Queer Outdoor Adventure Photography with Nikki Smith and The Venture Out Project

Halifax, Vermont

By Ana Seiler

Ten people milled around in the morning fog just before class was set to start, camera bags and lunchboxes slung over their shoulders. Some chatted with one another; the rest looked over the brightly-hued foliage reaching over the nearby pond, lined with blackcap brambles. Naturally, the space felt ideal for a lesson on outdoor adventure photography. As the focus of that day’s event, we’d gathered with the hopes of gaining insight on the craft from a professional in the industry. And, whether we knew it, suspected it, or were totally oblivious, we’d also signed up for a discussion on representation, and its ability to shape history. In this case, specifically LGBTQ+ history.

As I approached the group, I felt the tension in my shoulders drop. At a minimum we had cameras and queerness in common; in most other places, the question of when I’d inevitably “come out” to the group (and how they’d respond to it) would take center stage in my mind. But here—in nature, with plenty of positive queer representation—it didn’t have to be. I was already seen as a whole person.

Hosting the event was The Venture Out Project (TVOP). A small-scale organization with a massive footprint, The Venture Out Project builds LGBTQ+ community through outdoor adventures and shared recreation. At the time I first connected with them, I was an adult living near a system of trails that they frequently led queer day hikes through. Nine months later, I found myself arriving under a canopy of fall colors to a property in southern Vermont, where the TVOP team and Marmot had set up for a day of queer outdoor adventure photography, led by trans photographer and professional climber Nikki Smith.

When Nikki sat with us those first few hours, going over the 101s of lighting and image composition, we could’ve been in any outdoor photography course. I felt equipped, anxious to get outside and snap some great shots to share later on. Nikki must’ve seen a similar look on all of our faces, because she paused at the head of the wood conference table we sat around. With candor, she dove deeper into the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in outdoor adventure photography, and how a lack of queerness behind the camera can lead to a lack of queerness in front of the camera. It’s on us, she said, to nurture a relationship with our subjects while honoring their queerness and celebrating it.

From being 'outed' to navigating on-camera body dysphoria, the inherent risk of being the subject of someone else’s photograph means many LGBTQ+ folks might avoid situations that put them center stage. A queer photographer is more likely to know firsthand what those risks are, and how to respond sensitively should any challenges arise for their subject.

As the Vermont sun burned away that morning’s cloud cover, our group was excited to put Nikki’s lessons into practice. Outside, we explored the generous expanse of land. When I lifted my camera and looked through the viewfinder, I saw queer and trans people finally relaxed, smiling, fully immersed in the moment. Their vulnerability came naturally as we all volunteered to be each other’s portrait subjects. Being seen–fully seen–for who you are while doing something you love opens a gateway into the realm of believing I am welcome here.

As a queer person, showing others through photographs that I am here also means you are welcome, too. Despite nature’s genderlessness, it can still be made to feel hostile if all we’re ever shown in the media are cookie-cutter images of who should (and, therefore, should not) be taking up space in the outdoors. By practicing our LGBTQ-specific directional and conversational cues and gender-affirming styling techniques, we tailored our course to the queer and trans identities. Getting LGBTQ+ the visibility they deserve is half the mission—the other half is making sure the process of getting seen isn’t a harmful one.

What Nikki gave us that warm day in October was a lesson on awareness, even as queer people ourselves. Seeing yourself there—in the outdoors, in the faces of other queer people, in an image taken with your identity in mind—was exactly what my younger self needed to feel a part of the outdoor community. Again and again, The Venture Out Project creates a hub for queer and trans people to step into, breathe a sigh of relief, and know that they are welcomed.

Learn more about The Venture Out Project at www.ventureoutproject.com