Striking the balance between being an athlete and an artist

Words and photos by Joshua Kasumovic

Robert Gusich climbs an unknown 5.10 crack at Lake Hodges in San Diego.

It is a sunny Southern California day in early spring. A cool breeze at my back, carrying the melodic sound of birds singing in the distance. The scent of pine trees is intoxicating and the landscape is graced with prominent granite features. I’m focused on composition through the viewfinder of my camera as the action unfolds in front of me. Framing the subject doesn’t come easily; I’m in an awkward position, twisting, turning, and contorting while trying to maintain a foothold. My muscles burn as I strain to hold still. I take a deep calming breath to steady the shot. In front of me is a climber scaling a rather blank slab of granite called Suicide Rocks. My attention is drawn to the flow of intensity throughout the climb, while assessing a broader scope to incorporate the scale and beauty of the scene. I release the shutter at several key moments. He clips in at the second anchor of a three pitch sport climb and I pull the camera away from my face. We share a brief cheer of success and laugh of excitement. Awareness of my surroundings returns abruptly, reminding me that I am hanging somewhere in the middle of a 60-meter static rope on the rock face. The ground is about 200 feet below my feet.

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I often reflect on the path that brought me here. My journey to become an adventure photographer was nonlinear because I was unsure of what was truly important to me in life. At my core, I’ve always been inspired visually and fueled by feeding my creative side.  As a child, I was outgoing by nature. If anyone were to guess, they would have said I was going to end up in front of a camera, not behind one.

No strangers to adventure and travel, my family exposed me to a lot of what the world has to offer from a young age, making multiple trips to foreign countries and exotic places each year. My dad is a commercial airline pilot, which offered us the opportunity to fly free on standby. My grandfather, who is a certified dive master, introduced me to the sport when I was 12.  We made trips across the Bermuda Triangle, explored shipwrecks and dove as deep as 155 feet. Needless to say I have spent a good deal of time exploring land and sea. Hiking, camping, sailing, river rafting, and bungee jumping were among the many activities that made for a great summer vacation.    

One of my fondest memories as a child was learning to make stop motion movies with my Grandpa Ken. I was hooked on it from the beginning. It provided me with a seemingly endless creative outlet. I would spend hours at a time staging various scenes and situations. Frame by frame I would compose mini films with Legos, Hot Wheels or whatever else I could get my hands on.  Then at the age of 13, I received my first camcorder as a birthday gift from my father. It opened up a world of opportunities to express my creativity, some of which led me to play with homemade pyrotechnics – which didn’t go over too well with my parents!

Over the years, I was able to teach myself how to edit videos on my computer and compose short films. I pursued a vocational education in video productions during my junior year of high school by registering for a two-year program that would prime me for a career in the field. The education gave a me wealth of knowledge and introduced me to my first experiences of getting compensated for my creativity. Unfortunately, I struggled to connect with the client projects, from lack of passion for the assignments.  As a result I lost interest in my work. I felt the education was ushering me into a path I wasn’t going to be happy with, and because of this I put my creative career on hold for a while.

Fast forward through nine years of hard work and dedication in the hospitality industry, and I found myself as an accomplished restaurant professional working as the beverage director and manager for a highly acclaimed restaurant in San Diego. This career started off as just another job to pay the bills. Initially I was hired to bus tables, and I quickly progressed to serving.  A few years later, I was promoted to management and became certified as a sommelier (wine professional).  In time, a career that was based on the pursuit of leadership responsibilities and ambitions of professional growth, slowly became stifling to my creativity. I naively thought I was achieving everything I wanted. In search of balance, I began meditating which brought clarity.  Over time, I became aware of my lack of fulfillment in running restaurants and pushing alcohol. My spiritual awakening opened my eyes to what really mattered to me and my ever-growing draw to nature. It was time for me to shake things up. One year prior to leaving the hospitality business, I picked up a digital camera and I was instantly absorbed by the art. So much of the experience resonated with me as video did before. Initially, my favorite style was landscape photography. For me, it was not just about capturing the landscape; it was the sense of adventure in getting to a wonderful location. The more difficult the journey, the more inspired I am by the image.

Since the start of my photography career, I have focused on outdoor adventure, wildlife and landscapes.  Initially I built my portfolio around landscape photography to sell as art, and traveled to many amazing places that I had never been before. It was on this journey that I had an epiphany at Yosemite National Park while taking a photo of the famous tunnel view. Looking around at the thirty-plus other photographers who were taking the same shot in the dead of winter, made me realize that I needed to set myself apart. This area, along with many others on the trip, was easily accessible to the masses. I decided to push my limits and explore places few people will ever see, so I could share them with the world. From then on I focused my efforts on acquiring the skills and experience to prepare me for the challenges of navigating technical wilderness terrain. This is where I began to collaborate with rock climbers, alpinists, canyoneers and other outdoor specialized athletes.

Merging adventure and photography creates a variety of challenges depending on the activity of the subject. Knowledge of the sport is an important key to success. It allows you to be a supportive member of the team while also putting yourself in the right position to get the shot. It’s important to strike a balance between being an athlete and a photographer. Sometimes you have to be able to keep up with the extra gear on your back, and other times you’re focused solely on capturing a great shot from a removed vantage point. The ability to problem solve, improvise, and set up rigs on the fly are all necessary skills. Setting out in the dark for the alpine start and burning the midnight oil add to the fun of being in the field. These practices are crucial to catch the best conditions, lighting or a shot of the Milky Way. Sometimes the adventure can take unexpected turns and the unforeseen calls for thinking on your feet.  Overcoming the challenges laid before me enhances the narrative of the story I tell with my photographs.

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The second climber has now reached the anchor. That’s my cue to get back to work. I ascend the rope to find the next position, and begin framing the shot. After looking back, I’m left inspired and grateful for the influences and experiences that brought me to where I am now. I’ve realized my vision of what I want my future to look like. Having the support of my friends and family has absolutely been a driving force. This gave me the courage to follow my dreams and fulfill my true purpose. In this moment there is no place I’d rather be than sitting in a harness with a camera in my hand.

A party of three embarks on the last 1,500 feet to the summit of Mt. Whitney at sunrise.

The author sets up for a climbing shoot near Suicide Rocks.