If you are looking for Sinuhe Xavier, you may as well spin a globe and put your finger on it. Chances are, you’ll come as close as anyone’s guess. Sinuhe (pronounced sin-way) has taken photos and made commercials all over the globe, and his long-range escapades are legendary. His perspective on a landscape informs his lensing choices, and you know when you are looking at one of his distinct image sets. His Rolodex includes clients such as Bentley, Jeep, Land Rover, Toyota, and Google, and he is regularly tapped by the likes of BBDO, TBWA\Chiat\Day, Saatchi & Saatchi, and R/GA. We caught Sinuhe somewhere between Montana and Colorado to ask a few questions about his upbringing and his journey to photography.
Iron & Air: Let’s start with where you are from, and how you were first introduced to photography.
Sinuhe Xavier: I was born the illegitimate son of a Colombian drug lord. My mother ferried me away to Montana at a young age to keep me safe from my biological father. My mother always had an affinity for photography, and as long as I can remember, one of the bathrooms in our house was a darkroom. She mainly shot with a Contax RTS, and that’s what I learned with.
What was your day job before you took off into photography and filmmaking?
Can a professional ski mountaineer for The North Face be considered a day job? There wasn’t much I wouldn’t — or didn’t — do. I washed dishes, pounded nails, waited tables, and taught skiing. However, the most memorable thing I did before being a sponsored skier was printing Croakies, those neoprene sunglass retainers. I worked from three to midnight, which was perfect for being a ski bum.
"When it came to photography, I never wanted to be like anyone else — much to the detriment of a commercial career."
What was the focus of some of your early photography projects?
When I was getting paid to ski and be in front of the lens, I was always shooting my travels. However, I never wanted to be that guy that went out and shot the postcard of the big vista. I wanted to get macro. Part of that was the fact that the only lens I had was a 50 millimeter. I dove into textures and details in these places I would visit. I always seemed to be preoccupied with the paths of man, whether it be a trail, an alley, or a remote road.
How did your personal background inform your creativity?
My upbringing was pretty free-range in Bozeman, Montana, and I was always around photographers and artists. It was that exposure that made me realize that I didn’t need to be an engineer, lawyer, or doctor. I could be whatever the fuck I wanted. With skiing, I didn’t go the freestyle or racing route; I wanted to go ski things that hadn’t been skied before. There was a creative aspect to seeing a line down the side of a mountain and skiing it. When it came to photography, I never wanted to be like anyone else — much to the detriment of a commercial career.
At what point did you want to make photography your business?
After being a professional athlete, I was living in Vail and unemployed. In 1994, I traded a neighbor a Macintosh for an Olympus camera kit and started shooting snowboarding.
What were some obstacles that you had to face in the early days?
In 1994, everything was an obstacle … or so it seemed. There was never enough money for film and processing or gas to get to the next half-pipe contest. My memory is that we — as a collective group of snowboarders — never let it slow us down. We always figured it out. We slept five or six to a hotel room and we ate saltines with honey that were free at the lodge if we couldn’t score free PowerBars. We just figured it out.
How did you adapt your love of adventure into your professional photography career?
At first, my love of adventure took a backseat to my love of being a 25-year-old that liked to party and go snowboarding. It wasn’t until I quit shooting action sports that I started shooting my passion for remote travel.
How did you learn to get beyond the professional hurdles placed in your way?
Growing up in Montana, I think a person learns early on that complaining isn’t going to help, and that the only person you can really count on is yourself. I never saw challenges as hurdles, they were just things that had to be dealt with. Camera case gets stolen at the airport? Deal with it. Carnet going into Morocco is wrong? Deal with it. Agents say they don’t want to represent an action sports photographer? Find one that does, or start directing. Client taking their sweet time paying for a big job that you’re basically leveraged to the edge for? Sell your car.
Do you ever get a form of “writer’s block” as a photographer?
All the time. I think that’s normal. I’m friends with a lot of writers, and while I couldn’t write my way out of a wet paper bag, I’ve taken quite a few writing workshops. This exercise made me realize that I wasn’t alone. It was normal to feel blocked, and feel uncreative. Every writer I know, every workshop I’ve ever been in, recommends putting pen to paper. Just start. Edit later. With photography, for me, it means picking up the big camera, shooting something that day. Creating an image.
Who or what keeps you inspired?
Oh man, everyone that’s out there living their truth. I always get stoked on seeing people that seem to have everything against them making it work. I’ll always root for the underdog.
What are your plans for expanding your creativity in the future?
I think that we as a society — and on a larger scale, civilization — are going through a big reset right now. The systems, the habits we have grown accustomed to, are not working anymore. I know that I want to be part of the solution moving forward. How I can use the skills that I’ve acquired over a 30-year career to do that is to be determined; however, like everything else, I just need to figure it out.
Does your son Coop love cameras as well? Would you recommend becoming a photographer to him, too?
SX: Coop loves his cameras. He has a few, ranging from a little children’s digital to one of my old Sonys. However, his favorite is an old iPhone. He can go through all his old photos easily, and it serves as a memory bank. I wouldn’t recommend becoming a photographer to anyone. Become an artist, become a creator, become a storyteller. If photography is your medium, good for you.