Vagabond Photographer Mitch Cox Talks Instagram, Van Life, And The Quest For An Endless Summer

Initially, the idea to interview vagabond and photographer Mitch Cox came from a place of jealousy. I had more than a passing impulse to poke a few holes in the image Cox has curated on Instagram. The 22-year-old’s social feed is like a visual essay on the subject of freedom. It’s all unbelievable landscapes, glassy waves, and isolated camping spots; intense adventures followed by quiet rainy nights spent sipping wine in his van; plus an abundance of sunlit shots of his girlfriend, Cleo Cohen. Careless, comfortable, and free. Not a worry to be found — like Margaritaville for the millennial set. And all of it beautifully documented.

The f*cking nerve of this guy.

As it turns out, pulling the curtain back from Mitch Cox’s facade was impossible — because the image isn’t an image at all. It’s just who Cox is. He doesn’t worry, but he does care. His awesome rig didn’t just fall into place, it was designed and re-designed four times. He isn’t stressed about a recent break in and theft, he’s excited to start fresh. He’s hasn’t curated his feed, he’s just exposed his life. He isn’t escaping winter, he’s reveling in summer.

What I found was a deep thinker, a savvy traveler, and a person who genuinely loves his life. I don’t feel jealous anymore, but I’m inspired.

What was your route this past summer?

This summer has been spent mainly tripping up and down the East Coast of NSW, staying as close to the water as possible. We have been working around Sydney to replenish our funds, but you don’t have to leave the city to go on awesome adventures. The Northern Beaches in Sydney have some awesome spots which seem to be relatively unknown, and there’s always a good wave somewhere to be found.

What kind of van is it? From the photos, it looks super impressive inside. How was the outfitting process?

The van is a 2002 Toyota Hiace (Diesel), although it looks very different to how I first bought it. I started fitting it out in my head a couple of years before I even bought the thing, but once I finally had it in my hands, the real fun began. I’ve been through a few different versions of the fit out and we discovered it is crucial to live in each version for a while to see what is really important. The final version, hopefully, seems to be working really well, having the perfect combination of storage room and living space.

From the start, I knew that I needed a whole heap of storage thanks to our long list of hobbies. After our first test trip, we also realized that a fixed bed was definitely the way to go, to maximize storage and comfort. I custom built the interior, and have managed to get most of the material cheaper from my work at a hardware store. All the timber furniture is Western Red Cedar, which is extremely lightweight and strong, and also smells awesome. The floor is a mixture of recycled hardwood decking, which is great because it’s so durable. I am still constantly adding bits and pieces, but it is nearing completion.

What watt solar panel/battery setup do you have and what does it power?

The battery setup was probably the most mentally draining part of the build. I had no prior knowledge with anything electrical, so it was a steep learning curve. After a heap of research and trial and error, I think I’ve developed the perfect system (for us anyway). It starts with a 200 watt solar panel mounted on the roof, which is removable so I can face it to the sun. This leads through a regulator, then to a 100amp hour battery. The battery (which is also charged by the alternator when driving) powers the fridge, lights and charges phones and all our other goodies. All these systems are individually fused and switched to make it easy to find any problems. I’ve also got a full 240v circuit, but I haven’t used it once since adding the solar.

What’s your favorite part of the van?

That’s a hard one, I honestly think it’s close to the perfect van, but I guess I’m a little biased. I love that it’s diesel, so I get great fuel economy and it saves a heap of money. We also love the solar system; we’ve managed to stay a week in the middle of nowhere and still run the fridge, charge cameras and laptops, and even watch some movies all thanks to the solar system — it’s definitely a must.

Are you two working from the road? How are you funding the adventure?

We are both working part-time jobs in Sydney while we fix up the van and save for the next big trip. We also make some coin by selling images to tourism companies and modeling clothes from designers we like. I also do some freelance design work every now and then (hit us up if you need something).

The photo work is unreal, are you learning on the fly or did you go to school?

I’m just a self taught photographer, all starting from reading camera magazines at the newsagents until they asked me to leave. I have always taken photos, but have only been taking it seriously for the last couple of years.

What have you discovered about your home country that you didn’t expect?

I would have to say just how many different landscapes there are. We always look at photos from America and Europe and think “shit, we’ve gotta go there!” but on our trip up the East Coast of Aus, we’ve seen deserts, rainforests, some crazy looking rocks, and dived at one of the best reefs in the world. So many people go off exploring other countries before they’ve even driven a couple of hours from their doorstep.

Working with a significant other can be taxing. Emotionally and otherwise. You and Cleo seem to do well living in such a small space and working together on photos/modeling. Did that click immediately or was there a learning curve to life on the road together?

I can’t say it’s always easy. Living in such a tiny space for months on end can definitely be difficult, but we have such similar interests and views on life in general that it seems like we could do it forever. It has made us extremely close, and now I couldn’t think of traveling anywhere without her. She is definitely my biggest inspiration and also my biggest fan, no matter how shit the weather or how rough the road, she will convince me to keep on going.

Your feed embodies that enviable lifestyle of a young couple on the road. There’s a fun, carefree spirit that you nail. It’s something a lot of people try to capture, but fall short. What are some of the traits you two have (as a couple and otherwise) that allow you to capture that lifestyle so well?

I think you have to be pretty easy going, and by that I mean you have to just take things as they come. If you drive all day to get to a location, and realize it’s nothing like you imagined, you just gotta get drunk and make the most of it! You also have to realize that not every day is going to be amazing; some days will seem like a massive waste of time, but you have to realize that there is no rush, and no time limit, and that everything will happen eventually.

How actively were you working to build the Instagram following you have today? How did it build at the rate it’s been building?

To be honest, I can’t say we have been “actively” building it at all. Everyone wants more followers, but I’ve realized the best way is just let it happen; if people like your vibes and your adventures, they will follow you. If you comment on every single person’s photo and follow everyone on Instagram, then most likely you will just annoy people. It’s not about how many followers you have, but about how many of your followers genuinely enjoy your work. It has been building pretty rapidly lately, I would say mainly due to being featured by some amazing and supportive groups who enjoy our work; Vanlife Diaries have been a huge help since day one.

How has that following on Instagram and social media helped you guys? Professionally? With sponsorships?

We are only recently starting to make any money from our growing following, but obviously that isn’t why we do it. If we wanted to make money, we would just work five days a week. I’d say the best thing our followers have helped with is encouraging us to go on more adventures, when people comment such kind words about your work, all you want to do is give them the best photos possible.

What happened with the break-in? Has it rattled your eagerness to get back on the road?

The break-in wasn’t the best news we’ve ever had…Pretty much we came to my parents house late after a couple of days of adventuring around the coast, and I was too lazy to bring all my gear inside (they live in a really good area). The next morning, my window was gone and so was most of my stuff. My drone, my camera and all my lenses, my new laptop, my new tripod, all my tools and pretty much everything else not bolted to the floor. The worst was the hard drives which contained most of my back ups of the full size images from our travels.

Now, we are actually more eager to get on the road, after three months of living in the van every night (sometimes in some very dodgy areas), we had not one break in! I’d like to urge everyone right now, like right this second to go and back up their photos, and go get anything expensive out of your car. Ten minutes could save a whole heap of heartache.

What will your current GoFundMe money go towards?

The GoFundMe Campaign was started by the amazing Cleo, and at first I wasn’t too sure about it (I hate taking money from people). But when I saw how many people were offering to donate, I changed my mind. The money will go directly to buying new gear; first up will be a new laptop as this was our most used possession on the road. Countless hours of editing, storing photos and movies. Slowly I will replace all my gear, and also invest in some good insurance and a wide array of alarm systems.