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May 14, 2024 by Frederick Reimers

Meet a Creative: Mike Thurk


Home Base / Lyons, Colorado

Activities / Street Photography, Coffee Drinking, City Walking, Light Chasing

Why Mike:

Working as a mountain guide in Alaska, Colorado, and France a dozen years ago, Mike Thurk began shooting photos with his iPhone. Those images found an audience because, he says, “people were interested in the locations I could get to.” He’s being modest—people loved them because of the locations and his creative eye. 

The key to developing that eye, Mike says, were the constraints of those early phone cameras. “There was just the single lens, so to get strong images I had to close the distance between me and the subject,” he says. Often he’d close to an uncomfortably close distance. The way to ease that tension, Mike says, was to connect socially with his subject. That trust yielded the sort of emotionally resonant photographs that remain Mike’s calling card.

In editorial work for publications like Runner’s World and The New York Times and for ad campaigns for clients like Nike and Arc’teryx, Mike’s images stand out for their arresting intimacy and atmospheric use of light, often employing motion blur. “I’ve been known as the black and white sports photographer,” he says. “But I’m getting away from that.” His color work shares the same intention and gravitas, often generated by physical proximity.

“I keep picking up the 70-200mm lens less and less,” Mike says, preferring shorter-focal length lenses like a 50mm or even a 28mm. “Because it’s just me and one camera and one lens, I can move through spaces without disturbing the moment or fabricating,” he says. “That helps get me the authenticity I’m looking for.”

Las Vegas, Nevada.

Specialized Skills:

“What I’m searching for is emotional connectivity between myself, the subject, and the viewer,” says Mike. To get it, he’s built on the social techniques he developed guiding, where he learned that you can make a connection with people surprisingly quickly. First, he works on being emotionally available himself. “You can’t ask someone to be vulnerable in front of the camera if you aren’t willing to meet them in that space,” Mike says. To get there, he reflects on his own goals before each project. “Sometimes I’ll hold off shooting if I don’t understand my intention yet,” he says. “Maybe I even have to understand that I’m not the right person for the job.” Secondly, it means being patient. “If you are trying to rush something that isn’t authentic, it won’t happen for you.”

A case in point is his photo essay on ice climber Anna Pfaff’s 2022 recovery from frostbite suffered on Alaska’s Mount Huntington. Pfaff agreed to let Mike document the process of trying to save her toes using a hyperbaric chamber and later the amputation of six of them. Mike was honored to receive the invitation. The resulting photos are sensitive and powerful. “I had to sit with my intentions for a long time to make sure I could handle it with integrity,” says Mike

Montmorency Falls Park, Quebec.

The days after my accident were some of the darkest of my life. A lot of people wanted to be there to document my recovery, but Mike was the only one I said yes to. His demeanor is so open and attentive that he makes you feel comfortable sharing something intensely personal. He is able to capture his images without intruding. He brings the meaning behind his own life to work with him, and that really shows.

Anna Pfaff Alpinist

What's Next:

Mike is returning to Iten, Kenya, the high-altitude community known for producing world-class endurance runners. In 2023, he followed professional runner Nell Rojas to Iten, known as the “Home of Champions,” to document the running culture there. The community lent itself to closer examination. During his preparation for the trip, Mike learned of Tirop’s Angel’s, a non-profit formed to defy gender-based violence, named for Kenyan Olympic runner Agnes Tirop, who was murdered by her husband in 2021. He was moved to work with the organization. “In a place where the sun shines brightly, the shadows can be very deep,” says Mike. “The struggle for equity of women athletes in Iten is the same struggle women face everywhere, and it deserves to be documented. I was honored that they allowed me to help tell their story to new audiences so that it might bring about change.”

Kipchoge Keino Stadium, Eldoret, Kenya.