There’s good reason to be envious of Kevin Russ. A lot of people dream of that elusive “someday” when they can shrug off the 9-to-5 chains and pursue their passions. He’s doing that. Others just want to take a decent picture with their iphone. Russ makes a living selling photographs taken on his iphone—yeah, they’re that good.
Russ, a California native who has become a traveling citizen of the world, has found the key to success as a photographer and as a human being—he knows how to push past his comfort zone to be fully present and aware in this life journey. He says putting himself in uncomfortable and sometimes scary situations lends itself to great photo opportunities. It’s also made him more appreciative of good times and everyday conveniences and pleasures.
The 32-year-old Russ first picked up a camera in 2003 when he started college in Oregon. He had loved playing guitar, but found that a camera was a better fit for his creativity. He started making money taking portraits and ultimately dropped out of college to pursue photography as a career.
He started selling his work on iStockphoto.com and also worked for that company inspecting photos that others would upload. He bought a house in Portland, concentrated on building his bank account, and settled into a pretty comfortable lifestyle.
There was only one problem. A big one—boredom. “I pretty much stayed in the house for two years,” said Russ. “I got restless and realized that during those two years I didn’t do anything memorable. I wasn’t challenged in any way. I wasn’t growing as a person at all.”
He realized that after living in Oregon for a decade, he’d never seen the entire coastline of the state. So he started heading out on the weekends and sleeping in his car. That led to other trips. He’d head out to Southern Utah or Yellowstone for a couple of weeks and then return home for two weeks. “I was still trying to balance a normal working life with travel stuff,” he said, “but I ultimately quit the job with iStock. I was making much less money, but I was much happier and I had stories to share of things that I want to remember.”
While he still rents out his home in Portland, Russ now has the freedom to take risks and travel on a whim. He’s built an incredible reputation as an iphone photographer. He sells his shots on Stocksy and Society6 and he was named Most Curated and Photographer of the Year in the 2104 Stocksy Awards.
He’s always pushing himself to have different perspectives. When living in his car became as comfortable as living in his house, he started backpacking and train hopping. He knows what it’s like to search for food while dumpster diving, to sleep under bridges, and to find himself immersed in incredible places with some amazing photo opportunities.
Random, unplanned experiences are commonplace as Russ treks the country. When he wound up in Nome, Alaska he had no idea he’s wind up finding gold. That’s just one story he has to tell from his travels. He’s also shot on assignment in South America and Iceland, gotten arrested for train hopping in Kansas, and hiked along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, N.C., where buskers in the downtown area caught his attention in the summer of 2015. He has extensively documented Abby the Spoon Lady and The Shifty Drifters.
“I’ve never followed a person, like none of my work has been about a person. I usually focus on nature or wildlife or adventure type stuff, but when I saw this toothless lady, barefoot playing the spoons, I knew I had to find out more,” said Russ. “I brought a video camera with me, which is something I’ve never done too, so I’m learning how to do video and getting inspiration from music and people rather than nature and wildlife. It’s been a nice change.”
What have these random adventures taught Russ? “I think everyone can do a lot more than they think they can as far as being in uncomfortable situations,” said Russ. “I learned that I’m more capable than I thought. I also learned how much I took for granted.”
“As humans, if everything is comfortable for us, we’ll make drama because there’s nothing else to do,” he continued. “But if you have more life concerns about everyday living, you’ll focus on something more productive.”
Russ has also published a book, The Western States, which showcases photos captured during his travels. The book retails for $45.