lot of respect, but I’m working on YouTube now.
What about TikTok?
I probably should. It makes a little business sense. But I tried and I really disliked it. I'm old enough that I don't have to force it, because it doesn't align, you know. It doesn't really match what I believe in. We're probably missing out on some dollars or whatever but that’s not the end goal of life.
Your studio, Strohl Works, recently relaunched as Wildist, with a focus on photo and video workshops. Can you tell us about this transition?
Strohl Works has become Wildist just because Wildist has more potential. And I also want to detach my name from it because I'm no longer running it. And so it can grow, right? We have someone running it, a CEO you can call it. I'm technically the president. I wanted to detach myself. So whatever decisions they make, they're not my decisions.
"[Pre-Facebook Instagram] was like a party where everybody is getting rich. And then the party ended and there's a hangover the next morning. Like, Oh man, what now? Where's the growth? "
Growth means that more people have control over what comes out. I mostly try not to get in the way now. Because whatever I do, I like to really do it from beginning to end—kind of control freak with whatever I want to make. It's good and bad. I’ll have this idea for a concept and I’ll want to build it myself. You know, I want to make the website. I want to make the emails. I want to write the copy. I want to edit the photos. I want to put the graphic design text on it myself. It's good to get you there, but then it keeps you there. So, yeah. Part of that exercise was learning to let go.
What we can expect from Wildist, compared to the content that came out of Strohl Works?
The motto of Wildist is outdoors first, then photography second. Versus Strohl Works, which was photography first. Anything that encourages people to go outdoors, no matter what their background is, we're going to be doing that. We're planning to do things ranging from how to bike, how to backpack, to how to ride a mountain bike to, how to cook good food at camp, things like that. Nothing to do with photography.
So it's going to be a slow segue—we’ll have to stir the audience to it, but that's the most exciting part to me is developing this new arm of Wildist, which is just outdoors.
"The motto of Wildist is outdoors first, photography second. Anything that encourages people to go outdoors, no matter what their background is, we're going to be doing that."
The outdoors industry, just like photography, is dominated by white men. What is Wildist doing to increase representation of women and BIPOC photographers?
One hundred percent. We’ve been the worst at that. And we've said it, beacause it just started by me making videos about my friends. And I guess most of my friends are just white dudes, I don’t know why. But it's just the people that have this higher profile in photography… there's just so many dudes, sadly. We want to change that, obviously. We're working on a few initiatives.
And well, the CEO's name is Laura Schmalstieg. So Wildist is woman run, finally.
And we have a few Wildist workshops in the works with female photographers. I'm so freaking pumped about it, man. Because it's been difficult finding the right fit—a lot of the gals that I've talked to were just very timid with the idea of teaching. Like, Ah I have nothing to teach. Of course you do! It's been very interesting building these. I have learned a lot.
Charly Savely does very epic wildlife photography, which is usually a male dominated world. So she's going to be teaching about that, and talking to young women on how to break down these barriers of this man’s world of photography and how women can empower women within photography.
It's gonna be such a change for our audience and it's gonna be good for everybody to shake things up. Yeah, I’m really thrilled with that.
Will you be working on more socially-minded projects or collaborating with more diverse creatives?
We have a grant going on. Everybody who's taking our workshops will be able to submit. In the vetting process we’re going to try to give the funds to people who have this sort of deeper, more timely story to tell. And people who have no access to money to create.
The grant’s been in motion for a year now. We had raised money with an investor out of the Silicon Valley just for the grant, so we can do more of them.
"There's always going to be brands who are spending. You just got to know that if you used to have to pitch five brands before, you have to do 15 now to get one."
There are a lot of Native American reservations here in Montana. And I've been working personally on how I can respectfully bring the thing I know best, which is photography, to them. It's really hard to navigate tribal politics. And I can understand a feeling like, "What is this white guy wanting to do here? We don’t need him." Whether they need photography or not, I’d like to be able to just to give them that vehicle, especially the kids in these reservations. So that's been one of my personal projects, but I really kept it hush because I believe in doing versus talking.
And I'm donating some cameras to the Black Archivist. It's my friend, Paul Octavious, who is a photographer from Chicago, who has this project for people to give their cameras to people of color in the US, who apply to get the cameras. I think it's really cool. I've got a few Canons that we'll be sending. But you don’t have to mention that. I just think it should get some eyeballs from your audience. We all have the shitty cameras—or a good one—sitting around that are doing nothing. Send it to somebody. It’s cool.
COVID-19 has really put a hurt on many creatives. Do you have any advice or words of resilience for the photographers out there that have seen work dry up?
Man I saw this meme that was like, "I miss precedented times." Right? Haha. But yeah, definitely, it’s, uh, weird. It's actually a good time for a plug, man. I made a whole workshop that’s free for everybody—or three or five bucks, whatever you want to do. The Resiliency Workshop. Because I don't have all the answers, I interviewed a bunch of people on what they're doing.
What I gathered the most is that there's always going to be brands who are spending. Right? So, it's just about finding these. That's what takes the most work. But there is definitely a tide going on. It's not just a wave. It's a massive tide of people freezing their money. So, as long as you're comfortable with your hit rate being a third of what it was before, then keep plugging. You just got to know that if you used to have to pitch five brands before, you have to do 15 now to get one.
And you better sell your best ideas, only. No B-roll ideas right now. That won't fly anymore. Just your A stuff.
And then obviously, developing income streams.
With the foreseeable future looking like less travel and more time at home, what are you doing to explore new income streams?
I just got this massive Canon printer for the Nooq, our house, and I'm going to be setting up a print studio in the basement. So that's a little secret I'm going to be doing.
Whenever I have time, like I have now, I start looking at things that I think are broken. I think the print industry is broken—the way people sell prints is boring and broken, at least the internet way. Which is like, “Hey, buy my print, I'm making a sale.” And then people buy the prints and then a lab prints it and then the lab ships it to this person. The photographer has never seen the print, touched the print, signed the print, whatever. Nothing. Just a big disconnect. I think that’s broken. I don't think that elevates the photography industry.
So I’m going to get my printer and then learn my own shit and make all the mistakes, fail at printing things, and then figure it out. I want to learn how to make frames, too. So I have this framer in town who is going to teach me how to frame photos. I'd love to go take a dead tree, cut it to bits, and make my frames. Taking a very craftsman approach to it is the goal.
If people go volume, I'd like to go the opposite way—no volume, just one. This is it. I made the frame. I printed it. I touched this thing. I examined it with a loupe. I'll sign it. And it will be a unique piece. I don't know if that's going to be a financial success or not. But I'm going to give it a good try at least. It could turn into something interesting!