Expression Sessions: Photographer & Environmentalist Meg Haywood Sulli – AllSwell Creative

Expression Sessions: Photographer & Environmentalist Meg Haywood Sullivan

Posted by Laura Rubin on

Photo by Anna Erhgott

At AllSwell we believe that your life (that thing you’re living right now) is a creative act. It can be as contrarian, adventurous, and fulfilling as you choose. We recognize this can be a kind of daunting concept. Naturally, we’re curious about outliers, misfits and renegades - people who have crafted a unique experience that is a reflection of their passions and ideals. We’re talking with some of these rockstars, asking them nosy questions about their creative process, what fuels their various forms of self-expression.

“Expression Session” is a term first coined in 1970 on the North Shore of Oahu at a surfing showcase event without judges, scores, winners or losers. Featuring a select group of the world's best surfers, the Expression Session was presented as an alternative to the standard surf contest and it seemed like an appropriately anti-establishment name for this series of conversations with risk-takers. 

For this latest installment we chatted up AllSwell muse, photographer and environmentalist Meg Haywood-Sullivan. Currently based in Venice, CA, this talented lady always seems to be on the move for commercial shoots (for clients such as Patagonia, prAna, and Clif Bar) and editorial (such as shooting the last remaining glacier in Yosemite for National Geographic Adventure). Her travel itinerary brings her to so many off-the-grid locations that she literally considered having her appendix out prophylactically to avoid emergency. She’s that hardcore. She ultimately decided against it - for now. We asked Meg and her appendix questions about her creative process… 

We fell in friend love with you the first time we saw your travel journals stuffed with drawings, memories, bits of things pasted into the pages. How did you come to this practice and how does journaling affect your experience of travel?

My mother is an internationally renowned pastel painter and as a result I grew up with a pen in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. I learned from her the practice of daily sketchbooking to record memories and hone creativity.

So you come by it naturally. What analog tools do you take with you on the road for creative expression?

Ricoh GR10 plus some Portra 400, gauche in black + white + bronze, a calligraphy pen, and half-full sketchbook chock full of memories.

Great list. You just came off a big surf + photo trip to Indonesia where you came into contact with a whole lot of plastic: in the water, on the beaches, etc. How did that change your perspective about our current state? Confronted with that experience, how do you not just give up?  

Plastic pollution is unavoidable in Indonesia because there is so little infrastructure to deal with waste. It is everywhere. But because of that, people are waking up. I was blown away by the grassroots solutions I encountered. Non-profits like Bye Bye Plastic Bags, Sampah Jujur, and Conservation International are engaging the local community in awareness and action, while pushing for movement with legislation. From biodegradable papaya straws and banana leaf takeaway containers to providing financial incentives to collecting trash, these solutions are working.  

Okay, regaining our optimism. What steps can we take on the daily to contribute to a cleaner and greener world?

My career is all about bringing the outdoors to everyone - no matter their economic situation or political stance. I use relatable adventures + storytelling to encourage people from all different backgrounds to get out in nature. The more we get people outside, the more they will put the environment first in their daily lives, and especially when it comes time to vote.  

As Jacques Cousteau put it, “People protect what they love.” As a consumer, we have the power to vote with our dollar. Support local farmers, refuse plastic straws at restaurants, bring reusable containers, and get involved with local non-profit chapters like Surfrider Foundation and Protect Our Winters. Each small step is a step in the right direction!

Let’s talk about your photography. How do you approach storytelling?

As a photographer in the outdoor industry for nearly a decade, my work marries adventure with conservation. Whether it be creating a story with National Geographic Adventure about the last remaining glacier in Yosemite or documenting the California National Monuments that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was proposing to shrink, I’ve dedicated my platforms to highlighting important environmental issues, while activating a whole new generation of environmentalists, stewards, and voters. 

As both a photographer and an environmentalist, how do you balance activism and art in your life?

I try and practice what I preach on both a professional and personal basis, but it’s imperative to kick back and enjoy the ride as well. I make it a point to make photos and art because I love it, just like I make it a point to enjoy the surf and snow when I’m not actively fighting to protect it. 

Speaking of surf, you recently became an ambassador for Surfrider Foundation. What does your work with them mean to you?  

Not only is the ocean our playground, but it is also habitat for over a million different species. It’s our job to be the best stewards we can to our oceans and preserve this final frontier of diversity and wonder for the future generations of man and beast. 

Your career brings you to some pretty amazing spots but what is your dream adventure? 

Open road, bag full of film, car full of friends en route to an empty point break or snow-capped peak. It’s magic when your dreams become reality. 

When’s the last time you put pen to paper? Where were you and what motivated you?   

I wrote a poem yesterday after getting home from a month long adventure abroad. Sketching and writing poems are my creative outlets when I’m on the road. It’s how I process new ideas and experiences while freezing thoughts in time. Newest poem:

Like the sea snake slithers
black and white rivers
the road twisted through terraces
of rice and flecks of marigold.  

Windows down
lazy gaze
temple. warung. rice paddy.

Favorite quote about creativity?

"Stay hungry, stay foolish." [attributed to Steve Jobs]

What projects do you have on the horizon? Tell us what we need to know.  

Next week I’ll be heading out east for an adventure following Henry David Thoreau’s footsteps along the edge of Cape Cod. In the early 1850s, Thoreau embarked on a journey of observation and discovery along the outer rim of the Cape where he recorded in detail the indigenous plants, animals, topography, weather, people, and human characters he encountered. Fast forward to today, as a fellow New Englander and modern day environmentalist, I will be retracing his steps while comparing his detailed observations with my own to highlight the changes due to our warming climate.


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