Mathew Wanbon is a fourth-year creative writing major at UBC Okanagan who is looking forward to graduating this spring, and turning all of his creative skills into a budding career in freelance photography and writing. 

In order to make himself a stronger photographer and storyteller, Wanbon enjoys practicing all types of photography. However, he has a particular interest in action sports. His photography and writing were recently featured in Canadian Cycling magazine for a piece about mountain biking at Knox Mountain Park in Kelowna. This kind of work shines a light on what Wanbon refers to as “mountain culture,” which is a concept deeply situated within his freelance photography and writing pieces.

Rider: Jordan Bell; Photo by Mathew Wanbon

“Thinking of mountain culture, a framework to talk about it is thinking of a place — like a small mountain town — where people congregate who tend to have a similar appreciation for finding a balance between ‘type two fun’ and quiet moments in nature. And a good example of ‘type two fun’ is mountain biking. So, you have to peddle up a mountain before you ride down. It’s fun riding down afterward, but sometimes you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ as you’re heaving to catch your breath on your way up.”

Wanbon’s emphasis on “type two fun” illuminates the value of adventure in his creative expeditions, even though they are incredibly physically demanding. For him, mountain culture also forms communities that share an appreciation for adventure and tight-knit relationships between people.

“These were both taken on trips to Quebec,” Wanbon explained, pointing to two images he captured of friends doing tricks while snowboarding in 2018 and 2019. “I was with two friends, and we were taking turns snowboarding. The other two who weren’t snowboarding, one of them was holding a video camera, and the other was holding a camera taking photos. Out of those three friends, all of us had some sponsorships, so we were kind of just doing it for fun, but there was also intention. The videos we filmed went into some video projects later on that got a reasonable amount of coverage when they were released.”

Rider: Aiden Hryciw; Photo by Mathew Wanbon

Despite an interest in photography spanning back years, Wanbon has only recently begun seriously focusing on building a professional career in freelance photography.

“In the last two years, photography’s become more of a clear focus for me,” said Wanbon. “I just started thinking more about, like, ‘How do I create a career for myself that allows me to live a passionate life in the way I want to?’ and doing ‘work’ that I would be doing for fun, anyways. That’s a lot of my motivation to pursue a career in freelance work.”

Between 2018 and 2021, Wanbon frequently brought his point-and-shoot film camera on hiking trips and other outdoor adventures. 

“The photos that I was taking back then were more for myself,” he explained. However, the shots he was capturing began inspiring him to take his “more hefty” camera, a Canon EOS 80D DSLR, into the field. His Canon is a lot more work to lug along with him on outdoor adventures, but it allows him to take much better photos.

Wanbon also expressed the value of his experiences at UBCO as inspiration for his freelance photography and writing career. In order to hone and develop his creative skills, he has leapt at the opportunity to take a variety of creative courses with brilliant professors. For example, Visual Arts (VISA) 362: Advanced Practice in Photography with Professor Andreas Raskauskas inspired Wanbon to turn his interest in action sports photography into a career.

“In VISA 362, I worked on a photo book project where I was taking photos of people doing different action sports,” said Wanbon.

“That was a huge push for me in planning photoshoots — because I needed to for the project — and it really pushed me out of my comfort zone to start reaching out to people. Since taking that class, that’s something that I’ve been consistent in doing. I’ve been reaching out to people I don’t know on Instagram, or that I see doing cool things, and being like, ‘Hey, do you want to go shoot photos?’ For the most part, people are really stoked — the people who are pushing themselves in sports want content. They’re excited that somebody like me wants to follow them along and take photos.”

Although the excitement of action sports photography often results in incredible shoots, Wanbon also recognizes that sometimes, he needs to separate his enjoyment of the outdoors from work.

“I’ve definitely learned that sometimes I need to leave the camera at home and just enjoy the bike ride,” he said.

While Wanbon enjoys maintaining a personal creative practice, when he is shooting or writing for work, he doesn’t believe in doing it for free.

“Creative work has value,” he said. “If you’re doing work for free, you’re undervaluing yourself and other people’s creative work too.”

There are various ways that Wanbon is paid for his work as a freelancer. Sometimes he sells his photography work through “photo licensing,” which grants whoever licenses the photo “an agreed amount of rights to use it in certain contexts — or all contexts.” But, Wanbon doesn’t have all the payment methods of the freelance trade “figured out” quite yet.

As a word of caution to anyone thinking about pursuing freelance photography work, Wanbon warned, “The photo licensing realm is really vague and confusing, and there’s not a lot of information out there about it. So, I think it’s an area where photographers can be taken advantage of a lot.”

In terms of freelance writing work, Wanbon said that he has often seen magazines provide varying payment rates for writers, which he has seen range from as low as 35 cents per word to a dollar or more per word.

“It’s common for people who are well-established as writers to get a dollar per word,” said Wanbon. “I haven’t been paid that much yet, but I have done some blog writing where it’s been a flat rate, and I’ve done some other work that’s been hourly work as well.”

Wanbon also makes his own luck when it comes to finding opportunities to get involved in paid freelance jobs involving photography and writing. When asked about his methods of getting involved in freelance projects throughout the year, he answered with a quote from Alex Banayan:

“Luck is when opportunity meets preparedness.”

As an example of Wanbon’s lifestyle embodying this quote, he explained that he had shot some rock climbing photos for his project in VISA 362 and sent them to Gripped magazine, a popular climbing publication. He received a reply from the photo editor letting him know that the photos were “cool,” but they didn’t need them at that time. Familiar with the sometimes cutthroat competition common in the freelance trade, Wanbon took the rejection in stride and kept moving forward. 

Climber: Isaac Schock; Photo by Mathew Wanbon 

However, a few months later, the editor of Canadian Cycling magazine — which is published under Gripped Publishing — reached out to Wanbon and asked if he had any photos at Knox Mountain in Kelowna. Serendipitously, just a few days before receiving the email, Wanbon had taken some photos at Knox, so he sent them in. His Knox photos were then included in the October 2023 issue of Canadian Cycling

“If I hadn’t sent those rock climbing photos to Gripped, the editor of Canadian Cycling magazine wouldn’t have reached out to me about the mountain biking photos,” said Wanbon.

Although, at times, it can feel overwhelming for Wanbon to balance freelance work with university student life, he feels grateful that he began freelance work while still in school, which has allowed him to get a “head start” on his career. Over the past few years, through both his schoolwork and freelance work, he has built up an impressive and ever-growing portfolio of various projects that set him apart from the numerous other freelancers who compete for the same jobs. However, he’s excited to eventually turn this part-time work into full-time work.

While discussing his plans for the future, Wanbon lit up as he described his excitement about delving further into the world of freelancing once he graduates in spring 2024:

“I just want to collaborate with people I enjoy being around and working with. I want to go to cool places, do things I enjoy, and push myself creatively. With anything creative — any kind of art — the work is never complete, and you're never perfect. And that's something that's really enticing about it for me. There’s always something to work on and always something to be learning. Always room for growth and exploration. Freelance work gives me the room to kind of jump around and work on different things.”

Specifically, Wanbon has interests in doing commercial photography for some of his favourite brands, editing for a magazine, and completing some literary work:

“My degree is in creative writing, so I’d love to publish a novel at some point in time. Maybe a book of poetry — and I'd love to produce photo books. I have a lot of interests, and I think that's why this career path in freelance work is intriguing to me. I can work on a lot of different projects and bounce around to different things while it's all contributing to a stronger unified portfolio.”

Has Wanbon sold you on freelance work yet? Well, if this is a career you’re also interested in, he advises that you should hit the books. Or the Internet. Or the ski hill. Or all three, if you’re hoping to combine a passion for writing, photography, and outdoor culture, like him.

“I think the best and most irritating advice is to read more — or consume more — work that is similar to what you want to create,” suggested Wanbon.

“I say it’s frustrating because I’ve been given that advice by many people, telling me that I should read more to improve my writing, and while it is not what you want to hear, they are right. It’s a huge thing, for magazines specifically, to each have a ‘vibe’ or ‘voice’ that it wants consistent throughout its publications. So if you have a story you want to tell, find a specific magazine that the story fits in and angle your pitch — or your story — to be a cohesive contribution to that magazine.”

He added that flexibility is also an important trait for anyone entering the world of freelance work. In order to find success, freelancers can’t get too attached to their pitches, and they can’t take it too personally when an article gets printed, and they find it heavily revised.

Referring to a recent publication in Kootenay Mountain Culture magazine, Wanbon described the process of a declined pitch that was later accepted after a new detail came forward and the editor suggested a different angle. 

“If I were too attached to the story I originally wanted to tell, then it just wouldn't have run,” he explained.

As a last piece of advice, Wanbon said that university students with interests in freelance work — or who are looking for any kind of career in the future — will benefit from using their time in school as an opportunity to grow.

“Find opportunities to make your schoolwork somehow align with your interests. For me, deciding to do that action sports project for my VISA 362 class was a lot more work than it would have been to do something ‘easier,’ but it gave me so much extra skill. Right now, I’m in a first-year digital arts class, and I made a mountain biking magazine. I chose to do something that would help me have skills toward my career aspirations rather than doing ‘the easy thing.’”

In his freelance work, scholarly endeavours, and outdoor pursuits, Wanbon epitomizes someone who takes his “type two fun” seriously. Whether he’s huffing and puffing up a hill on his mountain bike with camera gear on his back or taking an innovative approach to a project that doubles his time working on it, Wanbon illustrates that all of his effort is worth it for the thrill of completing something he is proud about. And, once he wraps up one project, he keeps moving toward the next challenge. 

Check out Mathew Wanbon’s photography, writing, and storytelling work on his Instagram page @matwanbon. You can find his diverse portfolio of projects at the link in his bio.