An adopted Valaisan, David Carlier took some time to find his calling as a photographer. A staunch admirer of Zermatt and the Matterhorn, he spoke to 30° about his unusual career path, which has seen him go from being a budding mountain guide to an eminent photographer and an authority on adventure sports.
“Even as recently as ten years ago, being a professional photographer seemed like an impossible dream to me,” says David Carlier, who has been on non-stop photo assignments ever since. Outwardly shy but as personable as they come, he is an eternal teenager, and pitched up for our interview on a longboard. An adopted son of Valais, the 44-year-old Carlier tells us about the five revelatory moments that have helped take him to where he is now.
From the Silk Road to the Outdoor Games
Photography is a family affair for the Carliers. “I got my first little camera when I was eight,” explains David. “When I was 14, my father allowed me to use his reflex camera on a visit to a transport museum. Then my grandfather gave me his camera: a Nikkormat with a 50mm lens that I still use today. I love looking at life through its viewfinder.” That gift was his first eureka moment.
On his 18th birthday came an impromptu meeting with the travel writer and adventurer Ella Maillart outside a Chinese railway station, a chance encounter that led to him travelling the Silk Road, the second sign of where his future lay. “My love of reporting and photographs that tell a story was born on that trip,” says David, whose dream at the time was to pursue a career in photojournalism. Voicing his praise for the inspirational Maillart, he says: “She’s a rolling stone. She might be over 80 now, but she’s still travelling the world today with her husband, their dog and her camera. When I was a teenager I was fascinated by her pictures, her Nikon FM and her safari-type Land Rover.”
David’s third revelation came when he discovered mountaineering with his friends during his time at university, where he studied economics. “We often skipped class to head to the mountains,” he explains. In 1997, after two years working as a trader, his passion began to take over. Dispensing with his suit and tie, he moved to Zermatt, where he ran the Hotel Bahnhof with the Lauber family and took a mountain guide course. Though he never got his certificate, he began building up a network of contacts in the mountain world and honed the technical skills that he now puts to use in accompanying experienced athletes such as Géraldine Fasnacht and Gilles Sierro on their exploits. At the start of 1999 he launched a website design company with a friend and then a communication company with his wife. Five years later he co-founded the Outdoor Games with Nicolas Hale-Woods, an event that was the fourth revelatory moment of his life and which convinced him that he was born to take photographs.
After working as the communication director of the Outdoor Games and then the Freeride World Tour, David began to devote more and more time to photography. It was at a workshop in the USA in 2010 that he took a photo of a kayaker plunging down a waterfall in Idaho, a picture that would launch his career when it reached the finals of the prestigious Red Bull Illume photography contest four years later. And that was his fifth and final revelatory moment.
Now backed by Nikon, David shoots for a wide number of publications and has several contracts on the go with major watch brands and destinations such as Valais. In 2015, the canton commissioned him to shoot the documentary 13 Faces of Valais. That same year, around 100 of his images – on the theme of water in the valleys of Valais – went on display at the Milan Expo. “I sometimes regret starting out so late in photography,” says the forty-something. “It took me a while to realise that my dream of becoming a photographer was a realistic one, though I’ve always loved telling stories with light, images and nature. I love the impact that a simple and totally natural photo can have. I’m devoting more and more of my time to photo-reportage now and to getting out of the adventure sports bubble. I want to express myself on other issues close to my heart.”