A Will Saunders shot of the Beehive tombs in Oman, which date to 2000 B.C.
By Katy Yoder
Will Saunders knows how to work hard, push limits and say "Yes" - even if it scares him.
A 2012 Sisters High School graduate, Saunders appreciated attending a school with classes like the Interdisciplinary Environmental Expedition course (IEE). It helped shape who he is today and the career choices he's making.
IEE offers a non-traditional approach to learning English, environmental science and outdoor recreation. This integrated approach provided Saunders the opportunity to study and learn about the natural environment by exploring and using critical thinking skills.
Saunders took what he learned in IEE and kept going. He accompanied one of his IEE teachers, Rand Runco, on a trip to Nepal where their group worked to support an education center and set up libraries in remote villages. Saunders thanked Runco in a Teton Gravity Research article that featured Will's accomplishments as a commercial and documentary photographer.
Runco was grateful for Saunders' kind words.
"The best part of Will is he's just a really good guy. He is kind, humble and so willing to learn," said Runco. "Will is so talented, but always willing to do the hard things and has everyone's interests in mind. He is a true team player. It's so fun to see such a good guy having success in what he does."
Saunders has an eye for detail and perspective.
"I've always looked at the world in that way," he said. "I didn't have a camera growing up. I saw the world in an interesting way, but I didn't know how to show what I saw until someone encouraged me to be a photographer."
Saunders graduated from the University of Oregon in 2016. During his senior year, with four months left, he was approached by recent U of O graduate Scottie Proctor with an enticing idea. Will heard Proctor's pitch and jumped.
The young men put together a team to create story-driven content about the outdoor world.
"He asked me to be a photographer. I was more than excited to do it," said Saunders during a recent phone interview.
The timing couldn't have been better. Saunders was feeling burned out at school.
"It was a spark for me. We did a project about the Jackson Hole Air Force. We put up our own money doing micro stories. It was very successful so we kept doing it. I graduated that summer and we landed our first big client, Backcountry.com. It was a four-month campaign, using photo video design and social media strategy. That's how we got started and realized it was a business opportunity."
Saunders does commercial work for clients like Patagonia, North Face and Black Diamond.
"I hire talent and pick interesting locations," Saunders said. "That's what pays the bills."
He's really proud of the stories he documents. Some of the locations and people he's met left him eager to go back.
Saunders does freelance work as well as projects through their company, Local's Project. He and Proctor are co-owners with Sam Ewer and Jacob Oster. Known as a storytelling agency, Saunders and their tight-knit group of filmmakers, photographers and designers seek out athletes and artists around the U.S. and capture unique and inspiring stories.
Recently, he did a photo shoot in Oman with world-renowned climber Gaz Leah. He first met Leah when he did a job for Backcountry.com that featured Leah rockclimbing in New York City. They had a blast.
"You build a connection and from there you hope it'll last forever," said Saunders.
The NYC project opened the door for an invitation to accompany Leah to Oman on an epic, life-altering adventure.
"Oman's absolutely one of the coolest places I've been. The people are some of the nicest I've ever met," said Saunders. "The landscape is very rugged; big mountains and canyons and big beautiful pools. It's one of the gems in the Middle East."
Seeing new, exotic places makes Saunders want more.
"I have a list of places I'd like to go. Newfoundland is high on my list. Somalia is one of the most beautiful-looking countries I've seen."
Staying hungry, working hard and learning from those who blazed the trail in action-photography has opened opportunities Saunders never dreamed possible. He's assisting adventure photography legend Tim Kemple and soaking up the experience.
Saunders says his parents provided access and encouragement to try new outdoor endeavors. He and his sister, Autumn, went on family trips with their mom and dad, Kimberly and Andrew Gorayeb. They explored Yellowstone, Yosemite and the East Coast where Will spent countless hours sailing. They hiked, fly-fished, backpacked and sailed in squalls that revealed Will's love of challenging conditions.
Moving to Sisters hooked Saunders on the outdoor industry.
"It opened me up and helped me appreciate where I live," Saunders said. "From there, I got into river guiding and thought that's what I'd do for the rest of my life. Sisters introduced me to the mountain community and living sustainability and creatively. It inspired me a lot."
Looking back, Saunders has some advice for students: "I encourage people in high school to explore what's possible out there. We're taught that there's math, English, and science. Whether it's a trade or something athletic, there's a whole world of jobs out there. I didn't realize what marketing or advertising meant. So keep your options open. It's amazing how many people still do jobs they don't really love. I feel lucky and fortunate. It's more work than I ever experienced in my life and I love it. I wouldn't do anything else."