Tragedy Taught This Travel Photographer To Slow Down And Appreciate The Small Stuff

07.29.17 2 years ago

Sometimes an interview takes you to very unexpected places. When I talked to prolific travel photographer Rob Howard, we ended up talking about his experiences during 9/11. We all remember where we were that day. I was in high school, and I remember every second vividly even though I was in Wisconsin and nowhere near the attacks. I can still picture the eerily silent locker filled halls. We walked from classroom to classroom numbly, the only activity of the day was watching the news in each room. I remember the exact sound of the gasps when we watched the towers collapse on TV. It’s not the kind of thing you forget.

Rob Howard lived right by the World Trade Center, and watching the tragedy unfold around him deeply affected him. At the time, he told me, answering a question about why he and his wife moved from NYC to a quiet farm upstate, he lived a very busy life in the city. But witnessing the second plane hit right outside his apartment window and having to flee made him want to live somewhere quieter, with less chaos. And in many ways, that was the start to a whole lot of life changes.

Howard is an incredibly successful travel photographer. He spent the better part of two decades on the road, chasing adrenaline and adventure in well over 100 countries. But sometime after 9/11 his priorities shifted. Not only did he and his wife move to that farm upstate, but the rush of constant extremes he was used to seeking in travel lost its meaning. He still loved photography, but 20 years of constant adventure left him feeling empty inside. So he began to look around him (rather than thousands of miles away) for his art. And what he found surprised him. Through his lens, he captured the beauty in the smaller things, and in the people around him. And he loved it.

Howard found that taking pictures of friends and family, dandelions in fields, and life’s little moments was just as satisfying as scaling a mountain to reach a remote village on the other side of the world. The rush that he loved — the joy, the excitement that he had spent so much time chasing, he actually didn’t need to go far to find them. Those feelings were right at home all along. That may sound cheesy, as if Howard had clicked his heels three times and said “there’s no place like home,” but his voice took on a tone of pride and happiness when talking about his new, quieter life. Constant travel was great for a while, but unsustainable forever. Over time our wants and desires change, and Howard has completely embraced that what brings him happiness now isn’t the same as it was at 22.

I’ve interviewed numerous travel photographers and various adventurers who are at the beginning of their travel careers. For them, the chase, the danger, and the glory are still at the forefront of their journey. Howard is on the other side of that. When traveling 24/7 stopped spark the thrill that it used to, he explains, he found new joy in his surroundings. He’s no less passionate about his work; he’s just finding that spark, that light in different ways. And his work is beautiful. It’s about simple emotional connection now. He finds the story and adventure in someone’s eyes rather than by being kidnapped in the jungle. And even though he was a former adrenaline junkie, his work now makes him just as happy.

Howard was kind enough to share a sampling of his very large body of work with us, and we talked about the surprising and amazing places your career can take you to when you’re open to trusting your instincts, listening to your gut, and following what actually makes you happy.

Where are you living these days?

Well, in winter, I live in Malibu. In a trailer park. Do you know Malibu Seafood Restaurant?

Yeah, definitely.

There’s an RV park right above there. I keep an airstream there. I spend the winters there, and in the summer we’re on the farm (in upstate New York). Which is pretty cool.

Do you have animals? What are you farming?

We farm nothing. We farm grass. We have two cats. And there are bears, and deer, and raccoons, and foxes, and all that kind of stuff running around. Coyotes. It’s just a nice refuge from the crazy world of airplanes, travel, and all that kind of jazz.

When did you make the move to go live on a farm?

God, we lived at Wall Street and Broadway during 9/11. We were right there and it was kind of crazy. I even photographed the second plane just as it was hitting the towers.

Oh my gosh.

It was pretty intense, and that photograph got used all around the world. It was just one of those weird things. And then we just thought, to heck with it, this is crazy. So we bought this farm. We’ve been up there ever since.

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