As a photojournalist, Kevin Gilbert had the kind of success that many
aspiring photographers daydream about.
He’s also had a few experiences that might have them rethinking their career choice.
“I remember being in Borneo, deep in the jungle, having leeches sucking blood out of our boots, all over our legs,” he says. “And I recall being in a helicopter, high over the Chilean Andes, when we hit a down draft, and the machine tipped on its side, and the cameraman and I both fell out the door. We were harnessed in, but for a few seconds, I saw nothing but snow and heard the pilot yell ‘Oh, s--t.’ And then there was the weekend with the Ku Klux Klan when they blindfolded us for the ride to their event so we wouldn’t be able to tell anyone the location.”
Gilbert’s career began calmly enough, shooting for several small papers before becoming chief photographer at the Washington Times, covering the White House, Capitol Hill, pro sports and, he says, “just the plain old news of the day.” Being a photojournalist in the nation’s capital was an incredible experience, he says, because even the most mundane of events often had global implications. “It was a cool place to be for a news junkie like me,” he says.
Gilbert was also president of the White House News Photographers Association for five years. Later, he became the first contract photographer for the Discovery Channel. Still later, he traveled the world with Mark Burnett Productions, shooting for shows likeEco Challenge, The Apprentice, and The Contender.
Then, after three decades of covering the events of the world and globetrotting with television crews, Gilbert decided to walk away from assignment shooting and re-invent his career. “I have had my time. I covered presidents, shot Super Bowls and Olympics, and traveled to over 70 countries,” he says. “I’ve seen amazing things, and seen things I never want to see again. I have been a witness to the world.”
Gilbert instead decided to become a mentor, leading nearly 50 photo expeditions, many for American Photo Mentor Treks. “I love people, and I love leading trips because of the shared passions,” he says. His teaching credo: “I can’t make you a great photographer, but I can help you take better pictures.”
But Gilbert had another career morph up his sleeve. Today, as the self-proclaimed “Memory Evangelist” of a company called Mylio, he is on a mission to help save the millions of photos that people shoot ever day from disappearing into the digital abyss. He considers this to be the most important role of his career.
Gilbert, a Lumix Luminary, recently spoke with writer and photographer Jeff Wignall about his ever-changing career paths.
PPD: After you left newspaper journalism, you became the first contract photographer for the Discovery Channel. What type of assignments did you shoot for them?
KG: It began with me doing some digital photography testing for Discovery in 1996, when digital was in its infancy. The Kodak/Nikon NC200e camera that I used cost $17,000 and was a 1.3 megapixel camera! It was awesome to be on the cutting edge and I loved it. Discovery Channel was an early player in content for the web, and Discovery Online was born, with me shooting some live events for them, all digital. It was a blast. After that initial flurry of work, I was approached about shooting on proprietary projects and shows, in any situation where the art department could not buy stock photography, because Discovery was concentrating on personalities to carry their new programming. I shot in 17 countries and on the sets of over 100 programs. Can I say it again? It was a blast.
PPD: You also traveled around the world for Mark Burnett Productions, shooting for TV shows like Eco-Challenge, The Apprentice, The Contender and others. You credit Burnett with giving you inspiration and the drive to succeed. Can you talk about his influence on you?
KG: Mark Burnett is one of the most fascinating guys in the world. When we first met, he was in his early 30’s — we are the same age — and he had just come up with the “scripted reality” idea for television. His past was so varied, he had been an SAS paratrooper, a nanny in Los Angeles and a sunglasses salesman on Venice Beach. But he always kept spinning ideas by me, asking for my opinion. In fact, we had dinner in LA while he was pitching Survivor to the networks and asked what I thought of it. I recall he said it was like Gilligan’s Island meets Lord of the Flies. Hilarious.
Mark also instilled in me this sense of adventure, trying new things, not being afraid of anything. It shows in my photos, where I let them hang me on the sides of 100-foot waterfalls, or strapped into a helicopter over glaciers with the doors open. I slept in campers in the middle of the snake-infested Australian outback. It was eye-opening, to say the least.
I also got to work with Mark as he became a power player in Hollywood. It was great to be around him, on set with Donald Trump — one of my favorite moments ever — or with Sugar Ray Leonard and Sylvester Stallone on The Contender. It was so much fun to meet these celebs coming to the show to see the magic that was happening in a Burnett TV show.
PPD: You’ve traveled all over the world and had a lot of exotic adventures. Are there any particular places or time periods that stand out as being the most significant or the most productive?
KG: All the Eco-Challenge locations were incredible—Morocco, Fiji, and the South Island of New Zealand stand out. Those are probably my three top places, with Vietnam thrown in also.
PPD: Do you have a particular philosophy or approach to travel that you can share with aspiring travel photographers?
KG: Travel photography is a damn tough business. These days I only shoot places and things that I want to shoot. I actually never take editorial assignments anymore. I am usually on the road teaching others how to take a better vacation picture or how to capture something they have always wanted to take. That’s how I make my living. I created and ran Blue Pixel, which still produces the Nikon School, as well as training most of the digital photography associates at Best Buy.
So when I go to Europe, I am shooting like a tourist, to take back images that can relate to an aspiring photographer. I don’t go crazy carrying tons of gear. I try to put myself in others’ shoes, but I sure do have fun along the way.
PPD: What gear do you bring when you travel? Is less more?
KG: I try to travel light. Now with mirrorless cameras, I am making wonderful pictures every day and my shoulders don’t hurt anymore. Photography is a joy. Why add all the weight and all that trouble?
PPD: Which Lumix cameras are you using today?
KG: I use the Lumix GH4 all the time, but I am in love with the Lumix LX100. The Lumix cameras have been really liberating for me as a photographer. I carry the LX100 all the time. When I need the long glass or the fast lenses, I switch to the GH4. It’s a workhorse. When I see that so many people are shooting TV and movies with it, I am so excited. There is one camera I really want to try, and that’s the FZ1000. It’s got this wicked Leica lens with 25-400mm equivalent focal-length range built in. Come on! How can you beat that? You can also shoot 4K video and extract 4K photos from it. Killer.
PPD: Do you now prefer mirrorless cameras over DSLRs?
KG: Both have advantages. But when I’m shooting with a mirrorless camera, I don’t miss the weight. DSLRs have big sensors and incredible autofocus, but the mirrorless revolution is here to stay. The lenses are fantastic, and the versatility with video and stills blows me away. Sorry all my Nikon and Canon friends!
PPD: What features in your Lumix cameras do you like using the most?
KG: I like the super-fast frame rate. I also love the WiFi connectivity and ability to post to social media almost instantly.
PPD: Do you shoot video along with stills? Do you ever find yourself pulling stills from 4K video shoots?
KG: If you go all the way back to the beginning for me, early on I wanted to be a cinematographer. I dabbled in working with TV networks and innovative content creators. Then it was having a production company with Blue Pixel. But my goodness, the 4K photo innovation is amazing. Shooting moments that matter in video and audio, and pulling a frame the exact instant. Wow. It’s pretty mind blowing when you start to do this. It’s not something you use all the time, but there are moments when you need both video and stills. Now you don’t have to choose one over the other.
PPD: Let’s talk about shooting techniques a bit. You’ve said that you prefer getting your picture right in the camera rather than relying on editing in post. You shoot primarily in JPEG instead of RAW, correct?
KG: I shoot JPEG 99 percent of the time. I actually like being a photographer who shoots pictures. I really don’t like just leaning on the crutch of “I will fix it in post.” I think that we used to shoot for an hour and spend an hour on getting our pictures processed, edited and out. Today, we shoot for an hour and do post for 10. I want the 10 hours back. I would rather be shooting and living my life with my family than spending countless hours fixing and toning.
PPD: Your most recent venture deals with helping photographers to protect their digital libraries. Talk a bit about Mylio. What inspired the creation of the company?
KG: I joined Mylio three years ago. We saw that the photography world was in chaos. There were too many pictures scattered across social media, hard drives, phones and computers, and it was getting worse. I call myself a Memory Evangelist. It’s a made-up title, but I take it very seriously, trying to bring to light the photo chaos people are facing and finding ways to preserve the images of this generation. I did a TEDx Talk called "The Lost Generation," and that’s what that is all about.
A picture is worthless if you can’t find it. Simply put, people can’t find their images. Ask your neighbor to show you pictures from their vacation two years ago. Or, where are the pictures from an event that seemed like just yesterday? Are they on Facebook? Where are the outtakes? Did I leave them on my memory card, or are they on that old PC in the garage?
Our lives are marked by our photographs. Places and time define our existence. But too many people lose a camera phone that has not been backed up or have a hard drive die. Or, God forbid, a house gets hit with a flood in the basement or burns down. This is life, and Mylio has three missions: First, to help you gather all your pictures from all sources and put them all together as one complete tapestry of our lives. And second, to automatically make copies of your images and make sure they are on different machines in different locations. Finally, to have your chosen images automatically placed on your phone and tablets everywhere.
I like to say “I have all the pictures of my life with me all the time.” I believe it’s the most amazing game-changing piece of software since Photoshop.
PPD: Do you find it amazing that lots of people who shoot personal images with phone cameras have no idea how to move them off of their phones?
KG: Yes, it blows me away how un-technical most people are. They just want things to work and figure they will never have an issue. It’s like flossing, you know you should every day, but often you just don’t. When people are faced with the realization that they lost important images or can’t find one they want, or lost a phone with years of images on it, then they will wish they had Mylio.
PPD: Do you think that people who grew up in the analog generation are too trusting of digital media?
KG: Yup. Everyone needs to back up their images. I don’t care if you use anyone else’s products, but please please do it. Mylio will certainly give you a level of control and privacy that no one else offers.
Backing up is not fun. But Mylio is trying to simplify the experience and make it less painful. That’s our mission — to change the way the world remembers.
PPD: Have you ever calculated how many photos you’ve shot in your career? And do you have most of them cataloged?
KG: I have made over two million images in 30 years. They are slides, negatives and a ton of digital—almost all of which are JPEGs, so they don’t eat up too much space.
Because of Mylio, I keep only what matters to me on my devices. So I have about 135,000 images on my phone, exactly the same on my iPads and on my computers. They are searchable, you can rate them, and they are movable on all devices, so when I make a change on one, it makes the change everywhere and it does so non-destructively. To me, that is magic. I have just the pictures of my family, my trips, my moments in life with me all the time. And honestly, who cares about all the outtakes and stuff I shot on assignments—like that really matters to me?
PPD: Looking back at your long and very interesting career, are there any places or events or things that you have not photographed that you wish you had?
KG: Always wanted to go to Antarctica, and I am going in January.
PPD: If you were just starting out in photography today, what do you think the most exciting career path might be?
KG: I think I might become a stockbroker. Or run a restaurant. But seriously, my advice to those just beginning is to follow your passion. Do something you love. Be different, but always be the nice guy. Never punch down!