Visual Culture

These Photographers Quit Their Day Jobs to Travel the World

Demie Kim
Aug 31, 2016 1:42AM

Theron Humphrey was shooting handbags and sweaters for a clothing company in Idaho when he realized he needed a change. Overworked and uninspired, he decided to quit and, after some soul-searching, stumbled on a wild idea: to drive across America and meet and photograph a new person each day for an entire year. So in August 2011, he set off in his pickup truck with Maddie, his now Instagram-famous coonhound, and made his way through all 50 states—even Hawaii—to capture and collect the unique personal histories of 365 strangers.

Today, Humphrey has a loyal Instagram following of 1.2 million, a published book on his trusty companion, Maddie on Things, and a self-made career that he can take pride in. While it’s no doubt a risky move to leave a stable income, several others have made a similar leap of faith: They quit their jobs, packed their bags, and set off on adventures around the world, pursuing new walks of life that culminated in beautiful works of art. Below, we highlight eight photographers—from living legends, like Sebastião Salgado, to free-spirited nomad Foster Huntington—who’ve quit their day jobs for the thrill of an unknown future.

Beetles + Huxley
Beetles + Huxley

In 1973, while sitting in a rowboat with his wife Lélia and working as an economist in London, Salgado made the life-changing decision to quit his job and pursue a newfound passion: photography. In the years prior, Salgado had made frequent trips to countries in central and east Africa to help initiate agricultural development projects for the World Bank—and each time he brought along a Pentax Spotmatic II with a 50-mm lens, a gift from his wife that had sparked an unanticipated obsession. Now a world-renowned social documentary photographer, Salgado never entirely parted ways with his background in economics. “When you go to a country, you must know a little bit of the economy of this country, of the social movements, of the conflicts, of the history of this country—you must be part of it,” he has said. This desire to understand, and thereby to honor, his subjects is reflected in Salgado’s award-winning black-and-white documentary series—including “Workers, “Migrations,” and most recently, “Genesis”—which shed light on issues of poverty, oppression, and climate change threatening displaced communities around the world.

Turkmenistan. , 2009
Milk Gallery
Kyrgyzstan. Fergana Valley. outskirts of Osh. From "Two Rivers", 2008
Magnum Photos

Though Drake had never conceived of being a photographer growing up, she realized in adulthood that “success is what you want it to be.” About a decade ago, Drake left her New York office job at a multimedia company to travel on a Fulbright scholarship to Ukraine, where she began to create photo stories fueled by her interest in Russian, Islamic, and Chinese cultures. “I was about 30 and I realized I didn’t want to work in an office for the rest of my life, in New York’s bubble,” she explained. “I wanted to learn about the world and cross into other communities.” Wielding her camera, she made some 20 trips to countries in Central Asia over the next 6 years, which culminated in two celebrated projects: Two Rivers (2007-11), an in-depth look at the struggling economies, shifting borders, and environmental calamity in the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers; and Wild Pigeon (2007-13), a collection of photographs, drawings, and embroideries produced collaboratively with Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group in western China, whose cultural freedom is threatened by rapid modernization.

Foster Huntington

Photographs by Foster Huntington. Courtesy of the artist.

As a concept designer at Ralph Lauren in New York, Huntington “got turned off of working in fashion and designing things for rich dudes in Connecticut” and realized that he “shouldn’t be inside an office building working 70 hours a week in my early twenties for some big-ass corporation.” So he did what many stifled employees want to do, but never actually end up doing—he left. In the summer of 2011, Huntington quit his job, moved into a camper, and drove some 100,000 miles around the West, surfing and camping along the way and documenting his journey. Since 2014, Huntington has been living in a tree house in southern Washington, along the Columbia River Gorge, which he designed and built with a group of friends. (Its construction is documented in his book and short film, both titled The Cinder Cone.) Now with an Instagram following of over 1 million, Huntington hopes to inspire others to take up his nomadic lifestyle—to see the world without relying on creature comforts along the way.

As a teenager—a self-described “rebel” who later fought in the French Résistance—Riboud took his first photographs at the Exposition Universelle of Paris in 1937 using the Vest Pocket Kodak camera his father had gifted him for his 14th birthday. But it wasn’t until the early 1950s, while on vacation and photographing a festival in his hometown of Lyon, that he decided to quit his job as an engineer at a factory, where he admitted he had “spent a lot of time dreaming of other things and taking pictures on weekends.” Starting off as a freelance photojournalist, he befriended Henri Cartier-Bresson and, in 1953, was accepted into Magnum—the same year his famous Eiffel Tower Painter photograph was published in LIFE. A fiercely independent spirit, and intimidated by the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and David “Chim” Seymour, he promptly left France for two years—setting off a career marked by international travel, most famously to the Near and Far East. In these now-iconic photographs of civilians on the streets of Mao-era China and the Vietnam War, Riboud captured quiet, intimate moments amidst important historical events.

Tifonia, 1998
Jack Shainman Gallery

Boston-born photographer Nickerson worked as a commercial fashion photographer for the first 15 years of her career, shooting for Vanity Fair and Vogue, among other high-profile clients. Exhausted and disenchanted, she has recalled thinking, “You’re wasting your life. If you want to do photography, you’ve got to rethink this whole thing.” So when she accompanied her friend on a visit to a farm in Zimbabwe in 1997, she became enamored by the rural landscape and started to use photography as a means of acquainting herself with local residents. A trip that was supposed to be a few weeks long stretched into four years—and a new career. “I bought a small flatbed truck and started to travel all around the country and then went to South Africa, Malawi, and Mozambique. I took pictures of everything,” she told TIME. Since then, she hasn’t stopped traversing the globe, venturing back to Sub-Saharan Africa for portraits of faceless farm laborers in her 2013 series, Terrain. Even in recent forays back into fashion, the influence of these efforts is clear, with the statuesque figures swathed in layers in a 2014 AnOther spread echoing the fashion and rural environs of Terrain. In the same year, Nickerson photographed four of the five Ebola Fighters covers for TIME—becoming the first woman to shoot the Person of the Year in the 87-year history of the magazine.

Twilight, 2014
photo-eye Gallery
Grand Canal III, 2012
photo-eye Gallery

“It’s too late” is a mentality that sometimes impedes middle-agers from changing careers—but Canadian photographer Michael Levin was never one to turn down a challenge. Though he had a keen eye since childhood—“always looking at an interesting rock rather than a landmark” on family trips—he found himself working as a restaurateur. Five years later, Levin sold his business and picked up a camera at the age of 35. He began by shooting stunningly spare black-and-white landscapes inspired by Mark Rothko and Michael Kenna, first around his home city, Vancouver, and then around the world—in France and England, and later Iceland, South Korea, and Japan. He attributes his marketing chops to his former career. “My job is to promote my work as much as possible. That’s the reason that the work is successful,” he once said. To aspiring photographers, he insists that going full-time is “absolutely possible” if you recognize that talent alone won’t cut it: “There are so many great photographs being taken but you have to pursue ways to elevate your work and gain broader exposure for it.”

Left: Greece (1967); Right: Bulgaria (1967). Copyright Joel Meyerowitz. Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery.

In 1962, the now-legendary street photographer Meyerowitz was working as an art director at an ad agency in New York. After supervising a publicity shoot with photographer Robert Frank, the 24-year-old Meyerowitz walked around the city as if, he recalled in 2012, he “was reading the text of the street in a way that I never had before.” From there, Meyerowitz picked up his camera and began hitchhiking around the American South and Mexico with his first wife, his initial foray into the many trips he would take by road in the 1960s and ’70s. Later, the photographer felt an impulse to “get away from my familiar tactics and my familiar understanding of the American system, the American way of life, to see what the rest of the world looked like and what it would teach me about myself,” as he has explained. In 1966, with his cherished Leica in hand, Meyerowitz embarked yet again, this time on a year-long road trip across Europe. He began in London and made his way across the continent—from France and Spain to Greece and Italy, with several stops along the way—shooting “life along the roadside whizzing by at 60 miles per hour.” These iconic black-and-white photos led to his first show at MoMA in 1968, curated by photography legend John Szarkowski.

Theron Humphrey

Photographs from Theron Humphrey’s Instagram. Courtesy of the artist. 

In 2011, North Carolina-born photographer Humphrey, having raised $16,000 on Kickstarter to pursue his wild idea, set off on his journey, uploading images one by one to his website. En route, his project evolved: He added an audio component, recording people’s voices, and started an Instagram account. This was a drastic change from his life just a few years earlier. On shooting product for a women’s retail company, and not for himself, he once said, “you start to lose your creative soul. There is a balance, and you need to feed yourself, but if you’re only using your camera to shoot someone else’s vision, it destroys you creatively.” Humphrey’s decision paid off—he was named a Traveler of the Year by National Geographic in 2012. His advice to aspiring photographers is to “make work that isn’t easy, that makes you feel uncomfortable, and make a lot of it….The slow process of investing your time into a single idea is the greatest path.”

Demie Kim
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019