Hitchhiking is scary at the best of times, let alone when you’re a teenage girl trekking all the way from Alaska to New York. And no, that isn’t a tagline for a horror flick. It’s just the start of fearless photographer Kat Carney’s story, a Kansas wild child who’s escaped death more than once since clicking her climbing boots together three times to become a wandering adventure photographer.
Whether she scaling cliff faces or road-tripping to the Arctic Circle, Carney’s spirit for adventure burns as brightly as her flame red hair. And she’s damn skilled with a DSLR to boot, having built a loyal fanbase some 15,000-strong on Instagram in less time than it takes most to Facetune the perfect duckface.
We caught up with Carney in between missions to uncover just how she turned what most of us battle to find time to do on weekends into a kick-ass career.
THE RED BULLETIN: Where did the adventure bug come from?
KAT CARNEY: I’m from Wichita, Kansas. I have four brothers and grew up with parents who pretty much kicked us out of the house every day to enjoy the outdoors. We spent our summers barefoot on the plains and in the surrounding forests. We built treehouses, we built bike ramps and stepped on nails. We had a lot of freedom and imagination. And as the only girl with four brothers, fear was never an option. I embraced it. I didn’t have a choice.
When did you decide to involve a camera in your adventures?
I was working a summer season in Denali National Park [in Alaska], mostly just to be in the mountains and take pictures. And when the season ended, my friend and I didn’t have anything else going on so we were like ‘let’s get home the slowest way possible.’ So we decided to hitchhike.
You can’t be serious. That’s a death wish…
Initially the plan was to hitchhike from Alaska to New York, because that’s where I was going to uni. But by the time we made it all the way down to San Francisco we decided that was enough—‘let’s go ahead and fly to New York!’ My Dad was actually cool with it but not my mum.
What inspired you to take your life into your own hands?
My dad had hitchhiked a lot when he was younger, as well as riding his bike across the country. So I guess I was looking to live out that same type of adventure, having taken inspiration from the stories he had told me and my brothers. So, to me, it was an interesting thing to do. So I did it.
You must have found yourself in a scary position at least once?
This guy named Lucky—yep, real name—picked us up in a converted 1979 Greyhound bus. And we soon found out he was a Deadhead—as in a travelling roadie for The Grateful Dead. And by the look of him and the bus, I don’t think he ever stopped being a roadie for The Grateful Dead.
His girlfriend was passed out cold on the sofa in the back and we weren’t sure what was going on with her. She never woke up. In hindsight, we probably should have checked on her. But we were going down the PCH in Oregon—Highway 1. Lucky convinced my friend, Joe, to jump in the driver’s seat. We’d have been scared but it was kind of a relief because Lucky, it turns out, had been drinking beer while driving. So I was, like “Yeah, Joe! Jump in the driver’s seat!’
After 50 miles of preventing this giant bus from toppling over the Oregon cliffs, Joe pulled over and said that we were going to get off there. We were nowhere near where we wanted to be but I didn’t care. I was thankful to be alive.
Did Lucky the Deadhead try to get lucky?
You mean with drugs or sex? Or both? Not Lucky, but there was definitely a bit of both. We were hit up for drugs constantly. But I think with the lifestyle that comes with hitchhiking that people expect it. And I thought it was pretty funny. There were ots of disappointed rides, that’s for sure.
I’ve never done drugs and they don’t appeal to me. As for sex, obviously being a woman, there’s the threat of sexual proposition. I was standing on the side of the road with a cardboard sign as Joe was behind the dumpster looking for our next piece of cardboard to write our next destination on. And when I was out there by myself, I had a ride in 30 seconds. The first guy who saw me pulled over immediately. And then Joe comes bounding out and we got in—and the guy was like ‘We can actually only take you half a mile down the road.’
Before they were willing to take me anywhere I wanted to go. After this trip, I thought I was never going to hitchhike again. But I’ve done it pretty much every year since. A girlfriend and I did it again in Scotland and it was great. Sometimes I’ve paid for a ride or bought them a meal. I think it’s just about being nice to people.
What’s the appeal of photography for you?
There’s this bond I think between fulfilling an adventurous spirit and photography. I’ve always loved photography and I went through many phases of shooting different things. I realised weddings weren’t for me. I definitely had no interest in doing headshots. And I found my niche when I realised I love adventure and outdoor pursuits. And any sort of vehicle – usually my body—that can get me into the types of places that people don’t normally go and documenting that is a natural extension for me.
How would you describe what it is you strive to do exactly?
I’ve made friends who do adventure activities and do them well, and for me it’s about the collaboration of two people who are respective experts in their fields coming together to produce something special and memorable. A nice collaboration that ends up telling a story. I love hearing people’s stories and I really enjoy telling them through my lens.
What do you think your followers get from your work?
I think a lot of times they see that some of the stuff whoever I’m photographing and I are doing are totally accessible to them. The past three years I’ve been learning how to climb and the progression of that is learning how to shoot while climbing. There are so many levels to climbing. You can be a pro and climb big walls in Yosemite. But you don’t have to be. You can climb in Joshua Tree and that looks cool, too in the photographic format. And it’s just as enjoyable and challenging. I feel a lot of people, and especially women can look at that and be like ‘she’s just a girl from Kansas who has learned how to climb and surf (not that I surf well, but I shoot surfing) and I can do that, too”.
You have a big base of female supporters. Was that your intention?
I think women and climbing are definitely my niche. And, in general, outdoors and women. I share what inspires me and can only hope that inspires others. I feel like I make the kind of images that I would want to look at or want to see – whether it’s in commercials or everyday on Instagram. I also think it’s important to highlight that women can learn new skills with other women and they don’t just have to go with their boyfriends. I have a core group of female friends who are constantly doing awesome stuff – a huge variety of things from mountain biking to surfing to rock climbing to mountaineering. And I think it’s cool to have so much imagery readily available for other women to see. It’s relatable to women in the outdoor industry.
I’ve just bought an adventure vehicle and will be travelling from Baja Mexico to the Arctic Circle in Alaska for the second half of this year until the second half of next year and maybe longer. I’ll be doing the work on the road and documenting the whole thing.