Nikki Smith on Mentorship and The Power of Not Giving Up
Our interview with Salt Lake City-based photographer, Nikki Smith, as she talks about her love for the outdoors, when safe spaces don’t always feel safe, which mentors helped her succeed and how she pressed through dark days.
Q. Where and when did you first fall in love with the outdoors?
A. I was really young. My father worked for the BLM and the Forest Service. So we were always outside. His degree was in geology with a minor in archaeology and so it was every weekend we were out with his mineral hunting club looking for minerals and fossils and going to different archaeological sites throughout Utah. We just always seemed to be outside. And then we lived in areas we always had fields in our backyard. So we spent a lot of time around in the woods or desert or just in the fields and plains. And I just really loved the outdoors.
Q. Now as an adult how was your love for the outdoors changed and shifted over the years? And how has it lead to the business you started?
A. It’s remained a constant in my life. The outdoors have always been a place where we have wrestled with hard decisions or just needed to to get away to try to figure out a problem or something going on in my life. It’s been my place to try to escape to and just recharge and get away from the day to day. But it’s definitely changed especially in the past couple of years. I always felt really comfortable in the outdoors and safe and I don’t feel as safe in the outdoors. Now fortunately the outdoors can be full of people or the access to the outdoors can be a little more difficult.
I travel a lot and I end up going to smaller towns where people haven’t seen someone who is transgender like I am, and it’s not always comfortable. People hiking trails or in camping areas don’t always make it comfortable. So it’s been a little bit of a struggle trying to stay excited and be able to go out there to restore when I know there’s a good chance that I would go out there and it’s not going to be a pleasant experience, at least initially.
Q. How do we make it safer for various communities that don’t feel safe? How do we as underrepresented communities in the outdoors come together so that we can feel safe together?
A. Yeah, I think as you mentioned there isn’t a definite answer. I read a quote recently that said “some of these questions don’t have answers, they have conversations.” And I think right now there needs to be more conversation. It’s starting. The outdoor industry is starting to have more and more conversations around this. The things that I’ve found to be really helpful, in talking with other people from the queer community and other marginalized groups, is more and more affinity spaces and gatherings where we can be around people that look like us. And through that, make it safe for people who haven’t felt like they’ve been able to access the outdoors. They can go out and experience the outdoors with other people like them and at all times, their safety in numbers.
There’s more and more of these groups forming. There’s more common festivals and outdoor festivals that are focusing on women specifically or climbing fests like Color the Crag that are trying to create these safe spaces to allow people that haven’t traditionally felt safe in the outdoors to have a space to be introduced to it. And over time, as more and more people start feeling safe in the outdoors, hopefully all of this will change. I think too often we create this image of people from these smaller towns or people that we tend to be afraid of as uneducated in that. But I think they just haven’t had the exposure to people who are different the way people in larger cities have at least in the queer community.
When someone comes out if they live in a small town, ultimately they leave. They just don’t feel safe enough to stay. And so the people in these towns haven’t had as much of a chance to get to know people who were from the queer community. They haven’t seen these differences as much. And I think the more that we try to include the communities in these events there’s a climbing festival called the Homoclimbtastic that just happened this weekend in the New River Gorge in West Virginia. And its kind of an area that most people wouldn’t expect a gathering of queer people to go to, but the festival is really working with the local community and the community has embraced them. It worked really hard to make everyone feel safe. And I think oftentimes when we do recreate or have these outdoor fests we don’t include the local communities as much as we should.
Q. Why did you started your photography business (Pull Photography)? And what ways are you leveraging photography in the area of the outdoors and bringing more exposure to various communities in the outdoors?
A. I started when I was really young. I’ve always been artistic in a lot of different ways. Photography came from my father. I did a lot of painting and drawing and sewing, knitting, quilting with my mom. And photography was my dad’s thing. And I think I was given a camera right around the age of five and I took a couple of crappy photos and my father entered in the Utah State Fair and I won a couple blue ribbons for those and that kind of got me hooked.
And so I I’ve always had a camera with me but I still focused more on drawing the painting until later in college. I got a little more excited about it in high school when I took a photography class and was able to spend time in the darkroom. There was a lot more creativity in the entire process before we would take photos and then just take them into a lab and you’d wait three or four days and come back in and see the end result. But with the darkroom I was a part of every aspect of it and I really enjoyed that. Then I went into the army college after that and didn’t have that opportunity. But I was climbing a lot with my friends in college. I tweaked a couple tendons in my fingers and I couldn’t climb, but I wanted to stay out there and be outside with my friends. So I had to focus completely on photography and just really tried to get better at it.
And then I started begging people in town who were established professional photographers to critique my work and give me feedback no matter what it was. And it was not always good feedback. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it was what I needed to hear. And it really helped me grow as a photographer and slowly I started getting things published and started working with a lot of different companies. I’m able to help take people to places that when I was growing up, I never thought I would leave Utah. I never thought I would go anywhere or travel or do anything. And to see some of these photos in magazines and books, brought another world to me.
Q. What would you say to someone who is wanting to start their own business? This could be general or advice that you would give someone specifically wanting to tap into the outdoor industry.
A. So with the outdoor industry specifically, I mean with any business you could start, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot more work than people imagine it will be. There’s going to be a lot of roadblocks and you just need to keep moving forward. You know for most of my photography career I wasn’t working full time for myself. I had a full time job in the marketing department where I was also the staff photographer and did photography work there but I didn’t do enough with my freelance work to go out on my own. And I believe then that more recently I was passionate enough about it and I wanted to make it work. And so I’ve kept at it and now I’m at a point where I’m still not making much money. But it’s growing.
I’ve only been a freelance photographer for about two years now and I still end up doing other side work of graphic design, illustration, writing, marketing consulting and I use the money from that to help feed my photography. I have other friends who they’ll do wedding photography or corporate headshots in order to fund their outdoor photography. The climbing and outdoor world isn’t always the most lucrative. It’s a place where so many of us are in it because we love the outdoors and we love a lot of the people around the outdoors, it can be a really great community. So with the outdoors specifically, no you’re probably going to make a lot less than if you worked photography in the corporate world or elsewhere, but you get to go to amazing places. You’ll meet amazing people and it’s still worth it to me to keep trying. One of the big things that I would recommend is finding mentors. They made a huge difference to me.
Q. What mentors supported you as you grew as a photographer and as an entrepreneur?
A. Duane Raleigh who is the owner, publisher of Big Stone Publishing, they publish Rock and Ice Magazine. He’s been amazing working with me and helping me develop as a photographer and a writer. He was very patient. I think early on with my submissions and gave good feedback and I think I tried and submitted three or four times at least before he finally found a couple images he was willing to publish. I didn’t give up and he didn’t give up on me. I think it’s important with a mentor that you know someone’s devoting a lot of their own personal time and they need to feel like you’re really willing to put in the time as well.
Doug Heinrich was invaluable to me as an ice and alpine climber. When I first started ice climbing it was miserable and cold and scary. And that hasn’t really changed. But I’m a lot more comfortable with it. I know how to make it a lot safer. I know how to enjoy it in a weird way and a lot of that has come from climbing with someone who has a lot more experience than I did and was willing to devote his time. It’s not always what someone wants to do. You know they want to go out and climb something hard or climb with their more established friends or partners. To take someone out that you’re maybe going to step down a few levels and have to be a teacher shows commitment. I’m so glad that he was able to do that for me.
Q. What advice would you give your 17 year-old self?
A. That was a really difficult time in my life. I think a lot of it is to not give up. I came way too close to giving up on life multiple times when I was around 17 and then later in life. At the time I couldn’t really see that I would be accepted for who I was and I would be able to have a career, to have a family, to just exist in some ways. And so a lot of it is just to not give up. To trust myself. And know that I don’t need all the answers. The answers are often irrelevant. Seeking the answers or continuing on without them is often more important than having a specific answer. There aren’t always concrete answers in life. And if we wait for that, if we wait for signs that everything is going to be okay, we might be waiting way too long. We just keep moving ahead. So I would tell her to just trust who she is and be patient and know that things will get better.
Just two years ago I didn’t see a future and was in a very dark place. I’ve been it will come out of that and everything I thought couldn’t be possible in my life is now possible. And things I couldn’t even imagine happening I’m making happen now. And I didn’t give up.
Q. Did you lean on a community to make that happe and to not give up?
A. It all started with me realizing that I really did need help. And I asked for it. I started going to therapy and started talking through everything. I tried to avoid who I was my entire life and I knew I was transgender from as far back as I can remember. I didn’t know what that was until I was in my 20s but I always told myself that I am transgender but I’ll never transition…I can be happy pretending to be someone I’m not. And I had to start working through that. And fortunately my wife was very supportive in this whole process and each time I came out to friends or family I was able to draw strength from their support.
I can’t even describe how important it is to have that assurance from people that it’s going to be ok. I’m going to accept you. It doesn’t matter. I know who you are as a person. It doesn’t matter what you look like. Doesn’t matter who you love. I’m still going to be there. And the more I came out the more more people who said that it wasn’t an issue to them, the safer I felt. And it’s just kind of snowballed to where I was able to be more comfortable with who I was and saw that the world wasn’t going to end around me. It made a huge difference.
Q. How do you manage to balance your needs, the needs of your wife, your career and business, and even spending time outdoors and doing what you love?
A. That’s been really tricky. Throughout my entire career and even more so now as a photographer, I’ve gone to trips where they were a week two weeks long where I’m photographing climbers in some of these amazing areas where I don’t actually get a climb for myself. It’s still fun, but I’m just looking around and think I really want to be down there climbing with everybody else. But for every one of those trips that I have time in between where I’m able to get out, I try to take my own trips with my friends or my wife and just spend time kind of away from everything. I have a hard time not taking my camera even on those trips but try to find that balance. It’s been much more tricky. Now I travel a lot and often this lasts six to seven months. I’m often gone for two, three and four weeks at a time and then I’m home for a week maybe two and I try to cram things in there but I haven’t really been able to. So it’s kind of imbalanced right now. I wanted to get outside a lot more than I’ve been able to. I’ve tried to focus on other things that I’m really interested in and passionate about.
I started dancing two years ago. I’ve never really danced before. That was part of what helped save my life. And so when I’m traveling in these larger cities to speak or teach or work at an event at the climbing gym, I try to make sure I have an evening or two where I can get away and just go dance at a dance club in the city or something. I found that that’s kind of given me some of the same in a completely different way but it’s kind of giving me that that focus to where nothing else exists outside of that room or that building at the time. And it allows me to kind of regroup even if I can’t always be in the outdoors. I started to climb a little bit myself and do some of my own personal photography projects and try to get away and try and do some trips just with my wife coming up soon. We’re looking forward to those but I think we’re not always going to be able to have a perfect balance. Sometimes we will. But I think just trying to find those other creative or expressive pursuits in there that allow you to have a flow state or or just escape everything would be invaluable.