Pexels Heroes Community: Finding Purpose Through Photography

It’s 6pm on a Tuesday when I ring up Pete Johnson – someone I’ve never spoken to before, but someone whose photos moved me. Pete answers immediately, apologizing for the connection – he’s in a yurt in rural Durango, Colorado where the connection is iffy at best.

“Yurt life, huh? That must be pretty cool,” I started. “I’m happier now more than ever, so yeah it is!” he returned. Pete goes on explaining that life hasn’t always been the adventure it is today.


Prior to Durango, Pete called a cubicle in San Diego his second home, a place where he’d log countless hours completing graphic design projects. “The work just stopped moving me,” he confessed. Then there was photography. A passion he’d maintained throughout his life and one he was ready to take on full-time. It’s a bold step to leave your city (your 9 to 5), to travel the world alone, volunteer at non-profits, and sort of see what happens.

Little did he know that photography would take him throughout Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. It would introduce him to his equally amazing partner, Kellie, and together they’d work on New Beginnings, a school she founded in Kibera, Africa for children and adults with developmental difficulties.

I asked Pete to put together a series of photos and stories that defined his life experience over the last few years. Prepare to be inspired.


Cambodia. Kellie and I visited an elephant rescue. The non-profit buys local elephants that are mistreated and sets them free to roam a remote jungle sanctuary. The female pictured here was forced to give rides to tourists until her spine was damaged. Thankfully, she will never have to work again. The elephants here only visit people if they want to and are able to disappear into the jungle at any point. This makes the interaction extremely special and genuine. I have very strong feelings when it comes to animal tourism so for me this was the only way I would want to experience an elephant.


Rural Costa Rica. I noticed a bunch of birds acting strangely, they were congregating and calling out loudly and filling the branches of the same tree above a dry riverbed. Everything I have ever read about animals or seen on TV told me that this behavior is typical when a predator is in the area… boy was I right. Upon closer inspection, I found an animal I have always wanted to photograph in the wild: a red-tailed boa constrictor. It was tightly wound around a large and unlucky iguana. I ran to my tent to get my camera bag and returned to the site of the commotion, now a bit quieter. The snake was extremely docile and even curious at times extending its head and body out to my camera as seen in this shot. It was an unforgettable encounter with a beautiful predator.


Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. I had been here before and even lived in the area for a few months, but had always missed the seasonal opportunity to do something that had been on my bucket list for my entire life: swim with Whale Sharks. The timing was right and I jumped at the opportunity to get into the water up close with the giants. The Whale Sharks silently glided along the surface of the warm water while feeding and didn’t seem to notice I was there swimming alongside them. With what looked like very little effort, the huge tail swayed back and fourth pushing massive amounts of water and moving the huge animal at a surprisingly hard pace to keep up with. 


Southeast Asia. Kellie and I found ourselves on the beach in Ko Lanta, Thailand during one of the most vibrant sunsets I have ever seen. The tide pools perfectly reflected the electric sky and Kellie’s silhouette contrasted beautifully against it all for a series of great photos.  


Antigua, Guatemala. I was standing in a farmer’s field with my giant backpack on. Carrying the weight of my photo equipment, tent, sleeping bag and food for the next 2 days, I managed 10 hours of hard hiking to the basecamp. The mountain had changed dramatically over the course of the exhausting day; we started in a lush jungle and were now higher than trees or anything that can grow. Just as we had finished setting up camp, the volcano that had been silent all day began to rumble. I got my camera out and ready just in time for the big show. I had never seen lava or an active volcano before and it was one of the most powerful and impressive sights and sounds I have ever experienced.


Costa Rica. I spent 3 months living in a tent and I regularly photographed monkey visitors. Here a young Howler Monkey navigates the treetops, where it will spend the rest of its life.  


Haiti. On my second trip, I arrived after a destructive natural disaster; the country looked much different to me. Pictured here, the statue of Jesus Christ and portions of its church remain standing after the devastating 2010 earthquake that rocked the already impoverished country and killed over 150 thousand people.


Kenya, Africa. A pair of children’s prosthetics sits on the floor of a school.

When he isn’t traveling the world, Pete enjoys yurt life with nurse Kellie, and shoots weddings in Durango.

Are you a photographer with an interesting story to tell? Join our community and become a Pexels Hero.

About me:

I got my start at Yelp as a Community Manager in 2009. Let it sink in… 2009. That’s before there was Instagram or Snapchat or Pinterest, to name a few. My mission was to help shape the way Yelp would grow and manage the Elite Squad – the powerful community of yelpers with a passion for exploring their cities and sharing their favorite local businesses. I did this at Yelp for 7 years–moving all over the US and later to Latin America, where I am today.
Now at Pexels, I’m shaping what it means to be part of the Heroes community – our best and brightest photographers. Pete is a Pexels Hero and his story is the one I’m telling today. 


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