Isaac Johnston: it’s a wild life.
August 28, 2017
Words: Helene Ravlich/
Photos: Isaac Johnston, Alex Strohl and resident Icebreaker photographer, Tom Powell
A producer and fixer for photographers, adventurer Isaac Johnston lives on the Swan River in Bigfork, Montana, USA. He found himself working in front of the camera for Icebreaker on his very first trip to New Zealand, and his many Instagram followers @isaacsjohnston hang on his every shot. “I’m a sucker for a good story,” he says, “and if an experience is going to make one - even if it sounds a little sketchy! — I want to do it!”
After spending years as a business leader and working with social media influencers, I decided to hop the fence and return to a life of exploring. I was the general manager for a vacation rentals company that managed over US$65 million in real estate, which was a fun role but after growing up having adventures, I wanted to do more of that myself.How did you make the move?
In my old job I was using influencers to help market our vacation rentals, and I would usually travel with them to the beautiful houses we worked with — to show them hidden gems and things like that. It got to the point where I was producing the marketing that these guys were creating, and this lead to some bigger commitments producing for Canon and Land Rover.What motivated you to finally make the switch?
I started spending more energy on my own photography about a year and a half ago, and since then I have spent more time with my two daughters than I probably have since they were born. In my old job I worked 55 or 60 hours a week. Now my daughters get to come with me to places like New Zealand and Alaska.What inspires you to keep doing what you do?
Not money! I knew when I left my corporate job that I would be making less money but I knew I would be enjoying myself. It was a really scary jump but I didn’t stay scared for long, and luckily my wife trusted that I knew what I was doing – thank god!
I want to look back on my life and say: “now that was awesome.”
My wife and I started making five-year plans, goals that we wanted to accomplish — not in a lifetime, but in a relatively manageable amount of time. We have never put goals down like we want a house, or X amount of money… our list is full of things like traveling on the night train across Siberia and spending a year somewhere tropical instead. We wanted our girls to experience travel with us, and if opportunities are coming up then why not take them? We can always work in offices later. I want to look back on my life and say: “Now that was awesome”.
“I knew when I left my corporate job that I would be making less money but I knew I would be enjoying myself.”
I think it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and having a reputation that precedes you! I had been working with a photographer named Alex Strohl on a Land Rover project, and when he was asked to shoot for Icebreaker he invited me to come along to help on the production side of things. The production team at Icebreaker is phenomenal, but I think he wanted someone extra on his team who wasn’t taking photos.But somehow you ended up as the talent, in front of rather than behind the scenes?
Yes! Alex had shown the team a moodboard that featured a photo of me on a trip to Peru and they said that was exactly the kind of feel they wanted. He offered me up as a model and it became a done deal. I think Icebreaker appreciated that I wasn’t just a model, but someone who lives life as an “authentic adventurer” – his phrase, not mine!Is having a reputation that precedes you like that a lot of pressure?
Oh god yes! Anyone from Instagram who meets me gets a shock – they expect me to be seven feet tall and climbing mountains in my underwear, which is not the case.What was you first impression of New Zealand when you landed?
The first time I came over I landed in Queenstown, which was an incredible first impression. It reminded me a little bit of Montana, especially the giant mountains springing up from beautiful lakes. Even the people are similar – really resourceful and super nice. Oh and your gas station coffee is better than any coffee in the whole of the United States!
On one of the Icebreaker sets they had a military spec Land Rover Defender that I got special permission to drive. I had a beautiful model sitting in the passenger seat and the sun was setting… it was literally like being in a movie.Can you share some of your favorite travel tips for New Zealand?
This is kind of mundane, but if you’re flying via coach to New Zealand from the States on Air New Zealand, pay for the upgrade to sit in a row where there are only two (rather than three) seats available. No one ever seems to sit next to you!
Second, don’t rent a campervan. The speed limit is so slow that you end up driving the whole time, the full service campgrounds are never where you want them to be, like on the ocean, and you can’t light a fire. Get a car instead and book a cool B&B – you’ll meet great locals instead of dingy German backpackers!What does nature mean to you?
Nature to me is… wilderness, and being in a place where the only responsibilities you have are for yourself.