The path to success doesn’t necessarily run in a straight line. Just ask Rachid Dahnoun.
An adventure, landscape and travel photographer based in Healdsburg and Lake Tahoe, Dahnoun’s recent achievements include landing the cover photo for National Geographic’s Night Sky of North America and being named to the Nikon 100 List of the world’s top 100 rising stars in photography.
His work has appeared in such magazines as Travel + Leisure, Outside, Sunset, Runner’s World and Smithsonian, and among his heavyweight commercial clients are Time Inc., American Express, The Travel Channel and Visit California.
At 37, Dahnoun has clearly achieved success in his field — a remarkable achievement when you consider that the journey he took to get there was circuitous and filled with adventure.
Around the turn of the millennium, while a student at Baltimore’s prestigious Maryland Institute College of Art, Dahnoun’s focus was aimed squarely at painting and drawing. But that changed in his sophomore year, when he took an elective class in black & white photography.
“I had never even picked up a camera before then,” he said, “but I quickly fell in love with photography. With painting, I’d sometimes spend a month or two on a work and be really married to that composition and image, but with photography I could go out and shoot all day and try different compositions and images and create a lot more diverse content quickly. I loved that. I switched majors and went full-bore into photography.”
After college Dahnoun, who grew up in Hilton Head, South Carolina, took an internship in Baltimore and frequently traveled to New York City.
“But after a few years I was sick of cities,” he said. “I had a good friend living in Lake Tahoe who had a spare room. So, sight unseen, I packed up my truck and moved out there for a winter. I had a little bit of money saved, so I figured I’d snowboard all winter and make a decision after that about what to do next.”
But as with so many best-laid plans, life intervened. Dahnoun fell “absolutely in love” with the Sierra, and decided to stay through the next summer, and then the next winter, and the years kept rolling on. He was happy and engaged, bartending nights at Kirkwood and spending his days snowboarding, climbing, mountain biking and backpacking.
“I didn’t pick up a camera again for the first five or so years,” he said. “But eventually a camera found its way into my pack. Little by little I built a portfolio of imagery that was true to me and what I liked to shoot — an outdoor portfolio. It started out as landscape, and I transitioned into adventure work. I was involved with snowboarding then (he competed in the North American Extreme Championships), so I had a network of friends who were competitive athletes, and I’d photograph them doing what they do.”
One day in the winter of 2009-2010, the CEO at Kirkwood invited Dahnoun to accompany a film crew on a shoot. He leaped at the chance. The images he shot that day ended up landing his first contract.
“That was the jumping off point,” he said. “All of a sudden I was making real money. I was still bartending, but over the next two years I was able to go full-time into photography.”