Keri Oberly: adventure travel photographer and documentarian

Roughly four years ago, I met Keri Oberly through my work with One World Play Project. Back in 2010, Keri traveled around the world with Semester at Sea. During her voyage, she delivered One World Futbols to a community in Ghana and captured some of my all-time favorite images of kids with the ultra-durable ball.

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Throughout the past four years, Keri and I have remained in touch sporadically in both a professional and personal capacity. And while we’ve never met in person, I’ve become a big fan of Keri’s creative work. I always enjoy hearing about where she’s adventuring and what creative projects she has up her sleeve. From rural explorations in Cuba to rad work with Patagonia to an epic documentary project about people living off-the-grid, Keri’s ability to approach her work in a creative, adventurous manner never fails to excite and inspire me.

So today, I’m stoked to share my latest Exploring Creatives conversation with Keri, a Ventura, California-based photographer and documentarian.

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Keri Oberly grew up in a small town on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe called Incline Village. She was exposed to the outdoors at an early age. Keri says her family was always outside and that her parents encouraged outdoor exploration from sunup to sundown.

“Our family trips would be around camping,” she says. “We would take off in our car or rent an RV, and it was always something outside.”

Keri admits she took growing up in such a beautiful place, where nature was at her doorstep and a big part of her life, for granted. That’s not to say she didn’t enjoy it. She just didn’t realize that nature isn’t easily-accessible to everyone everywhere. Our conversation starts here.

What kind of activities did you do as a child?
I did conventional sports growing up: swimming, soccer and basketball. My family would hike and camp as well, and I also grew up skiing. I started skiing when I was 3 or 4 years old, and you just take it for granted. You’re like, “Oh, I get out of high school at 2:15 and go skiing an hour a day.” And now, living in Ventura, I’m always thinking, “I need to get to the mountains. It’s killing me. I need snow. I need seasons. I need fall and winter.”

What did you do once you graduated from high school? How did you discover photography was your passion?
I went to the University of Nevada, Reno. I majored in education because a friend was doing it and I thought it sounded interesting. I took a fine art photography class there, and I just kind of fell in love with photography. I was a freshman in college; I needed a minor; and I’d always been interested in photography.

On family vacations, I’d always steal my mom’s camera and take a lot of photos of landscapes with the idea that I was trying to capture what I was seeing to be able to go home, show friends and say, “Look how amazing this place is. This is a place you need to visit. You need to experience this for yourself.”

So I took that fine art photography class, and my passion has evolved from there.

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Did you switch your major after the photography class, or did you stick with education?
No, I switched. I studied journalism. My minor was always photography, but it was fine art-based.

Did you study photojournalism, or was it that specific?
So they didn’t really have photojournalism. They had some classes when I was there, but the journalism program was mainly print, broadcast and advertising. So you’d take all the writing classes as a requirement, and then you’d have to pick if you wanted to focus on broadcast or advertising.

At the time, I was more interested in creative stuff and creating marketing ideas, so my emphasis was advertising. But I took photography classes throughout all four years I was there, but it was more fine art-based.

When I graduated, I took a year off and just kind of worked odd jobs. I didn’t want a career yet. I wanted to go travel and see the world. So I lived at home, took on whatever job I could find, saved money and traveled for months at a time.

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Outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 2004.

Through that traveling and taking photos all the time, I knew I wanted to get more into storytelling. So I went back to school and studied photojournalism, and that’s when I went to Brooks Institute of Photography and studied visual journalism — photo and video. That’s what’s sparked my career since then.

So what do you do for work now, and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Since I moved down to Ventura, I do freelance photography and video stuff. Photography-wise, I’ll do anything from shooting stuff for Patagonia to local magazines — I’ve been doing some stuff with the local Edible Magazine — and then I do a lot of stock photography.

I’m kind of in that phase where I’m switching out of that as much as I can and getting more into documentary photography. And then I do video work as well, freelance video work. I used to work for a documentary production company in Los Angeles for three years, so I’ve been working a lot on documentary films, just with different film companies now that I’ve gone freelance.

So how I make my money now is basically working on documentaries — assisting the director of photography, producing stuff. Photography-wise, I’m doing stock sales and selling images to Patagonia and what not. My personal projects are funded through my assisting work. I’m not to that point yet where I can just do personal projects. One day, though!

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In terms of the documentary work you’re focusing on, is there a common theme or thread through the documentaries or are they all over the map?
When I was assisting on documentaries, it was kind of all over the map. That work is mainly based on my relationships with the cinematographers and the directors. Those are big-time, well-funded documentaries. One of the ones I’m working on now will be released on Amazon this summer; another one Showtime picked up; and another one Participant Media picked up. Big-time documentary films with big-time directors. Assisting is more of what I can get. It’s based on the relationships that I’ve built.

My personal projects that I like focusing on have to do with social injustice and environmental issues. I think the environmental issues definitely go back to my upbringing — where I grew up, growing up in such a huge environmental and amazing place in Tahoe and just wanting to protect the environment and help these issues or document what’s going on in our world. With my personal projects, both photo and video, I tend to be drawn more toward those.

In terms of time outside, what’s your favorite outdoor activity?
It’s always been skiing. I grew up skiing. I love skiing. Skiing for me has evolved from just skiing at resorts to backcountry skiing.

Keri Oberly finds a stash of spring snow, Tahoe backcountry.
Keri skiing in the Lake Tahoe backcountry.

It’s hard being in Southern California. You don’t get to ski as much as you can. But it makes the times that you can get out that much more special. Backcountry skiing — having that solitude and working for your turns and also getting exercise and getting away from people.

I think that’s one of the things that’s always drawn me to the outdoors, too, especially living in a city where you’re surrounded by people all the time. Finding peace and quiet and being able to get outside and meditate and find inspiration. Backcountry skiing and hiking allow that so easily.

So yeah, my big things now are skiing whenever I can, and I usually hike always on the weekends and in the afternoons when I can. I’ve also kind of gotten into surfing but not as much because the culture is a little different and it’s a little intimidating. My boyfriend’s a big surfer, so I go with him, but sometimes it gets really intense because people are kind of mean when you’re a beginner and in the way.

Are there a lot of people in Ventura who are learning to surf, or is Ventura pretty much seasoned surfers?
There’s one beginner spot where all the beginners go. You can go there, and people aren’t as aggressive. I’m kind of in that phase where I know how to surf and I need to go to the next level, but I don’t want to go to the areas where the better surfers are cause I’m — you just have to be aggressive, and I’m not that person who’s super aggressive.

I kind of do a little bit of everything outdoors: stand-up paddleboard, paddling. Consistently, the main stuff I do is hiking, backpacking, backpack camping. I’ll do a little bit of anything.

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Backcountry camping in Yellowstone National Park.

In terms of getting outside and playing, what’s your favorite outdoor playground?
I have to say Tahoe. It’s so amazing. It has so much to offer that I don’t think I could ever get sick of it.

And there’s something about where you grew up — it’s just super comfortable. You know the terrain. You know the spots to go to get away from everyone else. You’re just comfortable with it.

And again, growing up, I didn’t take advantage enough of getting outside into the wilderness, so going home is about exploring new areas, too. You’ve been there, but you’re also rediscovering it.

So Tahoe has a comforting feeling for me. Cause going into a new place, especially mountains, it’s totally intimidating. When I go on trips to other mountain areas, I always rely on other people. I think in another life I’d be a mountain guide and just fully live in the mountains. I know the safety stuff, but you’re always relying on other people when going there. But Tahoe, I’m just like, “Oh, I’ve been to this spot many times, and I still love it.”

Between the mountains and time in the water, what is it that you gain from time outside?
I think for me right now, especially living and working so much in the city, it’s a form of meditation.

It’s a form of meditation. It helps me clear my head and think clearly. Going for a hike or just getting in the water always helps me clear my mind. I always come back refreshed and just thinking so much more clearly. There’s something about being outside that gives you more creative ideas, too. You come back, and you’re like, “Okay. I need to do this, this, this, this.”

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Lake Tahoe, Nevada.

Do you meditate outside of spending time outside?
I used to, but I don’t anymore. I think I just fell out of it.

I’ve never tried, but I just listen to so many people talking about it now. There must be something to it.
Yeah. I’ve been meaning to get back into it. Even just taking 15 or 20 minutes on a lunch break or throughout the day to think clearly. When I try to meditate, I haven’t figured out how to shut my mind off when I’m just sitting in a room or sitting outside on a deck. Whereas when I’m hiking or in the water, it helps me shut my mind off to where I’m not thinking about everything I need to do. But when I sit down and meditate, that’s all I’m thinking about, no matter what. So I haven’t found that spot where I can meditate successfully. That’s why I love going outside because I’m not thinking about that. I can just refresh.

In terms of creative projects, how does spending time outside fuel and inspire your next steps or your next thoughts?
I think when my photography was more focused on capturing more outdoor adventure travel stuff, being outside played a huge role in that because I was always wanting to capture those places that are so amazing that you want people to see them or you want to inspire someone to go there and see these places. Or outdoor athletes or people who are doing amazing things. You just want to capture them and inspire other people to raise their level of rock climbing or skiing or whatnot.

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Iceland.

But now, since I’ve shifted, being outside is more just helping me clear my mind and figure out what I need on projects or which direction to take the story in or what I’m missing.

I love that, too, because it goes back to the reason you were using your mom’s camera when you fell in love with photography in the first place. It was to show other people these amazing places to inspire them to want to go there and experience that place for themselves.

Totally. And I think when I first started photography, I was always drawn to travel photography because my grandma had been subscribed to National Geographic forever and I would always look at National Geographic and all these places and think, “I want to go there.” So as soon as I graduated from college, I just wanted to travel. I actually spent most of my 20s traveling. When I graduated from Brooks, I got the travel itch again. I wanted to travel and photograph these places and photograph the culture and the people and come back and hopefully inspire someone else to go view these places and experience the culture in the same way I did.

What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to for work?
Recently, it would be Iceland. We were there in March. It was shitty weather the whole time, but it was just this magical, mystical place that just makes you want to go back and explore more.

And then I’ve been fascinated with Cuba since I first went two years ago.

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Viñales, Cuba.

I can definitely tell that looking through your photos and then even just the conversations we’ve had after you took the One World Futbols to Cuba.
Cuba’s just one of those places. It will be interesting to see how much has changed when I go there again next week. It’s one of those places that’s kind of been untouched in a way.

One of the reasons I’m going back is because, when I was there, I met this small community in rural Cuba in Viñales, where the tobacco farmers are. Farmers that have lived without any modern conveniences their entire lives. The government always promised them electricity and never gave it to them, but they just recently got electricity in the last maybe two or three months.

The last time I was there, I discovered them through a friend and photographed them a little bit, but it was amazing to come from a culture that’s always so plugged in — and me wanting to live a simpler life and get unplugged — to be able to view a community that hasn’t been plugged in. And when I go back this time, they’re going to be plugged in, so I’m interested in documenting that transition a little bit and seeing how their lives have changed.

It will be interesting to see how their lives change year over year, too, as they see what having access to electricity means for them.
Totally. Another place I want to go to that’s on my list is Burma. It’s one of those places that’s also closed off in a way. Cuba and Burma really draw me in. So hopefully later this year I’ll be able to go there.

What is it that you love most about the creative path you’ve chosen?
I think it’s sharing people’s stories and being able to document their lives and hopefully doing so in a way that other people haven’t. I’m also very interested in giving people a voice. I think that’s one of the reasons that drew me to photography, too, was that I really loved helping people. If I could be a doctor, I would, but my mind doesn’t work like that. So I always thought of photography as a way of helping people, too.

And I think that’s ultimately what I want to do with getting into documentary photography. I want to give people who haven’t had a voice a voice and share their stories. I want to have people look at my work and ask more questions and raise issues. I think that’s why I’m focusing more on social injustice and environmental issues. Kind of looking for the under-reported and sharing their stories.

I’ve always found other people and cultures very interesting. So for me, it’s sharing their stories. That’s what drives me with photography and video. With video, you can take it to another level and go more in-depth. Everybody has a story, so it’s just sharing it in a different way.

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Photo project on female farmers in Ventura County, California, for Edible Magazine.

I love that, and it totally speaks to the journalist in you, too.
I actually really enjoy writing, but I’m a really slow writer. So writing comes hard for me. There’s something visually I just snapped with.

How do you think your creative craft has evolved over time?
I think when I started I was just doing beauty travel shots and capturing outdoor adventure people. And I think it was partly selfish because I wanted to travel and see those places and take photographs and inspire people. Doing stock photography allowed me to do that.

But I also connected with people. I’d stay with locals and just hearing their stories helped me to evolve into more of a storyteller and more wanting to share their stories or stories about anything that I’d find interesting and focusing more on that.

And then I actually used to work for a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles. I started working with her because, to me, she’s an amazing storyteller and has really mastered her craft. Seeing someone do so well at that got me inspired to go down the path I’m on now of just wanting to share people’s stories.

What are the roles of community and solitude for you?
Community plays a huge part in my work right now and in life. Not only support from family and friends, but also inspiration and feedback. After working on documentary films, which is always a small crew, I now know I love working with people in a small crew — bouncing ideas, getting feedback, problem solving. I actually prefer to work with other people now versus when I first started photography when it was me and the model or just me going outside and traveling or working with an athlete. I love working with a team; I prefer it. I feel like I’m more creative working with a team.

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Solitude is coming back to getting stuck in that creative rut and just being able to get outside. After you’ve been collaborating with a team, to get outside and take all that feedback but not lose the vision that you’re trying to tell with the image or the story and being able to go outside into nature and take it all in and clear your mind.

It’s great to work in teams and collaborate. I do think our energy feeds off other people — for better or worse.
Early on, when I was just doing outdoor adventure stuff, you still rely on a community there, too, even if it’s just you and the model. You’re relying on their expertise, too: safety, where to go, photo ideas. That’s what I like about the creative world. You find a good community you can trust and just rely on them and go with it.

Community is key in so many ways.

Do you have a daily or weekly routine or balance of sorts that you like to strike between everything that’s going on in your life at any given moment?
My life the last couple years has been so tricky because, with freelance, it’s feast or famine pretty much. It’s hard creating a routine with freelance because you never know what’s going to come up. I can do it for a little bit. This is my second year doing primarily freelance. Before I always had side jobs or a full-time job. I actually really like routines. Being freelance the last two years, it’s hard doing a routine.

Especially when traveling is part of your freelance work, too.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard for me right now. But whenever I can, I’m always hiking or getting outside. Not just for exercise but for mental clarity, keeping me sane, getting out of the city right now, getting away from people, too. Routine for me right now is kind of nonexistent.

Everytime I think I’ll plan out my week for personal projects or whatever, something always comes up, which is good. I’m not good at saying “no” a lot of times, so I’m still trying to find that balance where I say “no” and also respect my own time getting outside.

That’s what was nice about working at Patagonia. You have a routine. You have a stable income. When you get off, you go play outside. That’s the community of Patagonia and the culture. As long as you get your work done.

What are you working on now? What’s on the horizon for you?
A friend of mine — talking about collaboration and community — we’re doing a short film on people living off-the-grid. And that whole project came about because she’s a documentary photographer as well, and she’s been working on this project for the last year-and-a-half. She photographed people living off-the-grid. She quit her job for four months and just traveled around California and would stop at certain towns and find people living off-the-grid. She finds really interesting people, so we decided to make a short film about it.

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We have four characters — well, we’re still looking for the fourth. We have someone who lives in a tree. He’s an activist in the redwoods, so he lives in the tree to stop clear-cutters as well. He lives on the forest floor pretty much. And then we have a family living on a boat. They’re fixing up their boat to go sail around the world. And then, there’s this guy in the desert who’s been living off-the-grid in his teepee for 35 years. Then, for the fourth person, we’re trying to find a mountain woman. So we want trees, ocean, desert, mountains. We’re looking for one more subject, but hopefully that will be out in the next six months to a year.

Personal projects I’m working on. I’m working on the farmers in Cuba. I’m gonna go back there. I also started working on a project last year about four guys who were wrongly convicted in Alaska and recently got released after spending 18 years in prison. That’s photography right now. So I photographed them right when they got out last January, and then I’m going to go back in April or May. That one I was interested in seeing their reintegration into society and kind of that struggle, too, for people who just get out of prison and have nothing.

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After spending 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, George Frese celebrates his 39th birthday as a free man with his daughter and two grandchildren. Keri says George held his grandson for the first time on this day.

And the world looks completely different now than it did 18 years ago.
Yeah, they pretty much missed the internet and phone era and are just re-learning it and figuring it out.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be re-entering into society and having to learn all of that and realize that it’s such a big part of the world that we live in.
Absolutely. It was interesting to see. They’d just gotten iPhones when I was there. And one of them had signed up for Facebook, and he couldn’t figure out how to turn his notifications off on his phone. So he said his phone was buzzing all night because people kept sending him Facebook requests.

So those are my personal projects I’m working on. Between those, I’m assisting on other documentaries and doing photoshoots for Patagonia when I can and then getting outside as much as I can.

Where are you drawing inspiration from at the moment?
So I draw inspiration mainly from documentary photographers and filmmakers. A lot of them are older documentary photographers — the documentary photographers: Dorothea Lange, Mary Ellen Mark, Robert Frank, Martin Parr and Gerry Winogrand. And then contemporary ones like Matt Black, Ami Vitali, Edward Burtynsky, Stephanie Sinclair, James Nachtwey, Sebastiao Salgado and directors Lauren Greenfield, Lucy Walker, Alex Gibney and Errol Morris.

I love Ami Vitali. She’s one of my favorites. She’s a National Geographic photographer, and she’s my inspiration because she does all her projects on environmental issues or social injustices. She’s really amazing. I love her.

What is it that you hope people take away from the work you’re putting out there?

I hope people will look at my work and ask more questions, that it will raise more questions and spark conversation and interest in subjects and topics that people didn’t necessarily know about.

I think that comes back to my love of helping people and wanting to help people. People always tell me I should go into nonprofit work because I just love helping people. I think that’s why I like assisting, too. I don’t mind assisting. I like helping people and being someone else’s set of eyes.

Big thanks to Keri for sharing her story as well as her contagious passion for photography, film and storytelling.

You can find more of Keri’s work online.

Website: kerioberly.com
Instagram: instagram.com/kerioberly

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