How a Former Hedge Fund Guy Became a Top Travel and Adventure Photographer 

David Yarrow’s new book, "Storytelling," takes readers from South Sudan to the American West

December 6, 2022 6:00 am
David Yarrow
David Yarrow
David Yarrow

Not many people get to see or experience the world like David Yarrow. The British photographer has spent over three decades traveling the globe capturing images of iconic sporting moments, personalities and endangered wildlife. He’s waded across a crocodile-infested section of The Nile (with a full-sized ladder, no less), come face-to-face with polar bears in Alaska and big tusker elephants in Kenya — even dined with Japanese hijackers in North Korea. Yet, despite being one of the best-selling photographers in the world, Yarrow doesn’t always get the shot. 

“One of my heroes once said to me the harder you practice the luckier you get. So I work hard, but sometimes you have bad luck,” he explains. A couple of cases in point: his team spent $100,000 in Alaska this summer, followed by $400,000 in Antarctica — they didn’t get the shot in either location. “We had to take it on the chin,” he says matter-of-factly, adding that they then “spent 20 grand somewhere else and got the bloody shot.” Even when you do nail it, Yarrow says, there will always be “luck” involved — a force that has woven its way through his career. 

While on assignment for The Times covering the 1986 World Cup final in his early twenties, his “lucky” photograph of Diego Maradona led to Yarrow turning down a plumb job offer from Getty Images. Instead, he pursued a career in finance and spent close to a decade building a billion-dollar hedge fund. It was only after the 2008 crash and subsequent recession that he decided to pick up a camera again. With a natural eye for angles, light and composition and a director-like knack for layering scenes with nuance and context — Yarrow counts Spielberg and Scorsese as influences — some might say it was the path he should have taken in the first place.  

We’re sitting in Maddox Gallery in West Hollywood, where a selection of larger-than-life images from his new book, Storytelling, are on display. Most are in his striking signature black-and-white, but “1992” — a recreation of Cindy Crawford’s classic Pepsi ad — is in gloriously saturated color. The exhibition is part of a global gallery tour to promote the latest retrospective of Yarrow’s work: a glossy 336-page hardback that would make a welcome addition to any art book collection or well-curated coffee table. Within more than 150 iconic and not-yet-published photographs taken over the last three years telling tales from the American Wild West — Yarrow considers America “the beating heart of his business” and a particular place of resonance and meaning to him creatively — to the Caribbean and plains of Africa. 

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David Yarrow, Storytelling

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While Yarrow made his name photographing wildlife in close quarters, his staged editorial shots featuring models like Cara Delevingne and Alessandra Ambrosio have become a hallmark too. And, yes, a rotating cast of wild animals also feature. See Cindy Crawford driving across a snowy Montana landscape with a wolf riding shotgun in “On The Road Again.” It’s one of several collaborations with Crawford that raise significant sums for charity — the $2 million in sales from limited edition prints of the aforementioned “1992” were donated to the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, where Crawford’s brother was treated for leukemia. 

Philanthropy has always been central to Yarrow’s work, raising nearly $12 million for philanthropic and conservation organizations worldwide, including Tusk, WildAid and the Koala Comeback Campaign. His “The Wolves of Wall Street” photograph featuring real-life Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort, which was signed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Scorsese, sold for a staggering $200,000 at Art Miami in 2019. The proceeds went to conservation NGOs supported by DiCaprio. 

As a storyteller who gets to meet “amazing people and great characters,” despite seeing images he wants to create in his head, Yarrow says when it comes to his creative process, there’s always a linear progression from conception to execution. Even when being spontaneous, it’s never linear; as he says, “you always have to go with the flow.” When I ask him how many “good” pictures he’s made or taken this year, he tells me four, although 2019 was particularly good with seven. 

“I laugh at people who say, ‘Here are the 50 best pictures I’ve taken this year,’” he says. “I think, ‘What a genius’ because I take one every two months. Ultimately, though, I want everything I do to get stronger. The book reflects my journey as an artist going from an early-days sports and wildlife photographer to just telling stories and trying to create authentic pictures where people say ‘That’s batshit crazy and I haven’t seen it before, but I want it on my wall.’”  

David Yarrow’s new book Storytelling (Rizzoli) is out now with profits donated to UW Health Kids Cancer Care.

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