Many people are drawn to new things because of jealousy, or someone pushing them, or even for monetary gain, but not many people are drawn to something new because it provides purpose, or reason. Photographer Alex Strohl didn’t pick up a camera because he wanted to show off. He had just gotten kicked out of school and sent to boarding school and needed to find purpose. His camera brought him that. Continue below to hear our conversation with Alex Strohl on his journey from getting kicked out of high school to teaching his own photography workshops, and working with clients like Land Rover, Patagonia, Microsoft, & more.
Matt: So you’ve been shooting for over a decade now, and many people around the world are familiar with your work. With that being said, I’m interested to know a little more about how you got started with photography – what made you pick up a camera for the first time? And can you talk a little bit about why you picked up a camera. Was it a friend? Was it seeing other people take photos?
Alex: You know, it really just happened by accident; like most things in life, you don’t really know they’re going to happen. I grew up in Spain, and then we moved to the South of France because I got kicked out of high-school. The ‘punishment’ was that we (my family) were going to move to France. My parents were both French, but they met in Spain, and they wanted to go home at some point so the punishment for getting kicked out of high school at age 14 or whatever was to move to France. I ended up having to go to boarding school and come back home on the weekends only – it was pretty remote, equivalent to Montana, in kind of a remote part of France without any neighbors, we just stayed on a massive piece of land with a lot of forests. Eventually I bought a dirt bike ‘cuz that’s what you do when you’re 15 and I started carrying a little, shitty camera that my dad had and it had like a 32mega-byte memory card and I would shoot some photos of my outings really. I just rode around and found things to shoot, and the thing for me that was important was that it gave me purpose. I’m not just riding my dirt bike anymore, I was riding to go see things, and bringing back something from it.
“I just rode around and found things to shoot, and the thing for me that was important was that it gave me purpose. I’m not just riding my dirt bike anymore, I was riding to go see things, and bringing back something from it.”
Matt: Awesome – that’s really interesting that it was about purpose for you and not just taking photos to look cool like it seems to be now-days.
Around this time, since it may have been before Instagram really blew up, were you looking at other images in magazines or on the internet that were motivating you or inspiring you?
Alex: Yeah, so at that point I was building my own computers, geeking around, you know? If I had time on the weekends I would build computers, and this was around the time when ADSL came out which was ‘really fast internet’ in 2006/2007. I’ll always remember the day we got ADSL, which was actually really slow looking back, but it was quite the achievement.
It was mostly Flickr at the time – I would just post photos randomly. I really liked the process of going somewhere, taking the camera with me, making a few photos, and then uploading them to Flickr. I enjoyed talking to people that I had no idea of who they were, it was just really awesome. The community aspect of Flickr – that’s what really got me hooked.
Matt: Totally, it’s a great feeling when you have other photographers on one platform willing to give feedback, appreciate your work, or even just chat.
So Instagram started in 2010/11 – at this time, when you were posting on Flickr, did you have any thought in mind about ‘following’ or ‘audience’? or was it just out of passion?
Alex: Yeah so with some high-school buddies, we all had our Flickr accounts and we would go take pictures together – it was definitely the community aspect of it, you know? We were 16-17 year olds – it was just fun.
Matt: So tell me about what happened after boarding school? Did you go on to do any schooling for filmmaking or photography?
Alex: Yeah, I went to Aix-en-Provence, which is a town near Marseilles, which had a design school. At that time I was making t-shirts and selling them to people for my little t-shirt brand. I was just playing in Photoshop and started training myself in both Photoshop & Illustrator. I always liked to draw cartoons, so I was like, ‘I don’t know what else I want to do, so I’m going to do graphic design I think. At least I know how it works.’
Terrible at drawing, but I was pretty decent at using the tools.
I never really think about ‘career’ you know? I never really had a resume except for when I wanted to apply for like ‘bad jobs’ or side jobs, but I never thought about it in terms of career, I was just more interested in following things that were interesting to me; there was no grand, master plan. It was more of a, ‘let’s see where this goes‘ kind of thing.
Matt: That’s interesting. Can you tell me about what your thoughts were around this time in terms of long-term goals? You’ve decided to go to school for graphic design, so obviously you’re interested in some sort of creative career, but at this point are you thinking about being a photographer or filmmaker?
Alex: I never really think about ‘career’ you know? I never really had a resume except for when I wanted to apply for like ‘bad jobs’ or side jobs, but I never thought about it in terms of career, I was just more interested in following things that were interesting to me; there was no grand, master plan. It was more of a, ‘let’s see where this goes’ kind of thing.
Matt: It seems like you knew you wanted to do something in the field, you just didn’t know what you wanted to do yet.
Alex: Yeah you can’t put your finger on it yet.
Matt: So at what point did you figure out the path that you wanted to go down?
Alex: Hmmm, probably not for a long time later. Maybe 2012.
Matt: Was this after you finished school?
Alex: Yeah, I never really finished college. I was really interested in meeting people and just selling things. In the middle of college I was already borrowing equipment from the lab and shooting photos for local shops – this was after I transferred schools and moved to Quebec, because France was a bit too small. I continued studying design there, but never finished. I was just getting my feet wet.
Matt: Awesome – when you were working with these local companies, were you sending them cold emails? were you going into the stores and talking with them? Or had they seen your work and wanted to work with you?
Alex: I would just come in to the shop – they were just stores right? If I liked what they sold, I would talk to them, you know? I would walk into a cool furniture store and think that their products were nice so I would just start a conversation with them. I’ve always known very little things about a lot of things, but just enough to talk to anybody about it, so I think that was really helpful in meeting these store owners and selling them a website, or a photo package – whatever it took just to build something with them.
Matt: So you’re working with local shops for photography jobs, but you’re not in school anymore – what did you do then?
Alex: I worked at a newspaper – I was a cameraman and editor for the local newspaper, Le Soleil (“The Sun”), in Quebec City. A friend of mine who I met at school was a designer there and they said that they needed a filmmaker so I just showed up there, and they asked me if I could do it. I never had done much video editing before that but I told them that I could do it and they hired me on the spot.
Matt: No way, haha, that’s awesome – so is that how you originally got into videography and filmmaking?
Alex: In a sense it was kind of a crash course for it. Especially in terms of speed because we would have to churn two stories a day so it was just quantity versus quality. It was was really a crash course in speed because at the end of the day it was just the news – whatever happened, we would be there.
Matt: Yeah – that’s definitely a valuable lesson to learn, as little as it may have seemed, even you just mentioning it lets me know that it did teach you something.
Alex: Oh yeah, for sure – the collaboration and working with the journalists after they slap their review over the footage and then I’d throw it all together and share it on the website.
Matt: Another thing that I’m curious about is how and when it got serious for you? You’ve now been to graphic design school, you’ve worked as a photographer and videographer/editor for local brands – the path seems like it’s there, but when did things sort of ‘click‘ for you?
Alex: There’s never really an “Ah-Ha!” moment, but it definitely became more serious when I sold a photo of mine to Microsoft.
When I was in college I was just posting photos to 500px, which was the ‘new Flickr’ back then. So I would just post photos with keywords and one of the agencies working for Microsoft found the photo and wanted to buy it for a massive campaign – I had no idea how it worked so I had to ask around, but when they cut me a check worth somebody’s yearly salary I wasn’t going to question it. That’s when I realized there’s something here – there’s something in this world. Today I can really thank Microsoft for sort of funding one year of career development, because with that money, Andrea, my wife, & I sort of took off. That’s what kind of made me not finish school. We had all this money now, we wanted to just go on really cool adventures and meet people, and make photos about them and where we go. It was sort of ‘travel influencing’ before it was a term.
Matt: That’s amazing – I also think it’s really cool that it’s out of passion that you wanted to go travel and meet people and tell their stories.
Alex: Yeah, really I just wanted to see places, meet people – there was no plan. Andrea has Chilean origins, so she has family in Chile, so we said ‘let’s go to Chile, we’ll stay with her family, they’ll probably know people, it’ll be a great adventure.’ We ended up doing this story that actually never came out about mining in the north of Chile and I thought that was really interesting. We did all these random things and I was shooting them as if they were going to be used for some big newspaper, but I never ended up finishing them, you know I was 18, I had so many ideas – at least I was pursuing ideas and stories, that was really what interested me.
Matt: Tell me a little bit more about how you got started in filmmaking – how did you go from taking photos with local shops to making stories with videos?
Alex: Hmm, I guess it was by accident really. There’s a need somewhere, where a client has this bid, and they also want video. I had the same mentality as the newspaper, ‘Hey, I’ll try it, I can do it.’ I figured I would see how it goes, and I’d learn. Kind of believing anything is possible and trusting yourself is really the foundation.
I think I’ve got lots to learn on filmmaking and photography, but I feel like it’s been really challenging and interesting to make films, and I want to do even longer projects. I’ve done a lot of commercial films, but few documentary projects.
But yeah, getting started with filmmaking really happened when I moved to the US in 2014ish. Instagram was really blowing up back then and I had grown quite the audience thanks to those years of travel. Nobody really did the whole ‘travel photographer’ before Instagram, it was really just to show photos of your family and your dog. Now we’ve gone full circle and we’re back to that, haha. When I moved to the US, I changed my bio and my website to “Living in LA’ and work just started pouring in – simple as that.
Matt: Wow, that’s wild.
Alex: The simplicity is really mind-blowing sometimes. You tell somebody you’re based in LA, but they don’t really know where you are, but people see you’re “in LA” and they think, ‘oh, he’s in LA, he must know what’s up’ – it’s really the city of creatives. It’s just always about how you present yourself.
Matt: I know you’ve also started teaching workshops and courses on photography now as well – can you tell me a little bit about how that’s helped you grow not only in the community, but also how has it helped you personally as a photographer?
Alex: Yeah, I think it’s important for me to come up with new ideas and concepts and making workshops was just me experimenting again with new things. I had done in-person workshops for a bit and then I felt that it was becoming a very small way to help people because I can only help 10 people at a time, so it’s not really scalable. I want these people to live the lives they want and I decided to do video workshops which are way more scalable – anybody can get in with a computer and learn. They would be getting half the experience they would in person for 20x less money so it sounded like a no-brainer to me.
Matt: That’s definitely a smart way of going about it and I’m sure many photographers were happy about it being online because now they have the ability to participate and learn.
Alex: Yeah, I think you really have to have empathy when you build a workshop. Just try to think about all the problems you had when you first started out and just talk about that – it’s tough to do. It’s hard to think about what the problems were back then because you might have new problems now but they’re not going to represent people who are starting or people who are intermediate – they have different problems than you have now. So it’s really about meeting a problem and solving it for them, or helping them find out how to solve it.
Matt: Yeah, totally – that’s a really smart way to look at it. If you’re figuring out how to remove the obstacles and roadblocks for these ‘students’, you’re helping them get one step closer to where they want to be.
Alex: Yeah and sometimes you can’t just solve the problem for them. You tell them how you solved it for yourself and then they can probably learn from that.
Matt: What are you working on now? Anything exciting coming out soon that we can look out for?
Alex: Yeah, I’m working on a new logo, new website, and a new portfolio. I’m also working a new film for 66North, the brand, and then I’m also working on a documentary about gravel biking across Montana, so that’s what’s cooking right now! And also some new workshops with Wildist, too :)
Matt: Awesome, can’t wait to see all of the new work and thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today – it’s been great to learn from you and hear your story!
Alex: Yeah, thanks so much, I’m honored.