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B.C. Photographer Milen Kootnikoff and the Home Wall Project

Victoria-based Milen Kootnikoff presents his mid-pandemic home wall photo series, and talks about how he became a professional photographer

It is not easy to make photography a profession. Although Instagram seems to suggest otherwise, the highly competitive creative field requires more than a nice camera and the right moment. It takes technical know-how.

A Notebook – photo by Milen Kootnikoff

In these last weeks, Gripped has covered several photographers that each offer their unique spin on the highly documented subject that is rock climbing. Although this topic offers an almost endless series of perspectives, capitalizing on the market necessitates an entrepreneurial mind-set that functions in conjunction with the creatively-minded images climbing has come to expect from its community.

15 years ago, climbing photography did not have the following it does today. Even competition-based professional photographers found themselves in roles that few competed over. The last decade has seen this change. Milen Kootnikoff is one Canadian that has built himself a life out of his images. He has a line that rings true: “Entrepreneurs don’t fail, they quit.”

Although Kootnikoff admits these words as a quote from LL Supply owner Jeff Duke, the words resonated with the young photographer and have become a way to describe his approach to the barrier-laden industry.

To understand Kootnikoff and his business, a person must have an appreciation for his background. Although the Kelowna-bred artist grew up in mountain views and hockey practice, his passion for photography would not develop until he moved out to Vancouver Island. Like many young adults out of high school, Kootnikoff did not yet know the direction his life would go and, as such, would take up surfing as a passion in an effort to help find himself.

The Route Setter – Photo by Milen Kootnikoff

Between the University of Victoria, an undergraduate degree and a love for surfing, Kootnikoff would approach the natural land- and seascapes of his joint passions. As he took more photos, he became proficient at his craft. Around this time, he would also graduate university, and take up a brand-new passion.

As climbing merged well with his existing interests, the dramatic images of BC stone would provide him with the opportunity to once more expand his capacity as an artist. Picking up the tools of the trade, he would turn to the future, throw his eggs into a self-employed basket and begin stepping toward a future funded by and for his love for photos. How does a person take that step?

Kootnikoff laughed in his reflection. “At the beginning of any endeavour, you need that naivety of not knowing the hardships that are about to come. You need to be able to push beyond those with sheer exuberance.”

Taking life into his hands, he would begin to live by another pertinent one-liner: “One for the real, one for the meal.” Kootnikoff expressed the significance of this balance as necessary for a continued interest in the line of work. The greatest reason for this comes from the nature of the work.

Squeeze – Photo by Milen Kootnikoff

When a creative discipline becomes your living, it can feel necessary to throw everything into that which makes money. However, Kootnikoff noticed that this approach was not sustainable. “It has to come from that place where you are pushing the things that you love, or you are pushing the things that inspire you. People will be able to tell the bull shit right away.”

Although commercial photography does restrict the creative in terms of providing a parameter in which the image must exist, the client has hired the photographer with the artist’s style in mind. If everything becomes about business, then that which makes even the commercial images unique can become lost.

To that effect, working in the creative field requires a creative outlet. At least it has for Kootnikoff. In much the same way as his photographic origins in surfing, Kootnikoff began taking images of climbing as his love for the sport grew.

He would incorporate himself into the community and now works with several organizations both in and outside of climbing. As with many that work in the industry, last year’s original lockdown made many lose their connection to climbing.

Between Burns – Photo by Milen Kootnikoff

At first it seemed as though the community might not recover. Climbers, however, developed new tools to pursue their love for the sport. Taking two-by-fours and plywood, professionals and amateurs alike would pour their free time into developing home walls. Kootnikoff noted this development and saw it as a story the required documentation.

Taking his camera and his relationships with those he had come to know throughout the Vancouver Island community, Kootnikoff would embark upon The Home Wall Project. This project would afford the young photographer many possible perspectives and one large challenge.

Although photography does take place at a distance, Kootnikoff needed to attain enough proximity as to capture his subjects honestly. Each home wall or home climbing project offers another unique perspective on the individual and their response to isolation.

Some may bolt holds to their home in an effort to have a something to play on with their kids. Others might build a boulder island in the centre of their yard. Regardless of how they might come together, the design and the execution each offered numerous opportunities for the individual to insert themselves in their work. They each shared a common desire for sanctuary in the unprecedented pandemic.

Home Gym – Photo by Milen Kootnikoff

This desire to build, to become something other than a person locked at home, would grow into an international trend. With the addition of social media, it became a place for athletes and community members to join together and set each other climbs.

While home wall owners would post images of their walls, friends would draw on these images denoting different boulder problems. Climbers found a way to access their community even from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away.

In the end, this community aspect attracted Kootnikoff the most. He reflected on his own return to climbing commenting on the magnitude of having community.

Perhaps what speaks the loudest about Kootnikoff’s home wall series are the people in the images. Although not all climbers had the opportunity to build a home wall, many of us have had the chance to work on something that let us escape from the seeming peril of daily living. That joy in finding something that brings relief creates a cohesion amongst all of Kootnikoff’s images.

Each climber’s relationship to the sport differs from the last. The joy it inspires offers the audience an opportunity to remember self-fulfillment. It inspires the audience to hold out however much longer is required. Climbing makes people happy. Perhaps that is where the sport finds its significance.

Loading Up – Photo by Milen Kootnikoff

Featured Image by Milen Kootnikoff.

Check out Kootnikoff’s work here.