Milen Kootnikoff Stays Connected with the Climbing Community Through Personal Project

Jun 22, 2020
Photographer Spotlight

It's been tough to stay active during the COVID-19 pandemic, at least in ways we might’ve been used to before all this happened. One sport, in particular, that’s feeling the strain of lockdown is rock climbing. Avid climbers like Victoria, Canada-based photographer Milen Kootnikoff are usually at gyms or outside, interacting with other people and touching the same rocks as these folks. Obviously, that’s a no-go right now, but climbers still need their fix. So, many have taken to building small walls in their homes — not as expensive as you might think — and Milen has been there to document this in his community.

I came up with the project, foremost, as a way to stay connected with the climbing community. I’m normally at the gym or crag every other day and was feeling apathetic about my “new normal.” I live in an apartment and, just before the pandemic, I hurt my shoulder, so my options for staying involved became limited. I kept seeing people post videos of their home wall setups on social media. They were asking people to set boulder problems for them by circling holds — it was fun!

Milen Kootnikoff During COVID father and son climb

That’s kind of when I realized how many home walls were in Victoria and thought it would be an awesome project to document this moment in time. I think it’s a way to say, “hey, there are options for climbing, even inexpensive ones.” Some people are also offering to help build walls for others!

Milen wasn’t always a climbing aficionado, though he’s played sports his whole life. A surfer, Milen was convinced one day by his friend to assist him in climbing — the surf wasn’t so hot that season, anyway — so he decided to give it a try. After a while, Milen was hooked (and not just on belay). 

It was about seven years ago. The surf was really bad that winter and spring, and a friend dragged me outside to belay him. I was looking for other ways to stay fit and get outside. After a few seasons of learning to lead and boulder, I became more interested in climbing than surfing.

Milen Kootnikoff two brothers spending quality time

I think there is a huge difference between the surfing community and climbing community. With surfing, you're competing with everyone for a finite resource: a wave. I think there's a lot of self-interest embedded in the sport for that reason. It’s definitely not, “the more the merrier.” With climbing, you rely so much on your partner or spotters and it really brings people together. That's my favorite aspect of the sport — the camaraderie and openness within the community.

This being a photography blog, I had to ask Milen if he sees any similarities between climbing and his profession. Sometimes, you don’t always get a great response to what is admittedly a very open-ended, vague question. But man, did Milen have a hell of an answer:

I've always been more interested in how a climb feels than how hard it is technically. Sure, the difficulty adds to the motivation, but watching someone dance up a wall or having that feeling yourself is a beautiful thing. Everyone's bodies are so different and finding a way to climb a route or problem that makes my body feel alive is the goal.

Milen Kootnikoff woman climbing

The same goes for photography. Everyone has a different motivation, way of seeing, and technical equipment. It's finding a way to use all of that together to create and be a part of something beautiful that, for me, brings climbing and photography together.

The people you’re seeing in these photos are Milen’s friends as well as people he found on Instagram who were creating walls in their homes. It wasn’t difficult for Milen to find subjects after putting out a call on social media, which goes back to that sense of connectivity amongst the members of the climbing community. In lieu of socializing at a rock gym — a huge draw for people who participate in the sport and an easy way to make friends — Milen is connecting with fellow climbers one by one. Each wall, like each subject, is vastly different from the last.  

I've seen $200 walls and $5,000 walls. The considerations and customizations are endless. Is it indoor or outdoor? Are you buying or making holds? Is it a stand-alone or built into an existing structure? Is it fixed or adjustable? How tall is it? What angle?  How you build your wall will be determined by your space, climbing ability, tools, and budget.

Milen has received tons of positive feedback from the climbing community, and it’s helped him realize both why he photographs and climbs. Though he’s not entirely sure what he wants to do with this work when the project is completed, Milen knows these images and stories are going to end up somewhere.

Not only have these climbers come up with ways of continuing to do what they love, but so have I. You remember in times like these the reason why you carry on with whatever pursuit. It started off as inspiration for myself, but I hope this project inspires others to find ways to connect with their communities and to continue participating in their passions.

Milen Kootnikoff man sits on porch waiting to climb

I've been humbled by the reaction. There's been a lot of really great feedback and support, and I almost wouldn't expect any less from the community. What I'm curious to know is whether the rise in home walls will continue after the pandemic passes. I've seen some cool walls across Canada and the United States that I'd love to photograph. It isn't possible right now, but maybe that's a continuation of the project for a later date. “The Home Wall Project, Part 2: Post-Pandemic.” I'd like to feature the people more prominently somehow. Whether that's through a photobook, articles, or video, I don't know yet. For now, I just want to stay active in my community and provide some inspiration and memories.

Check out more of Milen's work at mikophotographer.com.

Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page!

Check out how WM is helping photographers during the pandemic on our COVID-19 Resources page.