Re Wikstrom, Photographer

When I met Re Wikstrom it was early, about 6:30 am on a foggy Los Angeles morning. We gathered in the foothills of the Angeles Crest for a photo shoot; I was one of the riders, Re was the photographer. She was warm and friendly despite the early call time and lack of coffee. Re was quieter than some of the other voices present that day, but she radiated kindness and confidence in a way that made me feel instantly comfortable. I had to know more about her. 

It's rare to see a woman behind the camera in this industry, especially on a shoot that’s not for “women’s gear” or “women’s bikes.” This was a road bike shoot for the general public but Re was there and so was I. It was exciting.

Re is Senior Photographer and Photo Manager at Backcountry.com and Competitive Cyclist. Her images are used to sell expensive sports gear to outdoor sports enthusiasts in generally male-dominated sports (cycling, climbing, snow sports). This, in itself, is important. 

In the past week, the cycling industry has lost two of its most prominent female voices. Leah Flickinger has stepped down from the role of Editor in Chief at Bicycling Magazine and the announcement came right on the heels of the loss of Anne-Marije Rook as Editor of Ella - Cycling Tips. These two women have inspired us at Machines For Freedom and gave hope to many that the industry was not so backward-thinking after all. 

I have personally been in the bike industry for 5 years - long enough to be fully immersed but short enough to still be a rookie in many ways. Without these women for me to look up to, I must ask: where are the women's voices in our industry? Lucky for me, I have my boss and founder of Machines, Jenn Kriske, from whom I have learned more about standing tall in business and in life than I ever thought possible. We have the tireless voices of Amanda Batty, Ayesha McGowan, and Anna Schwinn. We have the visuals of Tracy L Chandler, Natalie Starr and Emily Maye. 

We've also got Re Wikstrom.  Re isn’t the women’s gear photographer at Backcountry; she’s just the photographer. I sat down with Re for  a crash course on making it in a male-dominated industry and how sticking to your guns can get you anywhere you put your mind to. 

Photo by Re Wikstrom for Backcountry

Re has been working at Backcountry for 13 ½ years. Wow.

“I joke that I’m something of a dinosaur around here. It was one of those accidental things, because I never intended to stay.” Re dives right into how she started at the company, stories tumbling out as she tries to keep it all in chronological order. She had moved to Utah to ski and shoot ski photos. All she needed was a ski bum job to fill her nights and pay the rent while she spent her days doing what she loved. The only problem was that she had no waitressing experience. “Nobody would hire me to wait tables!” She laughs, “All I had was this photo experience.”

 

Re shooting in Moab. 

When a friend reached out about a Product Content position at Backcountry, he asked if she happened to have any experience with photography. She couldn’t believe it. “Woah buddy! That’s like all I have!” Re laughs again. She joined the team and still very much considered it her ski bum job. She convinced Backcountry to give her a flexible schedule so she could still ski some days. 

In 2009, she was offered a position on the Creative Team as Assistant Photo Editor. She jokes, “I figured I’d settle down and become a photo editor when I turned 45, but here I was with the job in my late 20’s.” A few years later the team has grown, allowing Re to get back to shooting photos. 

“I would much rather be outside,” says Wikstrom. And outside she is; Re tells me she’s spent the past 2 months on the road. From California to Washington, to Wyoming, back to California another 3 times, and down through Moab in Southern Utah as well. “It’s been nonstop,” she explains, “shoot photos, edit photos, and just get through it as fast as possible.”

 

Photo by Re Wikstrom for Backcountry

But she likes it that way. Wikstrom gets to use her experience shooting action sports for magazines in a more documentary or photojournalistic style and bring that storytelling to her commercial work with Backcountry. 

When she’s not travelling, Re lives in Salt Lake City and spends her days at the Backcountry offices. To keep Re for over a decade, the company must be doing something right. “I do feel like there’s a large amount of women [at Backcountry]. Although my team specifically [the creative team] has always been really balanced.” And Re would know, she’s been on the creative team since it was only two people, compared to its size now of 24. She explains, “We’ve got 9 women vs. 13 men, so not quite 50/50 but I’d say that’s a pretty good split.”

I press Re for stories of sexism as she worked her way up through two strongly male-dominated industries: outdoor sports and action photography, but she’s quick to keep the discussion on the subject of photography. “In my case, what I do, I just love what I do. I’ve worked really hard – I went to school for photography, I’ve dedicated all of my vacation time to shooting photos, all my personal and work time to pursuing that. And that’s something that will come across whether you are male or female.” As we chat, it becomes clear that Re views herself first and foremost as a teller of women’s stories and only secondly as a female photographer.

 

Photo by Re Wikstrom for Backcountry. 

“When I moved to Utah, it was already full of some of the greatest ski photographers in the world. If I were a dude, maybe I wouldn’t have moved to Utah, because I would be competing with Scott Markewitz, Adam Clark and Lee Cohen and Brett Benson, and they’ve had all these magazine covers. But I was like you know what, it’s cool, because I’m going to come in and have a totally different purpose. And maybe it’s helpful that they’re now my peers. Because now they know who I am and what I stand for; maybe if they hadn’t thought about the way they portray women, maybe it makes them think about it. And that helps everyone.”

Propelled by this desire to do things differently, and to put her vision of the female athlete out into the world, it seems Re didn’t have the time or energy to consider whether what she was doing was unexpected.

 

“I never consciously felt that I’ve been struggling against a male-dominated world,” she explains. “I believe I live in one, but I believe it’s an unconscious thing. People don’t realize that our culture is so male-dominated, and it’s not until we really start talking about it and bringing it up that people might realize oh, I might have this bias.

This is a theme that permeates our conversation; Re is extremely passionate about opening up peoples’ eyes to the biases that may unconsciously color the way they see the world and especially the way they shoot photos. In her personal photography her mission is to “support women athletes and portray them in a way which is more confident, capable and in a much better light” than they are traditionally represented in outdoor sports photography. She is self-aware too, acknowledging that her “very existence and having that mission out there, may make other photographers stop and think, How have I been portraying women? Should I consider this? Maybe I’ll change my approach.”

This is telling of Re’s character. She is not only dedicated to doing what she loves, but also to using her role to make change in her industry.

 

In her photography, Re sets out to portray women as skilled and experienced in their sport, confident, knowledgeable, and most importantly, as unique human beings. “I think too often a woman is portrayed as the token female, and the stereotype that goes along the token female doesn’t allow for whoever that female is to be their own unique person and let their unique personality and their characteristics to shine through.”

“When you’ve got 20 guys in a movie and only one female,” she goes on, that female would often “smile, ski some powder, yay!” The men, in comparison, would be set apart by their ski styles or their personality quirks. Re does that for the athletes she photographs. She allows them to be people as well as being women and athletes.

Listening to Re talk about her work this way is really inspiring. When I ask if she thinks it’s important for people to know that her photos are shot by a woman, she puts her vision of women at the forefront, rather than her role as the photographer.

But then, she pauses. 

It seems Re is always thinking about her role, not for herself, but for what it means for the athletes she photographs and for the next generation of women who might see her work and feel like they can dive into action sports photography or downhill skiing or mountain biking. 

“The older I get, the more I realize that just being a woman photographer in the world can be inspiring for younger women," Re explains. "And so by that token it does become important. If my existence can help inspire women to think beyond any box they were previously feeling confined by, then yes, I do want you know that I’m a woman who shot that photo."