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Thai Neave: Our Planet is a Playground

When the hamster wheel gets tiring and the fear of mediocrity gives way to limitless possibilities, photographer, director and nomad, Thai Neave always chooses love over fear.

Published August 4, 2016 | Featured in

Country: Australia

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Thai shooting hoops.
Thai shooting hoops.

What attracted you to life in front of the camera at ESPN and your life now, as a travel photographer, director and nomad?
I was a sports reporter/host for more than a decade. I got my foot in the door really young before I knew what I wanted or who I really was.

There were things I loved about television: the fast-paced nature of news reporting, impossible deadlines, thinking on your toes, interviewing people, and ultimately even being the centre of attention when I was hosting on-air. I enjoyed the challenge of staying cool in the frantic whirlpool that is television news.

But I knew the moment I stepped foot into a newsroom that it wasn’t for me. It felt too contrived. News craves constant disaster and then sells fear. It then profits from advertising that sells things to people that they simply don’t need.

I demanded to be placed in the real world in all its harsh, beautiful, chaotic realities. I longed for freedom. I valued experience. I knew that we are able to write our own story. I wanted to be a hero in a glorious, action-packed romance that twisted and turned and inspired those who came along for the ride.

I kept quitting jobs to go off and have mini adventures. I once heard that adventure is to purposefully risk being in harm’s way. And I suppose that’s what I was doing: escaping the comfort of routine and asking the universe to place random obstacles, characters and, ultimately, stories on my path.

Swimming with whales (Thai Neave, travel photographer)
Swimming with whales.

Looking back, I realise photography gave me a sense of day-to-day purpose. Without the daily routine of a job, it’s easy to float around the world without much direction. Photography offered some order. At the very least, I knew I would wake up and try to see the world differently. With a camera in hand, I never felt lost.

Taking photos pushed me to places I probably wouldn’t have the courage to go to. I always said my camera was like a dog on a leash. It pulled me to places. It took me down foreign alleyways and around scary corners to see what was there. It introduced me to people I wouldn’t naturally talk to. It was an ice-breaker. Like a puppy sniffing at someone’s toes, my camera created these little moments of connection with complete strangers.

Did your experience in front of the camera enhance your ability behind it?
Yes, in a way. Being in front of the camera enhances your confidence and I think that trait is crucial for a photographer. I have never been afraid to talk to someone. Never intimidated to ask someone to take their portrait. I’ve never been afraid of a “no” or even a “fuck off”. It’s a bit like asking a girl out on a date. It’s a numbers game. If someone doesn’t want their photo taken (or go on a date) that’s fine. I don’t take it personally. What I do know is that if you don’t ask, you don’t know. And if you don’t know, you may regret it.

Man with a cigar, Cuba (by Thai Neave, travel photographer)
Man with a cigar, Cuba.

Tell us about the first time you took your camera on a journey. I remember the first time I got a shot that made me think, “I have a good eye.” I was in Cuba travelling from Trinidad to Havana on an incredibly bumpy dirt road in a beaten up 1950’s car. I saw this old guy on a horse framed up perfectly next to a Che Guevara sign. I stuck my hand out of the window gripping my state-of-the-art, two-megapixel camera (ha, ha) and got a nice shot.

When I look back on my early photography, it’s terrible. Literally terrible. The secret to improvement is to keep shooting. I dare anyone to take a million shots and not become good.

You often speak about mediocrity…
Mediocrity is my biggest fear. For most people, fear drives them into mediocrity. Being mediocre is not striving to be our best versions of ourselves — not to be perfect, not to be enlightened, but to simply be our best.

Travel is one of the best ways to combat mediocrity. It opens our eyes to possibilities. And more importantly, it opens our hearts. By looking beyond differences in beliefs, religion, and appearance, we realise that we are all so similar in our values.

Once a person jumps off the hamster wheel, what can they expect?
Great question! Pain. People only do things to pursue pleasure or avoid pain. Period. And avoiding pain is by far the biggest motivator, which is why most people avoid ever getting off the hamster wheel to begin with because they know it won’t be easy. But, that short-lived pain — of feeling increased uncertainty — will be the thing that ultimately enriches their experience.

I always try to reframe my idea of pain, so it becomes more painful if I don’t take a chance. It becomes more painful if I don’t take that leap of faith. It becomes more painful if I don’t go on that adventure or quit that job or make that piece of art. It becomes more painful if I don’t ask that girl out or ask for that photo, or try something new, or push myself. Yes, life takes balls. But I refuse to die wondering “what if?”.

Thai Neave, travel photographer, jumps off a rock

Why do you think it’s difficult for people to get out of their comfort zone?
The comfort zone is the worst destination on earth. You can visit the comfort zone from time to time, but if you stay there too long you will become vanilla, addicted to sameness, a zombie.
Most people say they want to think for themselves but they don’t create the time or space for self-reflection. They say I will be happy when______.  Fill in the blank. “I will be happy when I get that job/more money/a partner/some new clothes/a promotion/finish my degree/do a marathon.” This is the greatest fallacy ever told. Happiness can’t be bought. It can only be obtained internally.

It’s always amusing to me (and sad) that society says get an education, get a job, get a partner, make a kid, pay your taxes. And yet, the people we often admire — our heroes — are always mavericks. They’re the people who thought for themselves and stepped away from their tribe.
That’s just one of the beautiful things about travel. It creates time for self-reflection and examination. It’s often that initial step in getting out of the comfort zone because it allows you to see and smell and feel and taste things that are not necessarily ‘comfortable’. In those moments of feeling overwhelmed your beliefs are chipped away. You don’t think. You feel. And by feeling your true nature, you momentarily forget your conditioning.

Golden Lioness, Burning Man (by Thai Neave, travel photographer)
Golden Lioness, Burning Man.

How do you turn your fears into love?
By choosing love. Love is always the answer. Not sometimes. Not every now and then. Always. And if you make love-based decisions, not fear based ones, you will always choose the right direction in life. It doesn’t take courage. It takes love. Love is endless. It never has conditions. It is humans who make love conditional.

Tell us a little about Shooting Hoops. Where did it all begin?
Shooting Hoops is a photography project that aims to capture the raw beauty of street basketball.

It began in New York City while I was hosting ESPN SportsCenter. On my time off, I would walk the streets of Manhattan looking for photograph opportunities. I naturally gravitated towards basketball. I never planned it. It just happened. On reflection, I think the best art is born organically like that.

Thai, travel photographer, and his little friend Mana.
Thai and his little friend Mana.

I took one photo of a basketball court. Then another. And another until fast forward 5 years later and I have thousands upon thousands of basketball related images from all over the globe.

It has led to many great things including books, documentaries, fine art, press, but most importantly friendships. From CEO’s, to Little People, to homeless people, to NBA stars, Shooting Hoops has allowed me to meet many great people.

What are you currently working on?
I am always trying to redefine myself, so I don’t get too comfortable. These days, the only thing that makes me really satisfied is creating. I am not just taking photos, but writing, directing and open to all opportunities that come my way.

I am also concentrating on a fine art component to Shooting Hoops that gives back to under privileged basketball communities and homelessness. I think social entrepreneurship is the way of the future.

Which destination has taught you the most life lessons?
Probably New York City, Manhattan is a lot of things but at the end of the day it’s a very, very busy island. It has taught me to balance the onslaught of beautiful, fun-filled distraction that it has to offer with the vital need to rebalance with focus and discipline. It has taught me to go with the flow. It has shown me that to a large extend you can choose which version of yourself your want to be. And above all, New York City reminds me over and over again that my favourite feeling in the entire world is possibility. Nowhere on Earth seems to offer that insatiable feeling of possibility like NYC.

Also I learnt a lot in India. The poverty can be so brutal and sickening that it forces you into a lifelong commitment to gratitude.

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