Right off the bat, two things were clear about outdoor photographer Cliford Mervil: He loves his dog, and he’s one of the most adventurous people I’ve ever met.
Both are associated with his profession, as his dog is what drove him to start exploring Virginia’s outdoor spaces and developing an eye for stunning photography. We took a few minutes to chat about his journey, from his childhood experiences hiking Haiti’s mountains to how Virginia’s outdoors have changed his life.
How did you get started in outdoor photography?
After college, I was working a corporate job, going in before the sunrise and coming out after the sunset. That was the normal routine. And then I got a dog. On my days off, I would hike with her.
I am originally from Haiti, and my grandparents lived in the mountains. I would visit them in the summer and hike. I kind of lost that passion, and then found it again after hiking with my dog, meeting people on solo trips. I began bringing a camera on the trips with my new friends — it wasn’t even about photography, it was to share those moments.
That’s where the photography started. But with the outdoors, I’ve always wanted to explore. There’s a whole different world out there. I’ve always kind of been an athlete, so it was kind of a challenge for myself, go and see how far physically and mentally I could go. It was also stress relief from corporate life.
Making money out of photography was never something that crossed my mind. Even now, it’s still not about that. Yes, it helps me do what I do, but at the end of the day it’s always about the moments, the people, the places…the experiences outweigh the money.
What are your favorite hikes?
Some of my favorite hikes are Cascade Falls, I love waterfalls. Another top spot would be McAfee Knob. I love the view up there. And Old Rag is another favorite. I like the views from the top, but it’s mostly the climb — it gives me time to think. It’s a really long, hard hike with scrambles. It reminds me of an Alpine climb. It’s nine and a half miles. Timewise, I’ve done it in four hours…I felt like a kid in a playground.
Tell me more about Old Rag–it’s on my hiking bucket list!
I’ve been to Old Rag a few times on different projects, but it was my first time climbing out there. I usually just hike and camp. After talking to a few people and looking at some of the climbing books, I was excited to try it. I did get a little lost trying to find the climbing spots…but that’s part of adventure, those are some of the fun moments that I love to capture, when you don’t know where you’re going. You remember those moments more than just a sunrise or sunset type thing, you remember the story of your experience.
That’s what I love about the outdoors, especially when it comes to adventure photography. There are so many beautiful places that have become oversaturated, so when I go somewhere that I don’t know about or a lot of people don’t know about, I get excited. Everything that is going to be captured will be real, raw moments. It’s not about posing people, it’s about letting things play out and capturing things as they play out.
What do you love about Virginia’s Great Outdoors?
I actually live in North Carolina now. I do like North Carolina, but in Virginia, there’s so much. Everything is right there, like Shenandoah, there’s white water rafting, there’s hiking, there’s climbing, there’s camping. Everything is right there, whereas North Carolina you have to go three hours this way, three hours that way. It’s spread out.
The West Coast is like that. Like California, people say you can wake up really early and ski, then in the afternoon you can be surfing. But that’s a long drive, it’s not that close. It’s not like Virginia, where it’s an hour and a half this way, you can go to the beach, then another hour and half to the mountains. You can make a multi-sports day.
North Carolina seems to have more waterfalls, which I really enjoy, especially after a long hike. I feel like North Carolina does have more access to some of the peaks, it makes a little more accessible. And the hikes are not as steep a lot of the time so it’s beginner-friendly.
But Shenandoah, since it’s not always as accessible, you’re more secluded. Some of the North Carolina trails can be a little oversaturated, and people will drop stuff. So I’d say Virginia trails feel a little cleaner than North Carolina’s.
Do you have any other favorite spots in Virginia that aren’t in the Great Outdoors?
I’m not much of a city person. Wherever I’m going, if I go to the city, it’s stopping in to get stuff for the mountains. Or if I’m out with friends, maybe we will go see live music. I pass through the cities, stop in to grab food, and head to the mountains. As great as the cities are, I love the mountains.
I usually hit up local spots in the mountains on the way out. I find local restaurants and breweries instead of the chains. Everybody eats and drinks and we reminisce about the trip. Those family-owned restaurants, the food just always seems to be better than when you go to a major city and grab a meal.
There’s been a lot more focus on inclusivity in outdoor spaces. Have you noticed this in your travels?
Not just noticing it, but bringing others into it. Like the group that we have, SoulTrak, it’s about bringing all kinds of people into the outdoors. Not everyone is going to be the same, so when you’re hiking or climbing, you’re making these connections.
When I first started, it felt like I was the only Black person anywhere out there. I didn’t always feel like I belonged. But I started meeting new people and we began building communities of inclusivity.
Every summer, I’ll fly my nephews here and give them a new experience in the outdoors. They live in Orlando, in the city, but when they come here, we do something new. We’ve done hiking, we’ve done camping. Just to give them something different.
How have the outdoors changed your life?
The outdoors, it’s amazing. Not just that you meet new people, you get new experiences. I’ve met people while camping, and they will ask, “Have you ever rock climbed?”, and then someone teaches me the ropes. Then, while I was rock climbing, someone asked “Have you ever been ice climbing?”. Through that, you end up meeting more and more people. One person invites you, then you meet that group of friends, then you end up having this big community. I’m supposed to be doing some surfing this fall in Virginia Beach. I met this person and he surfs and I surf, and he asked why we never surf together, and so I said, “Let’s do it!” You expand your community, everyone is pretty friendly.
It’s great for mental health, also. Everyone is more relaxed, it’s like being back to your roots. Technology is great, but I love disconnecting. Some of my favorite trips are when I’m out in the middle of nowhere, no signal for days, sometime for weeks, where I don’t have to worry about anything else and I can just be in the moment and enjoy nature and the outdoors. It feels like you’re going back to your roots of just being humans and being in the moment. You feel like you’re more connected to the people around you, too.
Do you have any bucket list items in Virginia that you haven’t had a chance to do yet?
There is a resort where I want to do some snowboarding, Massanutten. Also surfing in Virginia Beach! Those are definitely on my bucket list.