Sports Writer & Photographer, Ryan Sterner, On Making Things Happen For Yourself
Ryan Sterner is a Los Angeles based sports photographer, writer, and film-maker. He's also creative director for Rabbitwolf, where he helps produce branded content for major sports brands Under Armour, Nike, Saucony, and Maurten, among others. We caught up with him as he tells us how it all began and how he managed to turn, what were initially just a few fun hobbies, into a full-time creative career.
So Ryan, you seem to have your toes dipped in a number of different things... from writing, to photography, drawing, and film-making. What came first and how do you manage to pursue a living from all of them?
Writing came first. I was always interested in writing, specifically about running, which is what a lot of my work is focused on. Initially, it’s how I built a very small audience, how I met my business partner, and how I managed to meet people from brands that turned into my first clients. Doing all of these things on a daily basis was really a function of just enjoying them as recreational activities. I wrote for myself long before I got paid to do so. The same with drawing, the same with video/film work, and the same with photography. I eventually quit my day job because I figured I had a large enough body of work to start pursuing these things full time.
Focusing on your sports photography, in particular, what’s it like to photograph at such massive marathon events around the world? And what do you find the most challenging about capturing these incredible sporting events?
The marathon majors are easily my favourite events to photograph. Each one that I’ve been to this year has been slightly different in terms of access from a press badge, but still generally the same. I have to know ahead of time which spots I want to get to and make sure they’re accessible based on all the road closures, security, etc. Race days are always a bit stressful. I'm getting shots at one spot, and then sprinting through the crowded streets with my camera gear to try and get to the next. I always think about what time I need to be at the finish line in order to a. get a good spot among all the other photographers and b. make sure I’m there ahead of all the runners. Like an idiot, I actually missed the finish of the men’s and women’s races at NYC this year. But I’m sure the more I do this, the more efficient I will become at working these events. For now I’m just enjoying being a part of these crazy, hectic race days.
"Doing all of these things on a daily basis was really a function of just enjoying them as recreational activities. I wrote for myself long before I got paid to do so."
Both your photographs and your writing have been published in a number of respected publications like Tempo Journal and Citius Mag. Had you always been aiming to get your work in front of these publications and actively approached them, or do these opportunities come off the back of previous work in your portfolio?
I think it’ll be awhile before people are reaching out to have me contribute to their publications. Citius Mag is actually a side project of mine. I started it with a couple of friends a few years ago. So that’s a good lesson to anyone out there looking to publish their work; if no one accepts your pitches, just make your own damn website because then they have to accept your pitches! As far as Tempo Journal goes, or any other places my stuff has been published, it’s always about reaching out. Any time I know I’m going to be at an event I start planning on who I’m going to reach out to for exposure. I try to get as much exposure out of each trip as possible because at this stage in my career it’s the only way I can justify these big trips.
On top of everything else, you’re Creative Director at Rabbitwolf. Can you tell me a bit about how Rabbitwolf started and where you want to take it next?
Rabbitwolf is actually where most, if not all, of my work comes from and the only reason I have been able to sustain myself in this field. It was a project that my business partner, Stephen Kersh, started about a year ago. We knew each other from working with Citius Mag and we both knew that we had bigger aspirations in terms of the type of content we wanted to make. He eventually asked if I would be interested in attending an event that he'd booked, which included a lot of photography and video work. From there, a partnership was born. We laid out a game plan on the types of projects we wanted to pursue and tried to build a client base. So far we’ve actually exceeded all of the goals we'd initially set for ourselves! So now we just want Rabbitwolf to grow. We’ve learned a lot over the the last year - not just in terms of technical skills but also how to conduct a business. We’re hoping for a big 2019.
"You can’t expect to make huge amounts of money right out of the gate and you have to be cool with that. But at the same time you need to know your worth."
For anyone trying to get a foot in the sports photography industry, what’s the best piece of advice you can give?
For one, always say yes... even if you don't necessarily feel equipped to do so just yet. Rent the gear. Read some books. Go to wherever you need to be and just pray to God that you do it right. This will cause a tremendous amount of stress for you and your loved ones... but you’ll learn a lot. Two, because I love what I’m doing I was, and still am, okay with living off a relatively measly income. You can’t expect to make huge amounts of money right out of the gate and you have to be cool with that. But at the same time you need to know your worth. Don’t be afraid to ask for more money when dealing with clients. Three, and this one kind of ties in with number one, start calling yourself a photographer, videographer or whatever it is you’re trying to be. Tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell strangers when they ask you what you do for a living. It’ll feel weird at first, and you’ll certainly feel like a bit of a fraud, but eventually it’ll all come back to you in a good way. Weeks from now when that stranger is in a meeting and someone poses the question “does anyone know of a photographer?” your name will pop up.
How much value do you believe personal projects have in a creative’s portfolio? Do you have any personal projects you’re working on right now?
I'm currently making a living from pursuing passion projects. I take photos because I simply love doing it. I draw pictures of people doing dumb things because I think it’s really funny. I make and edit videos because it’s a lot of fun. I had a number of “real jobs” before moving into this field. But I was always the guy putting off work and staring at the clock, ready to bolt when it hit five. Many of my articles and drawings were done on company time. I hated going to the office and I was probably a miserable person to be around. Now I do things that I wouldn’t shake a stick at when I had a regular job - answering emails at all hours of the day, working as soon as I wake up, and working while I lay in bed at night. That’s not to say that my lifestyle doesn’t afford the daily nap and a fair amount of freedom. But I’m doing things now that used to make me want to barf, and I love it because these things are all deeply personal to me and I’d rather not fuck them up. Right now I’m actively trying to find a way to photograph an NBA game. If you know anyone, give ‘em my email address.
Finally, as our name suggests, here at Mantra we’re curious about what keeps our favourite creatives driven and pushing forward. What’s your personal mantra, Ryan?
I can’t emphasise enough how much I hated working in an office, having a boss, clocking in and out everyday etc. I'll work my fingers to the bone to never have to do that again. So I guess if I had to distill that into a mantra I'd say, "Have I done something today to ensure I continue doing this as long as humanly possible?”
That’s not terribly elegant, but you get the idea.
Check out more of Ryan's work here.