Dan Milner is a professional adventure photographer and mountain biker. Shooting mountain biking stories has taken him to some of the world’s most unlikely places, from Ethiopia to Afghanistan. We asked Dan for some insights into his epic career.
How did you gain your love for photography and mountain biking?
Bike riding and photography probably happened about the same time, when I was about eight or nine years old, but I had no idea then that I’d be combining them as a job once I’d grown up.
If you’re old and wise like me, then you’ll remember Kodak Instamatic-126 cameras that used film cartridges. They were very 1970s and the sort of thing anyone could use without messing it up. That seemed like a good start for an eight year old and it was my ‘first’ camera. I took photos on family holidays, walking in Anglesey in Wales. I just love documenting stuff, especially in new places. I started taking photography a little more seriously during a 7-month long solo trip to Latin America in 1989, travelling through a lot of countries that were enduring civil wars and political struggles. I then shot a couple of early mountain bike stories for magazines like Mountain Biking UK in the 90s. That was the start of 25 years of working with magazines.
Riding bikes is something you do as a kid. It is freedom. Suddenly you can go places in very little time, and without an adult. My two brothers and I converted our 5-speed racers into ‘off road’ bikes by putting on cycle-cross tyres and wide cow-horn handlebars. Those were early years for mountain biking and that bike broke a lot. Later, in between proper jobs and travelling I worked in the bike trade, in bike shops, at distributors, in Bristol, UK, before heading to the Alps for a winter to ‘launch’ myself as a real snowboard photographer.
Where is your favourite place to go mountain biking?
It’s so hard to label anywhere as my favourite. So many factors come into play. I love being in places less travelled, even though that means more hardship and dealing with the mental and physical challenges. To land in my top 10, a place has to have good single-track trails, great scenery to shoot and some kind of cultural experience.
We rode a 10-day traverse of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains a couple of years ago, and I’d say that combined all of these factors. Otherwise a 10-day self-guided ride to the Tibetan border through Nepal’s Upper Mustang region in 2010, and a 6-day ride across Lesotho, Africa earlier this year were up there too.
What has been your greatest achievement to date?
I think a lot of people would look at all the destinations and expeditions I’ve shot and say it is “staying alive.” I like to shoot images and editorial stories that challenge common perceptions of places and people. I also like to cover places that a lot of people think are dangerously prohibitive. It’s my way to challenge xenophobia and misconceptions. The people we meet in such war-torn places are incredibly friendly and welcoming.
Our 2013 Afghanistan trip, riding 12 days across the Wakhan Corridor, and battling through blizzards and over 5000m passes was the toughest gig to date. It was tough and not necessarily a trip I’d want to repeat with a bike (it’d maybe be better on a horse), but it was incredibly rewarding.
If you’re not behind your camera, or exploring the world, where can you be found?
I’m still probably out on my bike on a trail somewhere! I ride a lot without a camera, which sounds surprising, but riding bikes just for fun is still my main form of stress relief. I split my time between the UK, a hideout in the Alps and Finale Ligure in Italy, where I keep my sea kayak.
Who is your biggest role model?
I think a lot of different people have influenced my path through life. From a teacher at school who always returned from school holidays with tales of epic travels, to my parents who handed me that first camera and my grandparents who spent some time living in Argentina.
It’s easy to overlook people like that but they’ve all played a part in encouraging my steps to go outside and see the wider world. As far as photography goes, I draw inspiration from photographers like Martin Parr and Amsel Adams. They’re from very different spheres of photography but they help me see the bigger picture in photography.
You are deserted on an uninhabited island. You have one book, one album and one Osprey Pack, what do you choose and why?
Book: I’m not much of a reader so anything I take will last me ages. I remember while being stuck in a 10-day blizzard in Alaska and everyone got their books out, the assembled library consisted of only non-fiction accounts of epic Arctic expeditions. They were the sort of tales in which people had had to eat their sled dogs to survive. So maybe I’ll go for a survival guidebook like “Food for Free”, so I’ll not starve.
Album: I’m an old punk, so I’m going to stick to something with energy to keep me motivated while gathering coconuts. I’ll go for either Killing Joke‘s ‘Requiem’ or ‘2003’, or Amebix’ ‘Sonic Mass’. It’s a hard choice to make!
Pack: The Escapist 32 is definitely my pack of choice. It’s so versatile on and off the bike. You can load it up with everything heavy for a big day out and it has an ability to feel lighter than it is. Or maybe I’d go for the Kamber ABS, and use the Airbag as an escape life raft?