Robin O’Neill is an anomaly. For an action sports photographer operating in a highly visual medium, she’s not particularly observant. She can pedal the same trail twice and come to it fresh each time.
“I have no observational skills. No memory of the trail I’ve just ridden. Instead, I go by feel.”
That kinesthetic tendency and her bent towards social justice explain the emotional depth of O’Neill’s photography. She doesn’t pre-visualize her shots or stage them. She is waiting for the image to emerge, to feel it as much as she sees it. “This may be a more stressful way of doing things,” she laughs. “Especially the night before a shoot. But apparently, I like it.”
There is an intimacy in showing up and paying serious attention to the subtle shifts in the snowpack, the sun’s angle, and the moss-draped trees from micro-season to micro-season. Moving through a landscape is the same on a skin up-track or a bike — propelled by your own steam, acutely aware of the huff of your breath, the rhythm of your legs, and the bass track set by your heart. So, too, the exhilaration of the ride down, the chance to play with terrain, to track that sweet spot between flow and flail, with every neuron in the zone and no clutter tripping up your mind.
O’Neill’s ability to feel the moment allows her to slip between the seasons with unusual adeptness, unearthing parallels, despite the opposite energy in temperature, weather conditions, daylight hours, and the raw elements from winter to summer, so it’s not surprising that she is a prolific photographer in both skiing and mountain biking. But succeeding as a photographer in both seasons is unusual – especially given that O’Neill didn’t even take up either sport until she moved to Whistler at age 30.
“I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto. Skiing wasn’t something my family did. At thirty, I decided to stop brooding because I hadn’t been exposed to outdoor adventure when I was young — and I did something about it.”
She had laid the groundwork for her future profession with little of a plan. Fresh out of university doing development work for non-government organizations in Guyana and Zimbabwe, she had taught herself to use a camera to capture the strange beauty of the communities she worked alongside. “I loved documenting things that other people didn’t get to see.” A few years later, she followed someone to the Western Academy of Photography in Victoria, British Columbia. “I enrolled because I had a crush on them — not photography! As it turned out, they didn’t show up … but I haven’t looked back!”
Then she found Whistler. Or perhaps it found her? It quickly became her happy place where all her passion emerged.
Despite being an unknown photographer, she landed a last-minute invitation to compete in the high-test Deep Winter Photo Challenge, the first woman ever to compete, alongside a line-up of action sports heavy hitters. She hardly knew her way around the ski hill but jumped in with both feet to build a six-minute slideshow of images shot within a 72-hour window. A documentarian at heart, her emotive show took second place, drawing a huge standing ovation. The feeling of recognition in the room that night was palpable — people felt seen by her storytelling. Represented.
A few months later, O’Neill switched gears and seasons and won the mountain bike-themed Deep Summer Photo Challenge. She returned to take the Deep Winter Photo Challenge title the following winter. She had suddenly become one of a very rare breed of action sports photographers with the skill to capture both high-level skiing and elite mountain biking. In fact, she might be the only woman capturing both sides of the mountain’s seasons at this level.
Eight years later – sixteen busy back-to-back shooting seasons – she had amassed such a body of work that she was invited to compile a nine-minute slideshow at the Pro Photographer Invitational event. Her show was the only compilation that danced between two sports and won the Audience Choice Award.
“I was interested in showcasing the parallels between the seasons,” O’Neill reflects. “The seasons change, but the love is the same.” She reams off the similarities — shared passion, energy output, excitement, planning, and hard work. Most significantly, she calls out the relationships that develop intimacy. A camaraderie grows almost instantly from a shared love of the outdoors and adventure that transcends politics and different personality types. “Fresh air and structured socializing are the ultimate social glue,” says O’Neill. “No awkward dinner party chit-chat. You’re all in your happy environment. It’s an easy way to make deep friendships.”
Given a choice, when she’s not on a shoot, O’Neill will leave her camera gear behind to ride, ski, or run as fleet as possible. When you shoot both summer and winter, you don’t have an off-season. You don’t have any downtime. You flow from one extreme to another, seeing the synergies and how one thing informs the next. As a result, O’Neill seeks her regeneration by keeping social media at bay, and reading, on average, 40 books a year – often memoirs, historical fiction, and stories with an equity bent. She’s always looking for insights that help us see what we have in common. What unites? What reveals our shared humanity? What makes us all feel seen? Because, when you look carefully enough – feelingly — the parallels are everywhere.