Welcome to “After Hours," a new series showcasing the creative, passionate people that make Gap Inc. They are more than their titles; they are innovative individuals with awesome stories to share.
Scrolling through his photography portfolio, you'd never guess Ruben Hughes first picked up a camera just a little more than a year ago. Or that he's managed to succeed so spectacularly — producing portraits of places that are at once beautiful and haunting — all without any kind of formal training.
But then again, the man is motivated. The self-described American photographer and explorer — who also works as a Global Community Manager for Gap brand — is a photography addict. Whether hopping on a red-eye flight to race across the country for a single weekend, or simply dedicating time to roam through his homebase of New York with his camera, almost all of Ruben's off hours are spent chasing the perfect shot. It's fair to say that he's packed years of self-training into 15 short months.
“I think it's really important for people to find what they love," Ruben said. “At the end of the day, it's your life. You should really enjoy it."
When Ruben first became interested in photography, he asked a friend of his — a photographer — for tips on how to take better photographs. “He said 'Just put your camera on manual and go out and take photos.' And that's literally all I did," Ruben said. “I knew the type of photos I wanted to take, and I knew the way I wanted them to come out. So all it really came down to is me just going out and taking photos. I did mess up a lot, until I felt like I got it right. And it's still a learning experience."
Ruben's advice is refreshingly straightforward: Want to be good at something? Put in the hours. Interested in traveling? Plan a trip. Think you might be into weaving? Sign up for a class. “See what your threshold is for whatever you love to do," he said. “And just keep pushing yourself to see how far you can take it."
Yet despite this seemingly simple advice, Ruben knows how daunting this call to action can be.
Ruben is largely inspired by nature. But in New York City, nature can be in short demand. So travel — both cross-country and international — has become an essential part of Ruben's creative process.
“I love to travel, but I do not like to fly," Ruben said. “Almost every month, I'm off to go somewhere, and I'm on a plane just not having it. … But when you have a love to do something, you just do it."
Just like with photography, Ruben works on his fear of flying every day. He tries to mitigate his anxiety by addressing it through the artwork in his apartment. His walls are covered with references to flying, whether direct (a plane diagram) or on the subtler side (a frenetic drawing of circles).
“It gives me a little anxiety just looking at it, but at the same time I feel like it helps me somehow," Ruben said.
His flying anxiety definitely isn't keeping him from planning his next big international photography trip. This time, he's setting his lens on Norway.
“I look for places where I can really hit different locations within a certain timespan," Ruben said. “I'll fly out on a Friday night and go somewhere for Saturday, Sunday and sometimes Monday, and then I'll take the red-eye back and go straight to work. I can literally be in Vancouver the day before shooting on a lake, and then take a red-eye and be in work at 6 a.m. the next day."
Research is essential to the process. On a recent photo trip to Nicaragua, his days were split between the coast, the city, and an active volcano. As with all his trips, sunrise and sunset were given special consideration.
“Based off of the weather for the whole week, I can map out the places I'm going to go, and the time I'm going to go," Ruben said. “So literally I'm on an agenda the whole week I'm there."
On cloudier days, Ruben can shoot all day. Sunny weather can take more planning, as it drives Ruben indoors during the brighter parts of the day.
That's how Ruben ended up in cloudy, picturesque Iceland, sleeping in a four-person camper van with seven of his photographer friends in his first photo venture outside the United States. Needless to say, he was hooked.
“In Iceland, there's a million different waterfalls, and a blue lagoon, and there's mostly glaciers," he said. Plus there were only five hours of darkness. “We were literally on the road the whole time. When we were on the way to go to a waterfall, or on the way to go to a lake or somewhere else, we'd sleep in the camper van and then we'd wake up, take photos, and sleep on the way back."
“It's all about the chase. You're tired, but at the same time you know what you can get when you go places," Ruben said. “If you really want to capture and see things, then you really have to just stay up and make it work. Sometimes it takes a couple nights to recover when you get back. But at the end of the day, when you look back at those photos, you can see you took the best advantage out of it."