Philadelphia Union’s Richie Graham is Protecting the Environment One Photograph at a Time
The soccer guru took up photography a decade ago and is now using it to help nonprofits.
Photo courtesy of Richie Graham.
“The truth is that I’ve always had a creative side.” Richie Graham admits this quietly, and only after a good deal of prodding. Most people associate Graham with soccer. He is a minority owner of the Philadelphia Union, the region’s professional soccer team, and founder of Wayne’s YSC Academy, a high school that offers sports development to kids who want to be professional soccer players.
Graham’s enthusiasm for American soccer is well known, but he has been less public about his photography. He first picked up a camera 10 years ago after a skiing trip to Alaska. “I was on a flight from Anchorage to Cordova and I happened to get the window seat,” Graham remembers. “I looked out and saw the incredible fjords that make up that beautiful, rugged landscape. I wanted to photograph it.”
Graham returned to Alaska with a Canon and skis. Since then, he’s graduated to a Sony Alpha 7R III and Lowepro Whistler backpack, and taken thousands of photos. But it took Graham more than three years to show his work to anyone besides family and close friends. “It was absolutely scary to show my photos to people,” he admits with a laugh. “I was petrified.”
In 2015, Graham’s niece introduced him to Instagram. The positive feedback was encouraging and several people bought prints of Graham’s work. “That was wonderful, but I felt that I was doing it halfway and wanted to do it aggressively,” he says. “This is a creative outlet, but I still want it to have purpose and meaning.”
Fossárdalur Valley, Iceland. Photo by Richie Graham.
Last November, Graham became a photographic ambassador for 1% For The Planet, a nonprofit that pairs eco-minded donors with groups working on conservation projects around the world. Through his newly created website, Graham sells prints of his photos, priced from $200-$3,490—and 100 percent of proceeds go to six groups funded by 1% For The Planet. The Freshwater Trust, National Forest Foundation, the Rainforest Trust, National Young Farmers Coalition, Working Dogs for Conservation and Surfers Against Sewage are the beneficiaries Graham selected.
This year, Graham will travel around the world to document those conservation efforts, which will ultimately be used for fundraising, awareness campaigns, social media and other platforms. “The win for me is that a year from now, I’ll know a lot more about the environment from spending time with these groups,” Graham says. He hasn’t yet decided where his time will be spent, “but the more rugged the terrain, the better,” he says.
For Graham, landscape photography is half fine art, half adventure. He learned the art as he went, critiquing his work and learning how to improve. Graham read books, visited museums and absorbed advice from family and friends. “Over the last 10 years, I’ve learned a lot and I’m continually learning,” he says. “That’s part of the fun.”
Mount Assiniboine, Canada. Photo by Richie Graham.
Travel is also part of the fun. Graham skis through snow-packed mountains, rock climbs into remote caves and slogs through jungle forests—with camping gear, a tripod and cameras strapped to his back. What he takes depends on what he’ll be shooting. “When I was in Patagonia, spending 10 days on an ice cap with 8-9 hours of hiking every day, roped up with cramps on, I wanted to take only the bare minimum of photography gear because the weight adds up,” he says.
He also uses drones for photography and scouting. “In Bolivia, we were trying to cross a river that had been flooded,” he says. “After half a day of trying to cross, we used a drone as a scout to see how we could access another part of the terrain.”
Getting stuck in remote, rainy jungles doesn’t sound enticing, but Graham wouldn’t have it any other way. “Landscape photography takes me to places where I’m off the grid—way off,” he says. “I’m in situations where I need to be very aware of my surroundings—for safety as well as to photograph them.”
Graham does take precautions on his trips. He learned to use Google Earth’s 3D satellite images to route his path thanks to a friend who was a Navy Seal. And he heeds warnings about incoming weather and has a Garmin that allows him to send an SOS to search and rescue teams around the world if need be.
Now, Graham’s work for 1% For The Planet will introduce him to new situations, people and animals. Graham looks forward to the challenge. “I don’t consider myself an expert on environmental conservation, but when you spend time in these beautiful places, you want to protect them,” he says. “The more you love something, the more you want to protect it.”