Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
Adventure photographer Irene Yee, a climber of eight years, doesn’t have a background in photography. “Equipment doesn’t matter,” says Yee. “Use what you have. Learn skills first. Using it creatively is more important.” The first photograph she ever took was of herself on a time-lapse.
Yee is unassuming but has a booming laugh that will fill the room. She dresses modestly, in duct-taped down jackets and worn-in approach shoes, except for her flaming red hair, which she keeps long. On Christmas Eve, I ran into Yee at the Calico Basin parking lot carrying two bulging trash bags; she spent the afternoon picking up trash from the climbing and hiking trails. Yee writes land acknowledgments in every social media post, and is bothered that doing so is not the norm. Yee makes me want to write this using “Irene”; addressing her as Yee seems too impersonal for someone like her.
When Yee picked up her first camera—her cell phone, and then a Canon 60D—at 27, she made a list of goals. One of the goals was to publish with Sharp End Publishing’s Women of Climbing Calendar. The calendar has been going to press every year since 1998. What started as a young man’s boyish vision morphed into something very, very different. “T&A comes to climbing,” wrote a Facebook comment in 2020. Tits and Asses have always been in climbing. The calendar might have been all about that at one point, but by the time a calendar landed in Yee’s hands, it had changed drastically.
“It was the only thing that was female-specific in climbing I’ve ever come across,” said Yee. “I thought it was amazing. That’s how we introduce inspiration to generations younger and older, how we keep ourselves inspired. I want to be a part of that. I asked myself, how do I get good enough to be in that?”
Yee shot past that mark, and fast. Meet the Photographer Climbing to New Heights, reads a National Geographic Adventure headline. Yee contributes to the Nat Geo Adventure photography team, joining the ranks of photographers like Jimmy Chin and Cory Richards. This Badass Photographer Wants to Change How We See Climbers reads an Outside Magazine article featuring a stunning self-portrait of Yee herself, her penetrating gaze through a carabiner, ascending a rope.
Before the pandemic, Yee worked for Cirque du Soleil. The shutdown was hard on the entertainment industry, and her position was eliminated. “Well, I guess I’m a photographer full time now,” she said. It seems like Yee is on an upwards trajectory, but she is hesitant to view life, success, failure, and progression like a linear equation.
“Your art is always a derivative of yourself. It changes as you change. It stays the same if you stay the same,” said Yee. It’s not a line trending up or down, and you can’t fit it on a graph. She noted how she saw her friends’ work change throughout the pandemic. It’s an extension of yourself. One photographer’s subject turned lighthearted and joyful, and another played with themes so dark, she had to steel herself to process it. “Your art can reflect how open or closed your mind is,” she said.
I asked Yee about her plans now that she is a Nat Geo photographer, and she scoffed at the question. It’s an intimidating thought process that we have to keep growing, she described, that we always have to do something bigger than what we’ve already done. “I think we can be perfectly content with where we are. Why can’t you be great right now? Perhaps you want to stay there. Perhaps you want to savor that moment for a bit longer. Perhaps you want to go back to where you were.” She mimed climbing, “There is no ladder you need to climb. Get off the damn ladder, sit down, have a damn snack. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Yee opened up about her mental state during the lockdown, something she did not mention the last time we chatted, shortly after lockdown lifted in late 2020. Yee fell into a depressive slump, “a lot of us did,” Yee emphasized, and she detested the response she received when she spoke up about it. “You say, I’m depressed, I’m not doing well. They reply, ‘well, just be happy,’ and you’re like: Wow, that fucking works. Thanks!” Yee gave an ironic smile, and her eyes held no sparkle. Happiness is not a choice. People, she mourned, need to understand what survival-mode feels like. There was a point when she finally felt like she could be happy, increased her social interactions, and checked her Instagram more. “And that is a privilege,” Yee noted. “To have the capacity to feel happy, to believe that I have it in me to become a full-time photographer. It’s a privilege to follow a career with no guaranteed income.”
When Yee set off in fall, 2019, to photograph Britney Goris, a La Sportiva athlete known for her first female ascents of notoriously heady trad-climbs, Yee wasn’t sure what to expect. She took the first photo of Goris outside her car, putting on mascara. The morning sun was in Goris’ eyes as she looked into her pocket mirror, sitting on the pavement, mouth slightly agape. “I love that juxtaposition,” said Yee. There is a train of thought that we, outdoorsy women, can’t or won’t look nice. Yee thinks that’s nonsense. “Just because you climb nail-hard things doesn’t mean you don’t put on makeup or wear dresses. There shouldn’t be a box that you need to fit into,” she drew a box in midair, “Women have these very dual experiences. We never have to be at extreme opposites. You’re outdoorsy, or you’re girly. Be both, damn.”
That was what Yee saw in Sharp End’s Women of Climbing calendar. She saw women being strong, and sexy, and desperate, and beautiful; climbed hard, and looked beautiful doing it, climbed hard, and looked like a wild beast doing it. All of it formed a complex person. “So I put this all together and captured Britney in her comfort zone both on and off the rock.”
Representation of what climbing is, and what it should be is a hot topic right now. Representation matters, those who say it doesn’t matter are those represented all the time.
“What do you think is worth celebrating in climbing culture, and what is something worth reexamining?” I asked.
“People in this industry love to cite the history of it,” replied Yee. “I don’t think I’ve ever admitted this publicly, but why should I care about a history that’s never cared about me.”
“You don’t like climbing history?”
“I think some philosophies are beautiful,” said Yee. “You might say: have some more respect. You’ll be right. I should probably read some more climbing history books. Honestly, I don’t want to spend my time and money doing that. I’m sorry. I know enough. We should respect those who pioneered the sport, but we should never forget about the crappy things that have happened. It doesn’t mean I don’t have respect for history. I care more about what’s happening now and how we can change it.”
“Climbing takes so much privilege,” Yee sighed. “Black people weren’t allowed in Yosemite, and people act like that’s a long time ago, but it wasn’t.”
“Yeah, that was 1964,” I said.
“Climbing takes so much privilege, yes, undoubtedly, but we can spread that privilege. I think we need to realize what climbing can be now, not what it was, and what we can change to show other people the joy of it.”
“How do you propose we do that?” I asked.
“Start local. Start with yourself, damn it,” said Yee. She sets a good example, like getting into arguments with people she cares about but views things differently or more casually. “Let’s take racist route names. People go: well, is that really so bad? Yes. We perpetuate ideas from a time that is no longer valid and no longer relevant. They do not need to be prolific in our day and age. That’s why they’re problematic, not because one person got offended, but because an entire community of people was and is oppressed.”
With how loudly Yee is willing to shout and amplify the voices of herself and underrepresented climbers, she accepts the conundrum of an echo-box some people might shut themselves in. Yee says there is a difference between trying to change peoples’ minds and arguing with trolls online; the latter is a useless task. She doesn’t spend her energy on trolls online; she uplifts and encourages people who seek out new ideas. There is a point where racist and closed-minded attitudes should not be tolerated, but there is also a point where conversations can be had. That line is often thin, but Yee seeks them out. “There are people you meet, and you can have a conversation with, even if both of you hold wildly opposing views. Humans will always have anger, and defensiveness, and ego, and we have to be willing to put those aside to talk. Those kinds of conversations cannot be done online. Some people are worth our energy, and some are not. We need to recognize that for ourselves. Educate and grow together; that’s the goal.”
I could sense her frustration and anger, but also her fire and her refusal to stop talking, shouting. In an attempt to lighten up the conversation, I asked, “What’s your favorite thing about life right now?”
Yee grinned. “I’m successful. Other people think I’m successful, whether I truly am or not. This is the first time I have felt this way. You might think: Wow, that was a little arrogant. But you know what, I’m going to sit in this success for a little bit.”
“You absolutely should,” I replied. “Why shouldn’t you?”
“I think success can be hard to talk about, especially as a woman because you don’t want to be perceived as egotistic, or assertive, or intimidating. I don’t have to conform to that. Do you think my success is intimidating? Well, be intimidated. It’s very freeing.”
“It is freeing. Thank you.”