Sara Stathas: Amber’s Story

Feb 9, 2017
Photographer Spotlight

Milwaukee photographer Sara Stathas got an email from Art Director Genny Fullerton at Backpacker Magazine in August, asking if she could work on a portrait shoot with her. Genny reached out to Sara through a photo editor that Sara had worked with previously. She thought that Sara's work matched the magazine’s style perfectly. 

The shoot was a portrait of Amber Kohnhorst for the “Survival” section of the magazine. Backpacker follows a fairly specific style and layout for this section to allow for flexibility depending on the person’s physical ability (being that they still may be recovering from an injury). The main photo runs as a full-page bleed with the title of the section at the top and additional text on the page. This design layout meant Sara needed to keep plenty of negative space around her subject.

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Amber was to be photographed on a black or white background with high contrast, very technically, but with a serious expression. Genny asked Sara to include full-length shots with Amber holding and using her hiking stick and backpack. She also needed a variety of tighter, thoughtful and strong expressions. Sara accomplished this by capturing small catch-lights in the eyes for these “Survival” portraits to make the person's story come alive a little more.

During pre-production, Genny sent Sara a link to Amber’s story that ran online in the U.K. Daily Mail about ten days after her accident. Amber was on a solo trip in Utah. The afternoon before volunteering at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Amber went for a hike that turned into a living nightmare. Around dusk, Amber slipped and fell, landing 100 feet down on a ledge, fracturing her back in three places, crushing her pelvis, and ripping off part of an ear. She awoke in the dark, on the edge of what she would later learn was an 800 ft cliff. She used a whistle to try to draw attention to herself without success. Eventually, a rescue helicopter found Amber around seven p.m. the following night. Luckily, her Airbnb host realized that she had not returned the next morning when her car was still in the park. In total Amber spent 28 hours on the ledge.

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The article and the video of Amber in the hospital gave Sara enough backstory to portray her in the way she deserved to be seen.

Amber was on her way to volunteer at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab. Her hiking accident happened the night before she was supposed to arrive there. Last year for my birthday I made a pilgrimage to this same sanctuary, to visit and volunteer, so that really made an emotional connection for me.

Via email, Sara and Amber exchanged words about the sanctuary before the shoot. Amber explained that she had moved back to her parents’ house in rural northern Wisconsin to rest and recover. Sara was able to set up a whole studio on location in the family’s three-car garage. The biggest challenge for her was making sure Amber was comfortable and as pain-free as possible. Amber had recently started walking with the aid of a walker only a day before the shoot and had to wear a back brace that covered her torso. Sara planned to make sure she took plenty of breaks during the portraits to rest.

Genny ended up asking Sara to shoot another portrait of Amber that was environmental to contrast the white seamless studio set-up. Sara was lucky that Amber’s parents’ property had a large wooded area just behind their backyard. At the last minute, Sara was able to scout a suitable location and set up her portable light kit just on the edge of the woods. From there all she needed to do was get Amber to the spot safely and comfortably.

Amber hadn’t put her hiking boots on since the day she was rescued in Utah. In fact, she hadn’t even seen them. They were still covered with Utah red sand and speckles of dried blood. Two metal hooks used to string laces were bent closed from the impact of her fall. My dependable assistant was able to pry them open with a leatherman tool. Seeing Amber put her boots on again was very powerful.

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Sara is thrilled with the photo and layout that Backpacker selected and are planning to run in March 2017. The images also make for a gem of a tear sheet for Sara to show off in her portfolio. As for Amber, she has received an outpouring of support, even from the animal sanctuary who sent her a generous care package, dog paintings, and their best wishes.

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See more of Sara at sarastathas.com.

Tags: backpacker magazine best friends animal sanctuary portraiture photography sara stathas