“How did you get into climbing photography?” was the only thing I could think to ask, besides the far worse and only slightly more obvious, “Where are you from?”
This was the first time I’d met the locally famed climbing photographer, Jonn Jeanneret, known affectionately as Jean, and I didn’t want to sound stupid.
I had ended up at his apartment in Seoul, Korea with a bunch of fellow climbers to have lunch before we attended the most recent showing of The Reel Rock Tour. The lunch was put on by our friend and fellow climber Dong-Il, not only to celebrate the release of the annual climbing film, but to view the much anticipated, by local climbers anyway, short film Jean had put together highlighting the efforts of the local non-profit, Korea on the Rocks Initiatives (KOTRi).
It was his first film and he had spent countless all-nighters going over footage and working on transitions, waiting for his frustratingly slow laptop to render clips, and intermittently Googling tutorials and information about how to actually make a film!
Of course, none of us knew that. Most of us just assumed that this was old news for Jean and that he’d been doing this for years, at least that’s what we saw in his work.
Half way through lunch I found Jean hunched over a pile of newly developed, poster-sized pictures of some of the most dynamic climbing shots I’d ever seen up close. I was impressed.
In the months before this encounter Jean became someone I knew of, but did not know myself. We had many mutual friends but had not yet met. Based on these mutual friends I knew two things for sure. Jean was a strong climber, and he was the country’s go-to climbing photographer.
I would later find out that he had spent weekends of that year traveling endlessly. He’d leave immediately after work on Fridays to spend the weekends hauling not only the requisite climbing and camping gear but all of his incredibly heavy and bulky camera equipment up, around, and over each and every climbing area in South Korea.
With so many long days he often missed the last train home and would have to sleep on cold benches in subway stations. He’d sometimes spend the night being yelled from bench to bench by angry Korean janitors and police officers.
The reason for all the travel, sacrifice and late night subway slumber parties, was that Jean and Dong-Il were meticulously collecting information for what is now the most comprehensive guidebook for climbing in South Korea. It’s not only full of detailed maps including coordinates, and descriptions in both English and Korean, but also showcases Jean’s amazing pictures and stands as a true testament to his talent and hard work.
His determination, drive and commitment in completing those projects opened many doors. Including being asked to join a first ascent expedition to India as the official photographer and videographer.
Attempting to be one of the first to climb a mountain is an amazing feat on its own but taking on the additional challenge of filming it requires a ridiculous amount of hard work, preparation and training. To be effective, which means carrying extra weight in camera gear, running or hiking ahead of the team and always being ready to get the next shot, you must train to be as strong, if not stronger, than your strongest team member.
Jean’s hard work paid off again on that trip and he was one of three team members to gain the elusive first ascent, of not just one, but two, unclimbed mountains in the Himalayas. His beautiful documentary of the trip will be released this spring. (Check out the preview below.)
The first time I met Jean stands out in my memory, not because of how impressed I was with his pictures or the movie I would see later that night, but because of his answer to my oh so mundane and uninspired question. In response, he laughed, turned to me and simply said, “I just started telling people that’s what I did”.
In my experience the hardest part about evolving or taking on something new is stepping into that new role and owning the new identity. If you are one of the few that fully commit to your dreams in order to make them a reality then you are among some of the very best and bravest people that I know.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Jonn Jeanneret