A Q&A with Foster Huntington.
When Foster Huntington was a college student he started a blog called A Restless Transplant. His stories would be about the interesting things he found in Maine where he was studying. He also has a great eye and he would take beautiful photos. When I looked at Foster’s site it was obvious that he had good taste and solid instincts. He was full of energy — and boundless ambition. He’s always had a natural ability with a camera. Even on that first blog, it was obvious his visual abilities were going to take him places.
When he started blogging he would email me constantly. In my recollection, I would try and be responsive to him and support however I could. I bet he sees things slightly differently though. If he admits it or not, he probably resents me a bit for being standoffish. Maybe he doesn’t, but I regret not stopping to support him more. Turns out that he didn’t need my help anyway. I’m glad we have stayed in touch all of these years and when I was writing the story about influencers I thought of him. Not because he’s the stereotypical influencer, but because he’s the opposite.
Eventually, Foster moved to New York to work for Ralph Lauren and we became friends. I’ve always deeply admired what Foster has done. I think maybe I was even a bit jealous of his ability to be able to know what he wanted from life in his early 20s. Maybe he didn’t know exactly, but he had the guts to take bold steps to find happiness. As someone in my 40s, I often think that I should have been better about saying f/ck it and taking more risk. I’ve done a lot but it took me a while to figure out what I really wanted to do.
Foster has been successful across a genre of creative endeavors. He’s published multiple popular books (with a Off Grid Life coming this October), he basically invented the Vanlife vagabond influencer existence that millions of people now aspire to (one that we all loathe to some degree). He built an incredible treehouse compound/movie studio in Oregon complete with woodfired hot tub and skate bowl. He’s a one-man cultural force.
I admire how authentic he is and I appreciate his creativity. Through all of this success and adventure, he’s remained the grounded and hilarious guy. Despite all of his success, he never got a big head. He’s always been approachable and true to the things he believes in. All of that continues to this day.
ACL: You were one of the first people to live the “Vanlife” and could potentially be credited with coining the term. How did you get the inspiration to live in your van full time?
Foster Huntington: I started daydreaming about buying a van and traveling. My apartment in NYC was pretty damn small and a van wouldn't be much larger than that. It seemed like the ideal way to travel and see the world on a tight budget. After living in the van for 4 months I started joking about the idea of Vanlife as an analog to thuglife. At the time, Instagram had just launched the hashtag feature and I checked out the Vanlife tag and there were like 40 photos of people's Vans shoes. I started it as a joke and then just really snowballed. I stopped living in my van in 2014 and it’s really picked up steam since then.
What did you learn living on the road? How many nights did you end up in hotels or friend's places?
My time on the road was one of the best times of my life. I learned a tremendous amount about what makes me happy and what I care about. I learned that cities are not for me and that I wanted to live in the woods. I wanted to be close to my family. I read over a hundred books, catching up on things I should have read during high school and college but didn’t. I read fictional classics as well as nonfiction books that interested me. I honestly spent very few nights in hotels. To this day I'd rather stay in my van than in a hotel.
How did you make money?
For the first year, I was living on the road, I lived off of the advance for my first photobook, The Burning House. I lived cheap, on about 80-100 dollars a day, including gas and everything. I ate cheap Mexican food, rarely showered, and spent most of my time surfing. After that money ran out, I got a freelance gig doing photography stuff for Patagonia. This was in 2011-2014 and social media influencers we're not a thing.
At the same time you were a Vanlife pioneer you were also one of the first big independent creators on IG and ultimately got to 1M followers. Did you know early on that IG was going to be huge?
I first starting Instagram in 2010. The pork bun crew all started using it and I definitely thought it was going to be a big deal. It was such an easy and fun way to share photos. I was already using Twitter in a similar capacity, taking photos on my iPhone, using some shitty polaroid app, and then posting it to my Twitter account. It felt like a logical leap to me. Photography at its core to me is a window into another world, and when I moved into my van and started traveling around with intention of taking photos and having a good time Instagram was by far the easiest way for me to do the document what I was doing. When I left my job in New York, I thought I would travel until I ran out of money and then either find a new way to make cash or join the military. I knew that working a corporate 9-5 wasn’t cutting it after living in New York for two years and that I had to do something drastic and see if that satiated my desire for some excitement.
What have you been doing during the pandemic?
I've been working in my stop motion studio on some commercial projects. I live 45 minutes outside of Portland, Oregon in rural Washington, life hasn’t changed that much for me. I've actually been busier than usual working on some commercial projects in my stop motion studio, Movie Mountain. Turns out that having a private sound stage and motion control set up lets us make stuff when a lot of other production setups can’t. Other than working in the studio I've been hanging out with my girlfriend and our dog. Other than not going out to eat in Portland 3-4 nights a week, my life has been pretty similar to 2019.
You've made some incredible films over the years. What's happening with Movie Mountain?
Movie Mountain is full steam ahead. We're about to release our first feature-length documentary and are pitching a stop motion feature right now. When I first started the studio, I focused on making content for social media. We spent months making 1-minute videos that got posted and got a lot of views and were reposted by a lot of places. The way the social media algorithms work unfortunately is that they favor content curators and meme accounts more than they do the people that actually make the original sh/t. I switched the focus away from making short-form content and towards longer stuff. I want to make movies, not Instagram videos and the best way to do that is by doing it.
This isn't a pointed question, but what are your thoughts on doing paid partnerships on IG? Do you regret anything commercial you have done on the platform?
I can only talk about this from my own experiences. I'm sure that they work with some people with audiences but for me, they are pretty cringe-worthy. There was a period in the mid 20 teens that I made money doing them. Every single time I did an "influencer" project I felt like a sellout. The agencies never gave a sh/t about what they were promoting or the people they worked with. It was always a battle with the companies wanting the most corny, milquetoast content possible. Most of the time the products I promoted I never used or believed in. Hunter Thompson wrote an amazing piece in Playboy about a French Olympic Skier turned product endorser that’s about 40 years ahead of its time. It captures the vibe of product endorsements and social media influencers very well. With that said, my paid partnership work gave me the money to build my studio and set up a way to make money from that. I’m very thankful I had the opportunity to make money doing them but for me, it really just didn't pencil out in the long run. Every time I did them it made something that I should enjoy, making videos and taking photos seemed like some form of academic punishment. I stopped doing them in 2016.
What do you think is going to be the future of social media?
I think the future of social media is pretty damn bleak. Facebook and Google control everything and are dead set on turning everyone into addicts. From an artistic perspective, people's desire to get likes on everything they create whitewashes content. Instead of posting what they are into or what they believe in, they post what they think will get likes. The shift, from my perspective, came, when all of the platforms switched away from chronological timelines to show you whatever they thought you should see. In practice, this means that you see only the most click-baiting shit or promoted content. I think Facebook is particularly twisted in how they don't pay content creators to make stuff. For serious artists, filmmakers, writers, etc social media is not an endgame. There's very little future in it in my eyes. You have to make stuff that has value and making stuff for social media has no value. Sure it’s good "promotion" but the platforms have very little incentive to promote content in their algorithms that leads people off the platform. This is just me assessing social media as a creative person making films and photobooks.
Last question. Are you worried about the coming Cascadia Tsunami?
I live at 1100 feet above sea level, so I’m not worried about it. I think the Cascadia earthquake could f/ck sh*t up but I’m about 40 miles east of where the real business would go down.
This is great!
My favorite line: "After that money ran out, I got a freelance gig doing photography stuff for Patagonia."