Nikki Smith on Mentorship and The Power of Not Giving Up
Salt Lake City-based photographer, Nikki Smith, gets candid about when safe spaces don’t always feel safe, which mentors helped her succeed, and how she’s managed to press 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, so every weekend we were out with his mineral hunting club looking for minerals and fossils, always going to different archaeological sites throughout Utah. We just always seemed to be outside. We lived in areas where we always had fields in our backyard. So we spent a lot of time in the woods or desert, or just in the fields and plains. I always just really loved the outdoors.
Q. As an adult, how was your love for the outdoors changed and shifted over the years? And how did it lead you to found your business?
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. It’s definitely changed though, especially in the past couple of years.
I always felt really comfortable in the outdoors and safe, and recently I don’t feel as safe in the outdoors. 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 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? And how do we as underrepresented communities in the outdoors come together to feel safe?
A. 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 affinity spaces and gatherings where we can be around people that look like us. Through that, we 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, there’s 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, which 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. Over time, as 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. For the most part, I think they just haven’t had the exposure to people who are different.
When someone lives in a small town and comes out, 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, the better. There’s a climbing festival called the Homoclimbtastic that just happened this weekend in the New River Gorge, West Virginia. 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 outdoor photography 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. My love of photography came from my father. I did a lot of painting, drawing, sewing, knitting, and quilting with my mom, but photography was my dad’s thing. I think I was given a camera right around the age of five and I took a couple of crappy photos. My father entered them in the Utah State Fair and I won a couple blue ribbons for those—that kind of got me hooked.
So 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 to see the end result. In 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. Eventually, I tweaked a couple tendons in my fingers and I couldn’t climb, but I wanted to still be outside with my friends. I focused on photography and just really tried to get better at it.
I started begging people in town who were established professional photographers to critique my work and give me feedback. It was not always good feedback. Even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, it was what I needed to hear. It really helped me grow as a photographer and slowly, I started getting things published and started working with a lot of different companies. 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, it’s brought another world to me.
Q. What would you say to someone wanting to start their own business?
A. With the outdoor industry specifically, 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 a marketing department where I was also the staff photographer. I was passionate enough about it thought and I wanted to make it work. So I’ve kept at it and now I’m at a point where I’m still not making much money, but my business is growing.
I’ve only been a freelance photographer for about two years and I still end up doing other side work, like graphic design, illustration, writing, and marketing consulting. I use the money from that to help feed my photography. I have other friends who 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 the outdoors community. In the outdoors you’re probably going to make a lot less than if you pursued 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. Which mentors supported you as you grew as a photographer and entrepreneur?
A. Duane Raleigh, the owner of Big Stone Publishing, which publishes Rock and Ice Magazine. He’s been amazing working with me and helping me develop as a photographer and a writer. He’s very patient. Early on, he gave good feedback. I 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. With a mentor, I think it’s important that you realize they’re devoting a lot of their own personal time—they need to feel like you’re really willing to put in the time as well.
Doug Heinrich was also invaluable to me as an ice and alpine climber. When I first started ice climbing, it was miserable, cold, and scary. That hasn’t really changed. But now, 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, someone who 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 and step down a few levels, to be a teacher, it takes 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. A big one would be, “Don’t give up.” I came way too close to giving up on life multiple times when I was around 17 and then later as well. 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. If we wait for them, if we wait for signs that everything is going to be okay, we might end up 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 come out of that and everything I thought couldn’t be possible in my life is now possible. The things I couldn’t even imagine happening, I’m making happen now. I didn’t give up.
Q. Did you lean on a community to make that happen 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; 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 twenties. I always told myself that I am transgender but I’ll never transition, that I can be happy pretending to be someone I’m not. And I had to start working through that. 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. For them to say: 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.
The more I came out the more more people who said that it wasn’t an issue to them, the safer I felt. 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, as well as those of your wife, your career and business, and even the outdoors?
A. That’s been really tricky. Throughout my entire career and even more so now as a photographer, I’ve gone to trips that were two weeks long, where I’m photographing climbers in some of these amazing areas and I don’t actually get a climb for myself. It’s still fun, but I’m just looking around and thinking I really want to be down there climbing with everybody else. For every one of those trips thought, I try to take my own trips with my friends or my wife and just spend time away from everything. I have a hard time not taking my camera even on those trips, but I try to find 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, four weeks at a time and then I’m home for a week maybe two and I try to cram things in. 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, like dancing.
I started dancing two years ago. I’ve never really danced before. That was part of what helped save my life. When I’m traveling in these larger cities to speak, teach, or work an event at a 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. It gives me a focus: nothing else exists outside of that room or that building at the time. Dancing allows me to kind of regroup even if I can’t always be in the outdoors.
I’ve started to climb a little bit myself and do some of my own personal photography projects, and I try to get away and do some trips just with my wife. I think we’re just not always going to be able to have a perfect balance. Sometimes we will. Finding other creative or expressive pursuits, things that allow you to have a flow state or to just escape, those things are invaluable.