Behind the CameraInspiration
In Conversation with Hamish Frost on Identity, Representation, and Openness in the Outdoors
Written by Alex Roddie // Photography by Adam Raja & Hamish Frost
You’ll know when you see one of Hamish Frost’s images. Raw, full of energy and movement, pulling you into the frame – this is adventure photography at its most dynamic. But what goes on behind the camera, leading up to the moment when the shutter release is pressed? And how is Hamish opening up the conversation around queer role models in the great outdoors?
When I first catch up with Hamish, he’s recently returned from a climbing trip with Callum Johnson, making the most of a rare weather window in an otherwise soggy Scottish summer. The resulting images, on Hamish’s Instagram, are in some respects typical of his work: they make the viewer feel as if they are right there on the rock with the climber, making the same committing moves, feeling the sharp edged holds under their fingertips. As I ask Hamish about his life and work – and the strategies he uses to create such powerful photographs – I start to realise that this sense of immersion is no accident. But neither is it the result of a formula. Instead, it’s what happens when talent, perseverance, a genuine passion for mountain adventure, and a well-executed plan come together to make something beautiful. As we speak, we explore not only his photographic career but also how his sexuality, and an awareness of the need for diverse role models, have sculpted his time in the outdoors.
‘It all started back when I was a Scout,’ Hamish tells me when I ask him about his route into the mountains. ‘Later, I went to university in Glasgow but spent more time playing rugby than getting into the mountains – a bit of a shame!’ I’d assumed that climbing had been his way into mountain photography, but he surprises me, revealing that backcountry skiing was how it all began. ‘There’s a strong community of die-hard Scottish skiers who go out in any weather. I really fell in love with that.’
But he had long felt that he was denying a part of himself. Although he decided in his head at the age of 18 or 19 that he didn’t want to be gay, Hamish soon realised that this was not a recipe for happiness. ‘When I was younger, “gay” was often used as a negative word,’ he says, ‘and you come to the conclusion in your mind that you’re lesser than other people. You almost feel like you have to go above and beyond to prove yourself.’
However, he came out at university and the response was overwhelmingly positive. ‘It was great – I was no longer in that mentally draining place where you’re hiding part of yourself. But then I moved into the outdoors world. And, because coming out can be a mentally exhausting conversation, I just put off having it with a lot of people.’ As a result, he ended up becoming more guarded about his sexuality and personal life. ‘When you go out climbing’ he explains, ‘you’re thinking about the route ahead of you. You don’t really have the mental energy to get into this big conversation.’
After university, he was commuting from Glasgow to Perth and ideally situated for the hills. The camera came with him right from the start. He had little background in photography and no formal training, but doing, seeing, and documenting were all strands of the same experience. ‘One of the things that inspired me was looking at the work of other mountain photographers. I was taking a camera out and trying to replicate what they were doing. Photography and spending time in the mountains became intertwined quite early on.’
He tells me that three years working at a desk made him realise that office life wasn’t for him. ‘I was taking my photography more and more seriously, and entertaining thoughts of making a living at this – thoughts that grew until I figured I had to at least have a go. Otherwise I’d spend the rest of my life thinking – what if? That was five or six years ago now and I haven’t looked back.’
A blog post from early 2019 describes his work as a ‘slightly crazy, speculative career gamble’. The decision to go pro was a headfirst jump into a new career as an adventure photographer. He could not tiptoe into this.
‘It was a bit of a gamble,’ he tells me. ‘Making shoots work in Scotland is about having the flexibility to work around conditions and weather, and I couldn’t do that working in an office. I had to commit.’
While his professional career flourished, Hamish gradually began to feel that a lack of openness about his identity had almost started to feel like being back in the closet again. I ask him if more visible queer role models in the outdoors might have made things better. ‘It would have been easier to bring things up in conversation,’ he says, ‘and that representation, knowing there were other people like me within the community, would have made a difference. So that was one of the main motivations for the film. I’ve got this platform now, this audience – it would be great to do something more positive than just post pictures of mountains.’
However, Hamish is keen to stress that passion for the mountains is what drives him – and an eagerness to head out with friends to document their adventures. ‘It can’t just be something you do for work,’ he says emphatically. ‘It’s got to be something you live and breathe. You’ve got to be going out and shooting all the time. I go out with Greg Boswell, Guy Robertson, Callum Johnson, who are all climbing hard routes – for one because it’s fun and I love doing it, and two there’s a chance that someone might want to license the photos afterwards.’
These are perhaps his most powerful images. He tells me that while his job has taken him on expeditions to the Himalayas and Antarctica, the highlights have been much smaller personal projects in Scotland. The images from these adventures with friends may look unscripted, but a huge amount of planning goes into them. Hamish says, ‘I get a lot of satisfaction in coming up with a really bombproof plan and then managing to pull it off. Being there at the right time with the right conditions and the right light and the right people – all needed to elevate the photos from that place. And then executing that plan: coming away with good results.’ Flexibility, too, is important. ‘Conditions constantly change, so you have to be prepared to deviate from any plan. You’re constantly making micro-adjustments about things like positioning and angles, anticipating the weather, which lens to use. Each of these decisions in isolation doesn’t count for much, but the sum of them all determines whether the day succeeds or fails.’
Climbing tactics depend on the route. ‘If it’s short, I’ll normally get some photos on the approach. Then I’ll find an easy way to the top, rig a static rope, and abseil in to get some top-down shots.’ Longer mountain routes, or those with complex access to the top, require a different approach. ‘I’ll think about bringing along a friend to climb with on an independent rope. Or I’ll join the climbers I’m shooting and we’ll climb as a three.’ Planning the shoot itself is clearly something that Hamish takes seriously, but what about individual images? ‘Sometimes it’s appropriate to set up shots, but normally I just let the climbers get on with it. I think that as soon as you start giving instructions and directions it comes across in the photos.’
More recently, Hamish has been making a conscious effort to come out to more people. He’s felt happier as a result, and his thoughts have turned to how he can help others who might find themselves in a similar place.
‘One of the things I hope this film can do is change things a bit. I wouldn’t call myself a spokesperson, but I want to put energy into helping to improve visible diversity in the outdoors. But the bigger picture is not only about making the outdoors more visibly diverse from within. It’s saying to people who identify as queer or LGBTQ, look, climbing is a welcoming space.’
As Hamish had conversations with people he climbed with, a few opened up about their own sexuality. ‘Hopefully it will get conversations going everywhere. It might provide the space for someone else to come out.’
Intrigued by this idea of openness encouraging more openness, I ask him if he has noticed people talking more freely about other subjects as well. ‘In my group of friends, I’ve been much more open about how I feel – and as a result they’ve been more open with me. Mental health used to be a taboo subject. People would bottle it up and it would get worse. But perhaps this will have a positive knock-on effect.’
Finally, I ask Hamish about how people who look like me – white, male, straight – can be effective allies. ‘If you encounter queer people in the outdoors,’ he replies, ‘or are friends with them, then ask questions and give them the opportunity to talk about being LGBTQ. If it feels right to, of course – some people wouldn’t be comfortable with this, but I know I spent long periods of my life not talking about that side of myself. I would have loved the opportunity to talk more about it to friends in the outdoors world who showed genuine interest. This is also a good way for people who are keen to be allies to educate themselves further about LGBTQ experiences in life.’
And what about the future of his photography? Right now, he’s consistently producing climbing images that spellbind us on Instagram, as well as portfolios of commercial work for top outdoor clothing brands. But I’ve been getting a sense that Hamish is not happy with sitting still. So I ask him about growth: how he strives to improve, who he looks up to, and how he tries to learn from them.
He pauses to consider this. ‘I wonder if I keep things safe too often now,’ he says eventually. ‘When I think back to that first shoot, I guess I had less of a fixed idea of what worked. I tried more interesting compositions – which meant that my hit rate was lower, but I’d occasionally chance upon something a bit quirky, a bit more original. Something I try to do on shoots now, once I have some good images in the bank, is force myself to try more abstract compositions. So that’s where it’s coming from, internally: trying new things, breaking away from the safe shots.’
And externally? ‘I follow fashion photographers, photojournalists, landscape photographers. If you only learn from people in your genre then you see the same images over and over again. I’ll look at what they’re doing and think about how I can bring elements of that into my own work. Some people might argue that’s copying, but that’s how art and creative pursuits have always evolved.’