Alumni Spotlight | Fall 2022

In Sharp Focus—Award-winning photographer, thrill-seeker, and conservationist Jody MacDonald

Photographer Jody MacDonald in the prow of a boat in Guatemala

Alumna Jody MacDonald has had enough adventures to fill most people's bucket lists several times over. And she has no intention of stopping anytime soon.

A world-class documentary, travel, and action sports photographer who studied outdoor recreation at Lakehead, Jody has spent the past two decades exploring the remotest spots on the planet and capturing their stunning beauty. From intimate portraits of Bajau sea nomads sailing the waters off Borneo to jaw-dropping shots of skydivers in freefall, Jody shares her visual storytelling skills while raising awareness about climate change.

Her images have appeared in dozens of publications such as Outside, National Geographic, BBC, Men's Journal, and Forbes. She's brought extraordinary visual campaigns to life for clients like Disney, HP, Ford, British Airways, and Eddie Bauer. Her thirst for adventure travel has taken her to more than 110 countries—mostly on her own—resulting in many awards and accolades. She was named "One of the 25 Most Adventurous Women in the Past 25 years" by Men's Journal, hailed as one of "Nine Female Adventure Photographers Who Push the Limits" by National Geographic, and chosen as one of "The Best Travel Photographers to Follow on Instagram" by UPROXX.

Jody standing outside in Alaska holding a camera

Indiana Jones in the making

Jody's appetite for globe-trotting began early. Born in Ottawa, she moved to Saudi Arabia at age two when her father took on a telecom project for Bell Canada. Growing up in a gated community with other expat families, Jody attended an international school.

"I really loved it. There was an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the clubhouse and tennis courts—it was like a resort," she recalls.

The best perk? The company paid for family vacations, which allowed the MacDonalds to travel through Europe, Africa, and Asia during school breaks. By the time the family moved back to Ottawa when Jody was 16, she began imagining a life where she could be a real-life Indiana Jones, seeking adventures.

Forging a unique path at Lakehead

Jody's two favourite classes in elementary school were physical education and art, and throughout high school she was drawn to adventure and outdoor sports, which led her straight to Lakehead's outdoor recreation program—and a way to marry her varied interests.

"I dated a guy during my first year at Lakehead who was really into photography, and he inspired me to take an elective photography class," Jody says. "I thought, 'Wow, this is amazing.'"

She enjoyed her time in Thunder Bay. "I had incredible outdoor experiences during my classes and outside of my classes. It was a revelation that I could combine my love of art and adventure and share it with people."

Coping with the unthinkable

After university, Jody worked as a mountain biking, river rafting, and kayaking guide in British Columbia and Alaska. Her camera was always with her so she could refine her photography skills. She then took a photo editor job for Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) in Vancouver, but quickly discovered that office life wasn't for her. When Jody's boyfriend, Chris Neuman—an American paraglider and bush pilot she'd met in Alaska—invited her to join him on a road trip through the United States in 2003, she decided to leave her job.

But two hours before the end of her shift on her last day of work, Jody received the horrifying news that Chris had died in a paragliding accident in Idaho.

"It was a profound moment, because it was the first time I'd experienced a death in my life, and it was someone I loved," Jody says.

 Life as an extreme adventure

Jody taking photographs of the Knik Glacier in Alaska

Jody exploring Alaska's Knik Glacier. "Alaska is an iconic American destination to me because it has more than half of the world's glaciers and the two largest forests in the nation."

In 2004, Jody met Gavin McClurg, who ran sailing charters in the South Pacific, and she joined him for a stint as resident photographer. When the charter business proved a difficult way to make a living, they sold their boat in Thailand and began offering membership-based kiteboarding expeditions for thrillseekers and professional athletes in remote corners of the world.

For the next 10 years, Jody circumnavigated the globe twice, photographing kiteboarding, sailing, surfing, and paragliding expeditions—all while battling unrelenting seasickness onboard the 60-foot catamaran she called home.

Paragliding over a sand dune in Mozambique

Jody says that for her, the perfect adventure includes adversity. When facing close calls while paragliding or sailing, rather than being overcome by fear or uncertainty, she embraces these situations because they help her discover more about herself.

"You learn very quickly to see everything as a great opportunity," she adds.

 

"In 2010, my partner Gavin McClurg and I sailed from Madagascar to Mozambique. Our first stop was in the Bazaruto Archipelago, which had the largest sand dune we'd ever seen," Jody says. We paraglided across it without helmets or shoes, something no one had ever done before. We accidentally destroyed our dinghy and ended up marooned there for two days and had to sleep in our wings—it was magical."

As she sold more images to top magazines, Jody caught the attention of high-profile brands. She became known for her fearless creativity, whether it was photographing incredible images of BMX riders in Kauai or strapping herself onto helicopters and airplanes 17,000 feet in the air to snap skydivers and paragliders.

A woman off the northeastern islands of Papua New Guinea paddling a dugout canoe

A woman paddles her dugout canoe in the northeastern islands of Papua New Guinea. "The coast is sprinkled with communities where locals retain subsistence traditions, and they are some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet," Jody says.

"Jody was producing mind-blowing work featuring wildlife, action sports, culture, and conservation subjects," says her long-time friend and fellow explorer Frank Wolf. "Her incredible eye and ability to access and shoot in far-flung areas, either on the ground, in the water, or in the air from her paraglider make Jody one of the most uniquely talented photographers on the planet," Wolf says.

When chasing down the perfect photo, Jody looks for a compelling story. In 2010, while on assignment in India, Jody saw a film about Rajan, the world's last swimming elephant and was determined to swim with him.

"She doesn't let anything hold her back from following her dreams, she goes in 100% on her projects, no holds barred," Wolf says.

In the 1950s, Rajan and 10 other Asian elephants were brought to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.

"They were brutally forced to learn how to swim so that they could float logged trees to nearby boats and swim on to the next island," Jody says.

The time Jody spent with Rajan and his caretaker became a turning point in her career.

I didn't know what the story would be, but I knew I wanted to have that experience. In that photo, he looks like he's smiling, and that picture became my most famous photograph.

Rajan the elephant swimming in the oceanRajan, an Asian elephant, is now 66 years old and retired. Normally, elephants avoid the ocean because the salt dries out their skin and stings their eyes.

 

Setting down roots and facing more hardships

In 2016, Jody moved to the mountain town of Sun Valley, Idaho. She had visited her late boyfriend Chris there several times when he led paragliding expeditions, and she had also lived there briefly after he died.

"There is a great community of paragliders here and I fell in love with this place," she says.

Capturing fleeting moments from behind the lens before they change forever didn't prepare Jody for her closest brush with danger yet—right before the pandemic hit, doctors discovered a rare, five-inch tumour in her abdomen. They told her she had one to four years to live.

"I was one of eight people in the world diagnosed with the tumour, but after it was removed, they said it was benign and that I was totally fine," she explains.

Jody sees her health scare, along with the pandemic, and the death of her father last summer as meaningful experiences to draw upon.

"The instances in my life that have been very hard and tragic are also great gifts because they help me realize how precious our time is," Jody says. "It's like a smack in the face, saying: 'Hey! You've really got to do the stuff you want to do.' My greatest fear is squandering my life."

Celebrants at a Holi Festival in India

Celebrants in India dance and throw brightly colored chalk during the Holi festival to mark the onset of spring.

To conserve and protect

Her desire to do something meaningful with her life has motivated Jody to become an engaged environmentalist. Many of the distant places and wildlife Jody shares with viewers are under threat of destruction or extinction. Living at sea, she has witnessed the ocean's deterioration. Using her photographic talents asa tool for advocacy, Jody became active with Sea Legacy, a non-profit charity that protects oceans.

Jody taking photos near a Mayan temple

"I want to educate people and inspire them to experience wilderness areas and wildlife for themselves, because I think if they can see how wonderful and irreplaceable it is, they'll want to protect it," she says.

Jody recently embarked on yet another big adventure. She's motorcycling across the Tibetan Plateau—the highest and largest plateau in the world.

"I've always wanted to do this. I don't know where it's going to lead me," she says.

"My hope is to start a YouTube channel, find compelling photo stories along the way, and document everything."

  Jody at a Mayan temple in Guatemala.

 

 

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