A revolution and a refugee crisis spur on a photography career for Rocky Mountain National Park's Erik Stensland.
After living in the epicenter of poverty and a civil revolution in Albania followed by the Kosovo War that began in 1998, Erik Stensland decided to flee to a corner of the world where people are forbidden to live.
Dotting 415 square miles of wilderness are scores of clear mountain lakes that reflect anything above them. Look into their mesmerizing waters, and you might spot a towering 12,000-foot snow-capped peak, a thirsty elk or billowing clouds sauntering through the blue sky on a summer afternoon.
And if you venture to this corner where Stensland did 14 years ago, you’ll find that Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is inhabited largely by a great stillness. You can’t see it, but you can feel it as you walk through a forest or sit along one of its 150-plus lakes. Some say you can even hear it. As for human inhabitants, there is a small cluster of ranger cabins on the edges of this majestic land, but those rangers are sidelined by animals like elk, bear, moose and mountain lions that roam the park’s majestic meadows and mountainsides.
It was the stillness that brought Stensland here at age 35, 5,820 miles from Albania and Kosovo where he and his wife Joanna Stensland spent 11 years, tirelessly doing relief and refugee work. And it is the stillness that has kept him here where he launched a successful career as a professional landscape photographer.
“Every place has its own beauty and wonder, but I feel like most of this park is undiscovered,” he says as he sits in his Estes Park gallery surrounded by huge photographs of his work. “Most people drive Trail Ridge Road and see Bear Lake and think they’ve seen the park. But we have 60 peaks over 12,000 feet high and 350 miles of hiking trails.”
Fog of Unrest
From his fifth-story apartment building in northern Albania where he lived for years, Stensland could see into Kosovo, a powder keg waiting to explode, he recalls. But before it did, he and his wife discovered themselves in a middle of massive civil unrest in Albania. A well-orchestrated pyramid scheme involving a large percentage of the Albanian population collapsed in 1997, toppling the government and causing people to lose $1.2 billion. The unrest that followed included massive riots, anarchy, the looting of 1 million weapons from armories and the mass migration of Albanians.
Albania’s civil unrest led the couple to flee to the capital city, 10 hours away over mountainous roads, on a ferry and over more mountainous roads. But as things quieted down, tensions flared between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs and the government of Yugoslavia, leading to the Kosovo War that lasted from 1998-99. The fighting resulted in scores of refugees fleeing Kosovo and streaming into Albania. At one point Stensland helped international agencies address the needs of 30,000 refugees. Then, Stensland and his wife moved to Kosovo to assist people in rebuilding their homes and lives after the war, putting others' needs in front of their own.
“We woke up and realized we were going, going, going,” says Joanna Stensland. “There were lots of joys but also pressures. We didn’t take enough time for ourselves.”
Stensland’s stress levels escalated. His best friend in the area died suddenly at age 34. Around him people tried to put their lives together amid bombed-out buildings and decimated villages. And the memory of his father tugged at the sleeves of his consciousness. He had died at age 42 when Stensland was 12. What if he didn’t have much time left?
“After the last three years in Kosovo, I was burned out,” he says. “I had nothing left to give. I needed to be restored, be in wilderness.”
Wilderness as a Refuge
In the midst of helping people, the Stenslands realized they needed to take care of themselves. And wilderness seemed to be the antidote to the utter chaos of war. They stayed at a friend’s cousin’s cabin near Rocky Mountain National Park, thinking after a break they’d return to the Balkans.
But Erik Stensland discovered more than the natural world as he began exploring Rocky Mountain National Park. He realized he wanted a job that would enable him to walk the trails of the park and experience solitude on a daily basis. Ideas swirled in his head. He could be a park ranger or an outdoor guide, but occupations like those involved more time with people and less time with solitude. Stensland needed quiet.
“I fell in the love with the park,” Stensland says. “It’s a magical place. I began to understand it in greater depth. I wanted to explore all of it.”
Then it hit him. He would become a professional photographer.
Easier said than done, naysayers told him. Aside from his simple point-and-shoot camera, Stensland had no photography equipment nor experience. One gallery employee in Estes Park told him it would be impossible to become a full-time landscape photographer. Stensland heard the word “impossible” and took it as a challenge.
Unfortunately, it was the early 2000s, and there was no YouTube to watch an endless parade of videos on how to take photos. Instead, Stensland reached for the then ubiquitous black and yellow Photography For Dummies book. He devoured it. He went to photo club outings and spent hours in the Estes Park library, studying books containing paintings of artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran.
“I studied them to see how they captured emotions in their paintings that made me feel what I feel when I am in the mountains,” he says. “And then I’d look at photographs by Jack Dykinga, Art Wolfe, Galen Rowell and others. If they moved me, I’d study them.”
Living the Dream
He sold greeting cards along the way and set up his own booth at dozens of art fairs where his images began to attract a following. Three years after he decided to become a landscape photographer, he did the impossible. He opened his own gallery, Images of Rocky Mountain National Park in downtown Estes Park.
His wife was least surprised.
“He brings a smile to my face,” she says. “He’s 100 percent dedicated to whatever he puts his mind to. He’s quite a visionary and will work hard to achieve (his vision).”
Ten years later, Erik has three galleries with his main one in downtown Estes Park, another in Grand Lake and a third in New Mexico where he shows his Desert Southwest collection. His award-winning Wild Light: A Celebration of Rocky Mountain National Park won the best nature and environment book of 2015 by the Independent Book Publishers Association. He released his new book, Whispers in the Wilderness, in December 2017, pairing his photographs of the park with his reflections on the power of nature.
Along the way, he has built a strong reputation not only as a photographer but as a compassionate human being filled with humility. And while he does not publicize it, a portion of his profits go to organizations helping the world’s poorest.
“I found the solitude and silence and that mountain pristine beauty I was looking for,” he says with a smile spreading across his face. “It’s possible in this park even now to get away from it all.”