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Nov 11, 2023 by Marc Peruzzi

Meet a Creative: Robin O'Neill


Home Base / Whistler, British Columbia.

Activities / Skiing, mountain biking, backcountry pursuits.

Why Robin

Robin O’Neill entered photography from an oblique angle during her university years. Heading to Guyana for humanitarian work, she borrowed her dad’s film camera, reading the manual on the flight. “I didn’t think I would be documenting,” says Robin. “That wasn’t on my radar. The humanitarian part was what I was focused on. That was my thing. The cultural exchanges and service just lit me up. Other folks can find entirely new environments uncomfortable. I thrive in those situations.”

Dad’s camera in hand, more humanitarian trips to the southern hemisphere followed. But volunteering takes money. To raise funds, Robin did data entry at a law firm in downtown Toronto. To give back to the communities where she volunteered she sold prints in B.C. coffee shops.

Some skills just can't be taught. Curiosity about other lives is one of them.

It was a beautiful life, but it wasn’t a living. So Robin went back to school for photography. Armed with a photography degree she soon found work—but as a massage therapist, not as a photographer. In her late 20s, Robin moved to Whistler and learned to ski. It wasn’t until she broke a finger and couldn’t manipulate flesh that she applied for a job with the resort as a photo editor. They hired her in the marketing department. The gig gave her insight into how photos get commissioned. It was a doorway to a new career.

At a Whistler Blackcomb colleague’s request, Robin signed on for what, at the time, was the biggest photography contest in the outdoors, Whistler’s World Ski & Snowboard Festival Deep Winter Photo Challenge. Abandoned at the last minute by known athletes who didn’t want to work with an unknown, Robin pivoted and instead connected with ski patrollers and friends. Because her slideshow told a story, it was a stark departure from the norm—banger images broken up by afterthought filler shots.

The Photo Challenge confirmed for Robin that she was better suited to field work than the office. She pursued it, but in the early 2000s, editorial work was hard to break into for a woman photographer. And if you didn’t make a name for yourself with editorial work then commercial work was hard to come by, too. Thanks to her inherent tenacity, though, Robin was able to move directly to commercial work. Today she takes assignments on skis and bikes from the likes of Arc’Teryx, Dakine, Giro, Mountain Equipment Coop, CamelBak, Whistler Blackcomb and more.

Robin was one of the first women to break into adventure photography.
Women shooters were so rare, some people assumed Robin was a guy.

“As editor-in-chief of Skiing, I found myself as a judge at the WSSF Deep Winter Photo Challenge where Robin made a splash. Her slideshow was like nothing else we saw that evening. She told a story. We experienced Whistler through her eyes. There were no throwaway shots. The judges gravitated to the work because documentary photography was and is missing from ski photography. It was the easy winner.”​

Marc Peruzzi Writer | Editor
Some of Robin's images make you marvel at human athleticism, others speak to wanderlust.

Specialized Skills

Robin came to outdoor sports later in life, but if a shoot involves skis or bikes—or hiking or trail running—she can handle it. Her strength to weight ratio is off the chart and she’s comfortable in all terrain—inbounds and out. She doesn’t ride Red Bull Rampage drops, but neither do other mountain bike photographers.

Not just an athlete, an athlete in a landscape.

What’s Next:

Robin is a passionate skier and cyclist and she’s not leaving that behind anytime soon, but her roots call to her. She studied indigenous cultures in college. As this story was being reported Robin was traveling to the Haida Gwaii Archipelago off the coast of British Columbia. The islands have been the home to the Haida people for 13,000 years. “In many ways it’s an untouched landscape,” she says. “There’s not a lot of white culture. We’ll be bike packing and there may be an opportunity to go to a potlatch with a native women snowboarder from the islands. But more than anything I’m just hoping to find a meaningful way to connect.”