Irene Yee is the first to tell you that she doesn’t fit the climber stereotype. She wears technicolor clothing, dyes her hair bright red, and is frank about the fact that she doesn’t climb hard. Based in Las Vegas, outside the Red Rocks climbing mecca, she’s a self-professed weekend warrior with a day job as a carpenter with Cirque de Soleil. But over 33,000 followers know her as @ladylockoff on Instagram, where she has gained recognition for her authentic shots that mainly showcase amateur women climbers.
Yee’s shots portray what climbing looks like for average people, from prepping gear and starting a climb to finishing and celebrating back on the ground. She captures expressions of terror and frustration. Rather than pros, her subjects are other weekend warriors she’s out climbing with, representing a diversity of ages and skill levels. She calls her unique approach “climbing for the rest of us,” and she believes it’s key to increasing women’s participation in the sport. “We get these snapshots of climbers in media, and these glancing blows accumulate until you think: This is a climber. This is what women do. This is what an athlete does,” Yee says. “And because that image doesn’t fit into your life, you think you can’t do it.”
“I realized that just because I didn’t fit into the mainstream perception of what climbing is, that didn’t mean I couldn’t be a climber.”
The mainstream images of “real climbers” that Yee is talking about tend to fall into three categories. There’s the close-up action shot of the athlete on lead, taken from overhead to give a sense of dizzying height. There’s the wide shot with a vast sky, big wall, and tiny body to convey an epic feat. And, of course, there’s the nomadic-existence shot that makes you wonder how #vanlife climbers can be so photogenic without a working shower.
For Yee, the image that changed everything was a photo of pro climber Sasha DiGulian with painted nails. “I thought: You can be girly and still rock climb? I realized that just because I didn’t fit into the mainstream perception of what climbing is, that didn’t mean I couldn’t be a climber.”
Yee wants her photos to help break down the walls that keep women from trying something because they worry that they won’t be good enough, won’t fit in, won’t [insert insecurity here]. “One image can change all that and make you think, Oh, maybe I can do that,” Yee says. “Social media is an incredibly powerful platform for telling us that this thing we thought was true is not true at all—it’s that sense of possibility and empowerment I hope to inspire in women.”
Yee Breaks Down Her Approach in Five Shots
“Climbing teaches you who you are, including acceptance of your situation. Sometimes we’re sitting on ropes thinking about the next move or just giving ourselves a break. It’s my job to show those things, because that’s what happens. We just don’t often see it in social media or magazines.”
Some of Yee’s favorite shots capture the strength of a climber the moment she overcomes her fears on the wall. “There’s CrossFit muscle, yoga muscle, and then there’s rock-climbing muscle, the kind you don’t see until you see her struggle. Climbing is about pushing your limits, whether you’re on a 5.7 or a 5.13.”
Where most professional photographers might scout locations, wait for light, and set up a shot, Yee produces her images based on the circumstances. “I just show up and think, OK, this is what I have today. If the butt shot is what I’ve got, I’m going to work with it and figure out how to make it the coolest butt shot ever. Most climbers look at their feet while they’re climbing, so the butt shot is actually a great opportunity to get a photo of their face. That’s part of being creative: When you’re given something that’s less than ideal, what good can you make out of it?”
Yee views herself as an active participant in the climbing trip, which is a large part of what makes her photography special. “A lot of photographers I’ve met are people who document. I interfere, because I’m part of the group. I’m up on that line screaming, ‘You got this!’ I love seeing women try new things, and I love the psych level and determination that comes from being part of a group of women who are stoked to be out together.”
In Yee’s opinion, conventional climbing photography fails to capture joy. “Most climbers aren’t pro climbers. They’re just taking the time to do what they love, and they’re making it work in their everyday lives—like me. When you have a spark for something, and you do it because you love it, that excitement comes through so clearly, and people want to be part of it.”