Tanner Wendell Stewart

Photographer

I WANT MY PHOTOS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE, BUT YOU ALSO HAVE TO GIVE YOURSELF ROOM TO BREATHE, TO ENJOY CREATING LANDSCAPES AND TO BE OUT IN THESE BEAUTIFUL PLACES.
One evening in 2013, Tanner Wendell Stewart found himself straddling a beam on the Aurora Bridge, which connects the Seattle neighborhoods of Queen Anne and Fremont, at four in the morning. His feet hung freely, with nothing between them and Lake Union far below, and his tripod sat taped to a part of the bridge itself for balance.
 
“There’s no one who will ever take this photo again, and no one has ever sat in this spot at four in the morning to take this picture,” he said. “It’s almost an indescribable feeling, knowing that you’re getting a photo that most people will never work for.”
 
That search for the unseen, the unique angle or unexplored vista, has inspired Stewart to travel around the world, capturing landscapes. But, it’s also inspired him to work for “unseen” people, as well, raising massive funds to help fight human trafficking and using his skills to capture the good work of nonprofits like Krochet Kids, a micro-enterprise that works with women in Uganda and Peru.
 
The 29-year-old Seattle resident fused those two impetuses together in Shoot the Skies, his 2014 book that culminated of a full year of photography, interviews and a desire to shed light on human trafficking. 

It started with a trip to Bulgaria.
 
“When I was there, a guy tried to sell me a baby for $50,” Stewart said. “The reality changed from ‘that’s a good cause,’ to a very personal thing. It changed me forever.”

Having found his cause, Stewart returned to the States. He quit his day job and hit the road, driving to 20 national parks and visiting five countries, to take a photo every day for the project. Those photos became a book, and that book raised more than $60,000 in net proceeds, all of which were donated to A21, an organization devoted to stopping human trafficking.
 
But, when the check has been sent, the work has been completed and the feeling of accomplishment starts to fade, what comes next?
 
“I almost had to allow myself to just enjoy the process of creating images for themselves, not necessarily for a bigger purpose,” Stewart said. “I had to retrain my brain. I want my photos to make a difference. But, you also have to give yourself room to breathe, to enjoy creating landscapes and to be out in these beautiful places.”
 
For those landscapes, Stewart often finds himself following the lunar cycle, looking for reflections in lakes and stars in the sky. It’s not the easiest task when living in a city with the light pollution and size of Seattle, but then—as climbing about 150 feet to a beam suspended over Lake Union might indicate—the easiest photo has never been the one Stewart’s interested in taking.
 
“There’s a sense of wildness in nature that I want to include in my photography,” he said. “It creates a challenge for me, but it also creates the sense of accomplishment.”

Stories & Surroundings

Written by Robert Spuhler Photography by Jon Sweet