Green Guide

Richmond couple turns their passion into full-time job

Posted September 9

— Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh combine their love for storytelling with their fascination for nature, wildlife and conservation.

He is a photographer. She's a videographer.

His photos of gelada monkeys, a species only found in the Ethiopian Highlands, were published in the April issue of National Geographic magazine, earning him a coveted spot as a National Geographic photographer. She was given years of film footage on the monkeys and helped edit the piece.

The Richmond residents work together on projects and travel the globe, turning their passions into full-time work — and finding creative ways to fund their expeditions.

Frost, 31, is an Eddie Bauer Adventure Guide, an ambassador for the retailer as an explorer and photographer. The retailer makes much of his work possible by giving him not only equipment and clothes but also a monthly stipend to help fund his expeditions.

"That has allowed me as an artist and visual storyteller to take the risks required to make this passion into a life," Frost said.

Lesh, 26, does commercial work on the side shooting weddings and promotional videos to help pay the bills. While others in her field might turn their noses up at commercial work, Lesh sees it as a chance to hone her skills. "I am actively practicing my art and skill set," she said.

Whether the project is a wedding or wildlife, "you get one chance to get it right," Lesh said.

As the nation celebrates Labor Day with a civilian workforce of 159.5 million people; 15.4 percent or 24.6 million people work part-time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. An even smaller group, 5.8 percent or 9.3 million people, are self-employed.

"We're hermits for the most part because we're workaholics," Lesh said. "Most people have a clear line between work and play. For us, it's a fluid line. You never stop working because you're always playing. Hour-to-hour, we probably work way more than someone who works 9 to 5."

There is no path in the creative field, Frost said.

"As a visual storyteller, you don't focus on the individual, you focus on telling the story," he said. "The most important part is your obsession with the story. When you wake up, you're thinking about it and when you go to sleep, you're thinking about it."

His obsessions have taken him to British Columbia to tell the story of the Sacredhead Waters as the source of three wild salmon rivers; to the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia's Malay Archipelago to photograph orangutans; to Africa and Australia to travel with nomads and document how they navigate in remote wilderness; to Australia to document saltwater crocodiles in ways never done before and to Africa to live among the grass-eating gelada monkeys.

Frost and Lesh are among 30,734 people in the Richmond area who are self-employed, according to data provided by Chmura Economics & Analytics, a research firm in Richmond. That's the highest number since 2008, when the country was in a recession.

"With the economy growing, people are more optimistic that there will be a market for their products," said Christine Chmura.

For the most part, Frost and Lesh were too young to pay much attention to the country's deep recession from 2007 to 2009 and long four- to five-year recovery. He graduated at age 20 from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental sciences and biology.

She graduated from VCU with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and print making in 2013. She spent her college years painting at school and, on the side, doing short films on salamanders, rock pools, dragonflies and sturgeon in the James River.

Both come from American families with creative leanings. His father is a photographer and environmental consultant. His mother, who worked in after-school education, pulled Frost from public school in eighth grade. He received high school credits at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and started college at age 16.

Lesh was born in Mumbai, India. Her mother is a classical cellist and her father is an artist. Her parents fled India 10 days after she was born, returning to family in Madison, Wisc., where she spent 13 years before the family moved to northern Virginia.

"I'm very fortunate to have two people in my life who also do what they love," Lesh said about her parents. She added that they never pressured her to "get a real job."

Lesh came to VCU for art school with plans to become a graphic designer. She spent summers working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, first in Maine learning about moose, then on Plum Island, Mass., filming salt marshes, and as a park ranger in the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina dealing with a fire that engulfed parts of the swamp in the summer of 2011.

Frost worked his summers as a camp counselor for Passages Adventure Camp, a day camp for youth ages 8-16, teaching them to kayak in the James River and climb rocks.

After college, he spent a couple years figuring out how to blend his wanderlust with his interest in photography, ecology, adaptation and evolution.

He applied to National Geographic for a Young Explorer grant and received $5,000 in 2008 when he was 22 to explore and map caves in Gabon in Central Africa.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning that year that Marburg virus, a sister to the often fatal Ebola virus, had been traced to bats in Gabon. "That was a bit of a damper," Frost said.

As long as bats didn't poop on his head, Frost figured he'd be safe. As the expedition leader, Frost led a team of four people, including one Gabonese on a two-month trip, exploring 14 caves — and getting pooped on in the process. With the help of local people, who refused to go into the caves, they found 11 caves that had not been documented.

After that experience, Frost kept sending pictures to National Geographic. He recalls submitting 20 photos once, only to be told "maybe you should think about another career." His photos of the monkeys finally clicked. The project took nearly three years from start to publication.

The couple recently finished a four-year project in Australia on the saltwater crocodile, the largest and most aggressive of all crocodile species and once nearly extinct on the continent. Frost's photographs will be published as an in-depth online essay by National Geographic in the coming week. The couple collected hundreds of hours of video they hope to turn into a TV documentary.

"Part of the story is crocodile farms have created jobs and helped the economy in Australia — and that helped people want to keep crocs around," Frost said. "It's an important story as we move forward on this planet. With the population growing and as conservationists, we need to think about new ways to protect wildlife and wild places."

Their goal, he said, is to share the natural world with millions of people. "If people can think differently about wildlife and places, then it is worth our time."

Frost and Lesh have their sights on their next two- to three-year project, a feature documentary on animal intelligence. They're talking with producers to gin up interest and financing. "We're writing a proposal and doing what you have to do as a young photographer and that is to beg," Frost said.

While their life might sound glamorous, going to beautiful destination and chronicling habits of wildlife, there is another side to their story. "When you're out there for three weeks, getting bit by mosquitoes and everything breaks, you find the whole dark side to what we do," Frost said.

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