MEG HAYWOOD SULLIVAN
PHOTOGRAPHER & ENVIRONMENTALIST MEG HAYWOOD SULLIVAN
AN UNPAVED ROAD fragranced with nature’s aroma of mountains and trees is what Meg Haywood Sullivan often found when she exited the doors of her parents Volkswagen van. Although there were the occasional movie nights, camping and road trips were some of Meg’s most pivotal moments growing up. As an only child, Meg’s free-spirit and creativity was unwaveringly nourished from a very young age.
“I’m an only child to two very artistic, funky, parents and I adore them immensely...I learned a lot about the world and the environment through them and these adventures. I learned about respecting our planet and seeing the beauty in the natural landscape.”
Meg’s father is a talented photographer. A camera always accompanied their journeys and managed to make dinner table conversations. Taking still frames of nature became a contagious activity.
“I had a film camera starting at age 8. I remember him quizzing me about F-stop and ISO’s at the dinner table and at the time I would say “Dad I don’t want to do this!” but that was my training ground.”
Meg’s mother is a pastel painter. As a teacher of the art and President Emeritus of The International Pastel Society, she was often creating new works in her studio. As a young child, Meg helped her mother critique her work.
“I started to develop an eye of what makes a good piece of art in any medium. That really developed into a training that helped me blossom into a career in the arts.”
Being engrained deeply in the arts and spending so much time outdoors made photography a second nature activity for Meg. Mountains have always been her biggest inspiration. As a kid, taking photos was a habit that she enjoyed but as a teenager, it became a passion that fueled her.
“Mountains all over the world inspire me. There’s something about the high alpine where life eeks out an existence in some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. It’s both beautiful and humbling at the same time.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, her creative expression also took the form of dance. Irish step dancing, to be precise. Boston holds the most-concentrated population of Irish outside of Ireland, so the calling was fitting when she danced at the band “Dropkick Murphy’s” St. Patrick's day shows in Boston.
College led her elsewhere. Meg’s parents were her biggest inspiration in recognizing that a career in the arts was possible. To no surprise, she pursued studies in photography at Pratt University in New York. After a year at Pratt she moved out to the mountains to pursue a double major in the Environmental Studies and Photography at Montana State University. Staying true to her passion was never a second thought.
Meg began her photography career in professional snowboarding. A female photographer in that industry is a rarity. The photo editor at Transworld Snowboarding Magazine, Chris Wellhaussen, noticed her talent and believed in her capabilities. He gave Meg her first editorial assignment.
“Establishing myself as a creative was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s exceptionally hard as a female in the photographic and filmmaking community.”
“Snowboarding is even more male dominated. I’ve stayed very close friends with the women I’ve met in that industry, there are very few of us.”
Meg’s dedication, grit, and quality of work began to get noticed. Her backcountry shots and ability to withstand the harsh elements earned her respect and stature. She became a respected name in snowboarding industry.
“As a woman, I feel like you have to prove yourself that much more--but in doing so and in knowing that, I think it pushed me... it pushed me to want to succeed even more so because there are so few women doing what I do. It was a challenge that I wanted to hit head-on like, 'Why aren’t there more women? Why can’t I do this?' I’ve shown myself that I can.”
From there, Meg’s career took off. Companies like Patagonia, KEEN, prAna, and Clif Bar have become part of her client book. Much of Meg’s love for photography comes from her passion of storytelling about nature and the environment. In particular, her sweet spot is in showing mankind’s relationship with the great outdoors. National Geographic Adventure gave her the perfect opportunity to do that by asking her to document the fastest retreating glacier in Yosemite.
“I’ve heard stories from snowboarders and skiers who’ve used the same mountain runs their entire lives...these people have an intimate knowledge and connection with these mountain ranges. They know the difference that one or two degrees can make on the consistency of the snow and the powder. Honestly with the way climate change is going, I don’t know if it’s really plausible for a career as a snowboard photographer in the future, so it’s almost like were the last generation of them, which is crazy to think.”
A pivotal moment of Meg’s career (thus far) occurred with an unfortunate circumstance. In 2012 Meg was hired for a snowboarding shoot in Tunnel Creek, WA. An avalanche was triggered when fifteen of the nations top skiers and snowboarders were making a run together. Three of them didn’t make it out alive. Meg happened to be the first camera at the site.
“One of the editors that I work with at ESPN, was caught in the slide, and said 'Meg take photos because this is important', and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do -- seeing the skis of the people who had died on the back of a snowmobile. It was rough.”
A few days later, she got a call from the New York Times asking her to submit her photos because they were going to do a big story piece about the avalanche. That story ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize.
“That was one of the moments in my career where it was clear that it’s not about me, it’s about the greater whole. It’s about meaningful storytelling and contributing, I think that was very pivotal.”
Meg stays involved with projects that use adventure as a way to educate about the importance of our natural landscapes. She’s spread her message widely across the world and in each place she’s lived. New York, Montana, Spain, Washington, San Diego, San Francisco, and most recently, Venice, CA have all been called “home”. She is a leading ambassador for Surfrider Foundation and Protect Our Winters - two non-profits that work hard to support the environment. Currently, she’s co-producing a pilot for some of the networks on climate change.
“One of the episodes we’re delving into is about the snow industry, so I've been doing a lot of research and it’s pretty terrifying. It reaffirms why I’m dedicating my life to helping tell stories. Showcasing the progress and small steps in the right direction are important.”
Meg’s passion, success, activist nature, and alluring Instagram feed have turned her into a stunning role model for women of all ages.
“I didn’t have many women as my role model but I had a lot of great male figures that helped open up doors. I hope that I can be a female role model that I wish I had. If you have a platform of any shape or form I think it’s almost a duty to give back and inspire people, to have an educated perspective and make people want to listen. It makes my heart so full when I get messages from young women just starting out in their careers trying to figure out what they want to do and having people say that I’ve shown them you can do what you want. You can succeed in this community... and that makes my heart so full.”
The future is clear for Meg. On her list of travel and adventure are the French Alps, the birthplace of ski culture. Unfortunately, they are also one of the places that are seeing the biggest effects of climate change first-hand. Her work is more important now than ever before.
The mountains, the rivers, the trees, the oceans -- they’re speaking to us constantly, but there are so few of us that hear it. Meg’s work is amplifying and articulating the voice of nature. Her life’s mission permeates through every photo and production piece she creates. The awareness she brings to the serious issues of our environment is supporting the much-needed radical change that it so deeply requires. Fortunately for our planet, her dedication and contribution to stories-worth-telling will never fall silent.
BY MANDY BUDARE