Action woman extraordinary – mountain and ocean photographer, skier and free-diver Melody Sky truly lives life on the edge. We asked her how she got to the edge in the first place and which came first, the ocean or the mountain.
“The ocean definitely came first. I’m from Scotland, but never skied as a child. I spent until 11 years old in Cornwall, so I was a beach girl from the very beginning. Then we finally moved back to Scotland, simply because back then education and the medical system wasn’t that great in Cornwall and my parents had a bit of worry about how we were going to grow up. So we moved back to Scotland.
Swimming was my first love. I used to compete from a very young age. And actually I still swim now; I love the water. I took off to do a season in Cyprus straight from school, and just by chance ended up doing a PADI dive course and from there ended up working in a dive school as their underwater photographer. So it wasn’t supposed to be that way, but that’s what started it all.
I ended up doing a five-day open-water PADI dive course. Then just by chance, the boss of the dive school was loading his camera in a really ridiculous way. So I said to him, ‘Would you like me to show you how to do that in an easier way?’ He was really unhappy with me. He threw the camera at me and told me to go underwater and take the photos of the 12 clients who were going on a dive and see how easy it was.
He expected me to produce a horrible photos, but then I went underwater…he came underwater with me. I took the photos, then he took the camera off me. That night he had them developed. The next day when I went into the school, he just looked at me and said, “So what are your plans for the rest of the summer?” So that’s what I did that summer and I became a professional diver and underwater photographer, which I continued for the next few years before skiing.
It was a very odd situation,’ she said. ‘I was living with a couple called JB and Claire. They’d been going to Tignes in the French Alps for nine years. She was in the French ski team and he was just a very passionate skier. They were both dive instructors, and I lived with them at the time I was in Cyprus; they were my instructors, actually. They put me through all my courses.
I went out to experience their life in Tignes. I really wasn’t interested in the cold, I wasn’t interested in skiing. They tried to convince me to go there for three years, I think it was. I said, ‘I don’t get why you people put pieces of wood on your feet and go down a mountain. I don’t get it. I’m not interested in the cold.’
Basically I went out to surprise them in November time and I’d never seen snow like it. It was just unbelievable. I came from Scotland where you had wet, not deep, wet snow and it was just incredible. I went to Harry’s Bar, which is where I ended up working for a while and it turned out that they weren’t there…and I was. They’d gone off to Canada for the first time in nine years. A good friend of mine who owned Harry’s Bar at the time said to me if I was to stay for the season, he’d give me a job in his bar. So I took the job in Harry’s Bar and ended up with a job teaching ice-diving in Tignes.
That season I went straight into scuba diving because the ice-diving school there, they heard that there was a young girl in town who was a scuba diver. But the only problem was I was a PADI diver and the French – very much like with their ski system – they like you to follow their system.
So they said to me, if I could learn French and go through the French system or SSI, then they would give me a job. So that’s what I did. I did my dive courses all over again from the beginning and learnt French as fast as possible and ended up with a job as the ice-diver in Tignes.
Everybody’s seen a horror movie where you go through the ice and you can’t find your way out. It can be a bit like that. But we were very, very safety-cautious and we used to cut three holes in sort of a triangle. I’d say it was probably 30, 40 metres apart from each other. At the beginning of the season we’d attach a line underneath to follow that triangle, so that nobody would get lost. That was basically the route we stuck to. There were only a couple of times I had to go with a journalist, as journalists like to do things a bit more adventurous, I’d have to go off a bit further out of this loop. But when it snowed, it was really, really dark.
My first season it was a big season and the ice was at least a metre, a metre and a half thick with the snow on top. It was very, very dark. But it was really nice where the light came through the holes, it would just sort of shimmer in the water and you could just see that in the distance.
Occasionally, if I had a client who was quite funny or seemed to want to enjoy themselves underwater and have some fun, I would inflate my dry suit, turn myself upside down and sort of walk upside down under the ice and then walk towards them, waddle towards them.
The school that owned the dive centre at the time were also a ski school. Evolution 2 had sort of all sorts of sports going on. So I was obviously really into photography and I was a terrible ski photographer. I used to take the odd ski photo of friends and, and then can’t remember why, but I think I watched my first ski movie there. I knew nothing about skiing and the first movie I saw was a local ski film from three local guys. I watched it and said, ‘That’s what I want to do with my life. I want to make ski movies.’
I’d never even used a film camera before, but then I did. I got myself a camera, and then Evolution 2 offered me a job filming their ski groups. So on my first season’s skiing ever I’m up there making films.
Somebody once said to me that they think I was the first female ski film maker ever to have my films and TV shows or films shown on a cinema screen. But I don’t know, there may have been another woman before me who was out there. I’m sure there was, but can’t find any information on that. So yes, I was very young and it was many years, many, many years ago. So who knows…
I actually decided when I was in Tignes and doing the ice diving and making the ski videos and so on, I came to a crossroads and thought, if I want to do this professionally, maybe I have to go and study it. But then I also wanted to go to Australia at that point – 26 years old was the cut-off point for the work visa if you wanted to go and work and travel in Australia.
So basically I flipped a coin on university or Australia and I got university, and so I did it. I looked for anywhere that would do a mixed degree of film and sports science because I wanted to study both film and sport. I found a university in London that did that. I was 26, a mature student when I started university and did a degree in film and sports science. But what was great about that was on the first year, of course, you had summer holidays and so I took the summer off and worked in a dive school as a photographer in Barbados.
And then on the second year I discovered you could do an exchange placement. So I transferred to Melbourne for the second year. I learnt more in Australia than did in the UK, simply because it was a very practical degree in Australia – we were cutting and splicing old film and I had to act and direct and edit, and it was really being out on the field.
I managed to travel a lot as well. We had a chalet at Mount Buller, so in the winter I was skiing and in the summer I was at the ocean. Then in the third year I went back to London and did my dissertation on the influence of mass media on the intrinsic culture of extreme sports. I basically studied freeride skiing for a year, and then the year after I ended up in Verbier making ski films.
Until about 12 years ago, I was mostly filming, so I made quite a lot of ski movies and filming freeride events. Then I started doing more photography than filming. So it’s a bit like the ocean and the mountains: for a couple of years I’ll prefer one to the other and then I’ll change. And it’s the same with filming and photography. Right now I’m really deep into the photography side of things and next year I might be filming a lot again.
I often get asked the question, ‘Would you recommend this job to anyone else?’ No way. It’s such hard work. I love it, but I think that’s what people don’t realise is that I have a 15, 20 kilo bag on my back and I’m having to hike to the same places as the athlete. I’m not an athlete and it’s really physical.
What people also don’t realise is that once I’ve done my full day on the mountain, a full work day, then you go home and have a little bit of dinner, maybe do a bit of yoga or something. But then my office hour starts…my office eight hours. So I’m usually at my computer until midnight every day unless I have a dinner out or something. I’m rarely not working in the evenings. So yes, it’s a lot of work. It’s not like I have weekends off or anything like that.
You never have a set pattern, you just don’t know what’s going to be around the corner. It’s that variety I love. I don’t know what’s coming up next and it’s never boring. I also like that I can plan my own life. I can take on the jobs I want to and turn down the jobs I don’t want. And if I feel like a long lie-in, I can take a long lie. Even though I’ve chosen to be self-employed and work those long hours, I don’t have to get up. If I don’t have a job, I can sleep as long as I like. So there’s pros and cons to the whole thing.
I just finished a really fun project and actually it’s really interesting because there was a production company from Norway called Process and a brand called Klätternmusen from Sweden who had the idea to make a film about photographers. Basically they just took us to Senja, Norway, which is an incredible place, and we skied in the most incredible scenery and mountains. The film was looking at how we could be in the same location and how different our photos might turn out.
There was a Finnish photographer from Verbier who is a really good friend of mine, and a Swedish photographer as well, and we didn’t have athletes with us. We were the athletes, so we were shooting each other, which was quite comical. Then we had to ski to have shots taken of us. We had to ski with our camera bags as well, having to look elegant skiing with our big packs. Sometimes you can get away with it because you’re not in front of the camera, but we actually had to try and ski very well in front of the camera as well.
But it was really good and it was a nice project because people actually get to see in the film what we go through, where we’re actually doing the same ski tours, we’re climbing the same mountains and we’re skiing the same snow, but we have a big camera bag on our back.
I’ve also turned some of my photography into artwork. That was born out of a charity event. A friend of mine got married in Sri Lanka and her mum runs an amazing charity looking after five villages in Sri Lanka. She’s all on her own, but she brings food and medication to them. I went to visit the slums that she was working in and so on, and I couldn’t believe the work she was putting in just on her own.
So when we got back to Verbier, my friend and I – actually it was her daughter – we decided to run a fundraiser in Verbier for her charity, and had all these beautiful images from the slums, these incredible black and white photos of the people and also the elephants. We went to see lots of elephants and I then thought, ‘Oh, this is so done. I have to come up with a different idea.’
So that was when I started creating art out of my photography. So I took quite a lot of the photos of elephants. I played around with patterns. My computer turned them into graphic art and it became quite a popular product in Verbier. I actually did an Alpine series as well. The W Hotel in Verbier, which was voted the world’s best ski hotel….all their lifts now have my graphic art and they’ve got it in their suites as well. I’ve started working a lot with prints and artwork and quite often people in Verbier will ask if I can go and have a look at their chalet and give them an idea of what I think will work well on their walls.
Sometimes. I’ve looked at a wall and it’s been a three-metre-long wall and I’ve said, ‘Oh, ok, let’s do a Japanese scroll there with some gold leaf on it on a photo, and drop some fabric.’ And so it’s not just a photo print; I like to come up with different ideas and be a bit creative and artistic with it. So I’ve worked with a couple of interior designers now, and that’s a nice sideline.
My website is MelodySky.com and my Instagram is @MelodySkyphotography. There’s a print shop on my website as well, so people can buy work on there, but also they can contact me and I can completely customise or personalise something. Also I can produce work that’s not on the website.
Until now I’ve done mostly private photography courses or weekend courses, but this summer I’m actually considering doing some bigger workshops with glaciologists and astronomers also there to help educate people on the photography we’re doing – a bit deeper than the usual workshop.”