Freedom: it’s a big word, a huge dream, a diluted social concept. It’s something we all long for, although everyone dreams about it differently. We know it when we feel it but can’t always remember how we got there.
Our Wild Abandon, the photographic partnership of Jillian Mann, 27, and Kyla Trethewey, 29, capture these fleeting moments of freedom during their travels. The two Canadian best friends convey a deep satisfaction with being present in their absolutely stunning photos, many of which were taken during a six-month road trip of the United States that was only supposed to last two months. In their images, we see seductive horizon lines that can never be reached and sky bigger than you ever felt possible. They capture the feeling of having nowhere to go but where you are, and the rhythm of taking life breath by breath.
We were so stoked to meet the women behind the photographs when they agreed to catch up with us in New Orleans. Maybe we were expecting some ethereal goddesses, but what we got were some of the most hardcore chillers we’ve ever met. As we discussed some random (usually gross) boys we knew around these parts, one or both of the girls would mutter, “Dibs”—a practice that reached its most epic peak when a four-year-old boy with a blonde mullet passed by us outside of the brunch joint we accidentally stayed in past closing. After he kid-stumbled by, Jill raised her eyebrows and quipped, “Future dibs!”
As our breakfast date rolled into a night of whiskey-drinking in our kitchen, which then sort of extended to another afternoon drinking session a day or so later (god bless New Orleans), we heard an onslaught of hilarious stories from these two babes that gave us a glimpse into the often humbler, grimier behind-the-scenes of their crisp photographs.
“We spent a lot of time on that first trip [in the United States] just being too fucking broke to keep driving,” Jill told us. “We would be living in a Walmart parking lot for a week, waiting for the PayPal money from something I sold to come into my account.” But with an agent on their side, they are now finally able to quit their day jobs and live their road-dog dreams, funding their travels by taking photos.
Jill and Kyla understand how to capture a million moments in one, how to make every day an opportunity, and how to call out to the urge for wild abandon in themselves and anyone else who cares to look on. They also bring a humble optimism and open, friendly smiles to the table, enjoy laughing at themselves, and realize the importance of relaxing–making them pretty much next-level babes in our book! When we remember that they also carry a firm conviction to live to the fullest and burn this mother down, we can barely keep our faces from melting off!
Read on for more about how Our Wild Abandon began with a boyfriend-dropping bang, what Jill and Kyla have learned about taking risks and living on the road, and what’s next for these ever-traveling ladies. We’ve also got tons of gorgeous Our Wild Abandon photos for you babes below!
Before this all started, what were you doing?
Jill: On paper, we were more or less doing what we were supposed to be doing. I was working at a modeling agency doing shoots, working as a photographer, but I also had to roll burritos on the side to live. Kyla had a fancy real estate job, and we were both in relationships.
Kyla: Our boyfriends were best friends, and we knew each other, but we never had each others’ phone numbers. We never talked. We’d just sit beside our boyfriends and be like [twiddles thumbs].
Jill: We did that for four years.
Kyla: I had my friends and Jill had her friends. Then, in totally isolated incidents, we broke up with our boyfriends in the same week. I found out and invited Jill over to my new apartment, and we started talking about music. It was like—oh, wow, we could have been talking about this for, like, five years! We started hanging out every single day. Our ex-boyfriends were like, “This is a conspiracy!” [Laughs]
How did those breakups and the beginning of your friendship work as a catalyst for this whole project? What happened next?
Kyla: I think, for both of us, because our relationships ended and we were so unhappy with the jobs we had, it seemed so much scarier to just keep living like that—to just keep going in the same place, doing the same thing. We were like, “Do you want to just…leave?” We were planning to leave for two months, and that was two and a half years ago.
Jill: Yeah, it was kind of like starting over anyway, so it was like, “What if I just take two months before starting over?” It was supposed to be our last hurrah because I was like, “I need to grow the fuck up. I haven’t grown up yet. Let’s go on one last little trip.” We were going to go home after the two months and become flight attendants—that was our big plan. [Laughs]
What happened after the two months?
Jill: We didn’t run out of money! So we were just like…why not? [Laughs]
Kyla: Well, first of all, we seized our engine at the beginning of the trip right outside of Moab, Utah. It was, like, this huge ordeal. We broke down at a rest stop and got towed to this junkyard. The junkyard guy was like, “Let me see how bad it is before I tow you to the Volvo place because if it’s as bad as I think it is, there’s no point.” And, it was just gone—my whole engine was gone. We had no car.
Moab’s super-expensive—it’s a National Park town—so we couldn’t stay in a hotel. We couldn’t move. We had no way of getting anywhere. But we had the trailer. The guys at the junkyard just let us set it up and stay there. We set up a little lawn. It was right across from this really nice RV park, so they had Wi-Fi and we had the same view they had, but we’re in our own private junkyard—
Jill: Surrounded by barbed wire fence and a bunch of burned-out cars. [Laughs]
Kyla: We stayed there for awhile as we waited to get the car fixed. We ended up selling a ton of postcards of our photos online—enough to fix the car.
So you guys already had your website up when this happened?
Jill: No, we made it then. It was the best kick in the ass ever. We couldn’t work. We had nothing to sell except our photos, so I was like, “Guess we’re doing that!” We probably would have never done that if we didn’t need to, you know? But that kept us going.
Kyla: We ended up fixing the car and still had the money we had saved left, and we realized that we could be doing this a lot cheaper than we had planned. So we just slowed down a lot. We stayed in Arizona for a month with some friends we met there.
Jill: I don’t think we were even paying attention to how long we had been gone because we were kind of like, “Yeah, we’ll just do two months or whatever,” you know?
Kyla: In the trailer, we have a chalkboard wall, and we were marking the very chill days and the very bad days. We had, like, six bad days and the rest were really good. We were counting them one day and realized, “Oh! We’ve been on the road for 150 days, we should take a photo!” Then we realized, “Oh my god, we’ve been in the United States for 150 days! We have to go!” We were only allowed to be in the US for 183 days because of our visas. So we left the trailer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with this crazy woman we met and drove straight home. She’s in her 60s, and she built a trailer park in the lot next to her house. It’s filled with trailers and a dance floor and lights and a fire pit, and it’s just for her and her friends. It’s this little Wonderland. We just got the trailer back last month—it was there for over a year. But now, both of our visas went through so we can live and work in the United States.
Congratulations! Are you finishing up your trip soon then?
Kyla: Yeah, that first US trip was supposed to be—well, it was supposed to be shorter but further. We were supposed to cover a lot more ground, and we never did. So when we left the trailer behind and ran home, we were like, “Okay, that’s halfway. We can keep going.” And because of the visa situation and all of that, we are finally leaving December 1st, a year and a half after we first turned around. But we did it right, so now we can work and don’t have to worry about getting deported. We can stay for as long as we want. We can do it all. We’re always feeling like we’re on the cusp of something, and I feel that way now, too.
How have your travels changed you?
Kyla: I think it definitely made us more open to meeting people. Living in one place, you have your network and your friends. You go through life in your bubble. When you’re out of your comfort zone, you’re suddenly at the mercy of everyone else, so when you meet someone, you’re more open to talking to them.
Jill: I’m a lot less judgmental now than I used to be. I used to just sum somebody up in five seconds and decide whether I wanted to be friends with them or not. Like, “Crocs, eh? See you later!” [Laughs]
Kyla: It makes you realize you can relate to people beyond music and whether or not their shoes are clean, you know? [Laughs] And it’s great because if you’re only hanging out with people who have similar interests, you’re only going to learn more about your own interests. Meeting these new people, they have these whole other lives that I knew nothing about.
You took a huge leap to change your lives. How much is risk-taking a part of your adventures and your goals? Do you identify things that you’re afraid of and challenge yourself to go right to them?
Kyla: Absolutely. We have each other, so if one of us identifies a fear or something, we can talk about it together and make a decision. Like, some of the best photos we have are some of the dumbest photos. At one point on a trip, we actually took a metal pole out into a lightning field. The photos we have from that are the best. In the same vein, wanting to take someone’s photo but being too nervous to ask, but then overcoming that and having a conversation with that person and learning a whole story about them…and then getting the image that you wanted, too. Every day is filled with risks, big or small, and you have to take them, realizing that there’s risk and reward, and the reward is always greater than the risk. We haven’t had anything fuck up too bad.
Jill: What I always say is that I don’t think that I’m never going to be so fucked that I’m like completely fucked, you know? Worst case scenario, you take a big risk and it doesn’t work out, you get evicted from your house. You can get some stupid job bartending or figure something out. Move in with your parents for a month. Whatever you have to do, I don’t think that the repercussions are ever so bad that it’s not worth taking a risk.
Kyla: That ties back to not wanting things, either. I have friends that are at a crossroads, and they know that if they do this—whatever that may be—they’re not going to have their car or their apartment. They’re not going to be able to afford to upkeep all of these comforts or things that give them joy, and that’s what differentiates us.
Jill: If you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.
Kyla: Basically. If you don’t care, then fuck it. That’s what I think started all of this, too. That feeling of being like, what’s worse: living like this forever or fucking up and coming back to living like this again?
Jill: When I left, I was at a zero. Worst case scenario, if I fucked up and had to work back up to being zero again, like, okay. [Laughs]
What have you learned about love on the road? How has it changed from what you experienced before, or how are you redefining it?
Kyla: Our friend Ruthie brought up this idea the last time we were together: because you meet new people traveling all of the time, unfortunately, what that does to you is make you more curious about who the next person you’re going to meet might be. You’re always wondering, “What’s happening in the next town or on the next job? What kind of friends could I meet? What could that look like?” So instead of being in one place and reveling in your situation, you’re like, “What’s next?”
Jill: Also, you meet great guys a lot, but it’s in such unrealistic situations. Everything is exciting and fun when you’re, like, both traveling and we’re in this really cool place together doing this really cool thing—so romantic! But is this really someone I’d want to be with?
Do you ever think that those magical relationship moments you have—even if they have shortcomings based on conventional standards—may be better?
Kyla: The connections we make, whether they stay or not, are very powerful.
Jill: I do eventually want to find one person to settle down with, but lately I’ve been thinking more about relationships as, like, a fleeting moment in my life. Because we were in those relationships for four years, and my biggest feeling after I ended that relationship was that I’d just wasted four years of my life. I was like, “Fuck, I knew that wasn’t going to work a year in, and I just, like…for whatever reason, stayed, and I just feel like I wasted so much time.” When we were driving, Kyla and I made lists (and this may be a bit unrealistic) of everything that either of us would want in a potential partner. Now, I’m not straying from that list because I’m not dicking around with something I know isn’t going to work anymore.
Kyla: We made those lists fresh out of our relationships, and like, when I met my ex-boyfriend, I have never fallen in love with anyone like I’ve fallen in love with him. And there were these little things where I was like, “That’s less than ideal” or “I don’t like that he does that, but it’s okay.” And after three years, it was really not okay. Those things really bothered me, and they never got better, they just got worse. So after the fourth year, when I was just so over it, I had to realize that I knew about all of those things in the beginning. I just ignored them.
Jill: I feel like there’s more pressure on Kyla because she’s going to be 30 next year.
Kyla: I had to change the password on our email because every time we did an interview, I would show Jill and ask her, “Can you just look through this and make sure it’s okay?” And she’d send it off with ten years added to my age. She sent it to Oprah—we were in Oprah Magazine, and she put my age as 38, and I was like, “Jillian! You can’t do that!”
You guys were in Oprah?!?
Jill: It was so funny. It was the only time my mom’s ever been proud of me in my whole life. “Now this is something I can understand!”
Kyla: We went to buy the magazine the day it came out at Safeway, but we were so broke, we had to pay half in cash and put the other half on credit. I bought it with two dollars in change and some pennies and the rest on my card…then cried in my car in the parking lot. So ridiculous. [Laughs]
That’s a lot of what we’ve been doing, especially in the last year—pretending to be somewhere that we’re not, financially and geographically…stretching photos out longer, stretching trips out longer. Being in Oprah but not being able to afford to buy the copy. There was a long time like that, and now we’re just starting to be able to really do this, and it feels so good. We’re taking it more seriously, absolutely, which is hard because you don’t want to bastardize it in any way. You don’t want to ruin it.
You guys are making it work by working with an agency now. Why did you decide to get an agent?
Kyla: We started getting a lot of interest from people wanting to talk to us and work with us, but we had no idea how to ask for money. As photographers, that is a job. Like, people should be paying for that, especially when you mix social media in with it and you have your own audience. There is money to be made and people are willing to pay for it.
Jill: Yeah, we were seeing stuff and were like, “I’m sure this person is getting paid to do this, but I don’t know how. I don’t know why or how much they are getting paid.”
Kyla: The thing that I like about our agency, Tinker Street, is that it’s a photo agency. It started as a photo agency that then branched into working with social media, too. So I can’t just get hired by Miller and post a selfie that’s like [holds a High Life up to her face and smiles]. It’s a photography job. That was really important because a lot of people were reaching out, being like, “Do you want to be a brand ambassador for this? Post some product shots!” And our agent does not like product shots. He always sides with us when it comes to creative. It’s a really positive working environment. It’s the best thing that ever happened to us, for sure.
Jill: Yeah, I don’t think we’d have been able to figure it out on our own. I’d be back in the burrito shop.
Did you guys ever have a moment of self-doubt, where you thought you couldn’t go on or this wouldn’t work out? How’d you get over it?
Jill: The biggest one, I think, is when we first broke down in Utah. We were basically going to be out of money. I remember talking to my mom on the phone that night, and she was like, [puts on a sweet mom voice] “Why don’t you just fly home and take a couple of months to regroup? We can set you up with a job.” I was like, “I can’t do that.” But at the same time, what the hell else was I going to do? That was a huge moment of doubt.
Kyla: That was probably the biggest one. I think when we realized we had to go home was also really difficult because it felt like everything was completely unfinished. In our brains, it was like, “We’ll go home really quickly and get some more money and then come right back.” But that wasn’t realistic, especially since Vancouver is so expensive. We just fell back into doing the same thing. I was right back to sitting at home, looking out the window when it was raining, and going back to Netflix. It was so demoralizing.
We were starting to get photography work from the agency, but it wasn’t enough to not work other jobs because we’d spent all the money we’d saved up. So Jill was back rolling burritos at the restaurant, and I couldn’t even get a desk job again because we needed to be able to leave to do these photo jobs, so I got hired as a personal assistant. I was buying groceries for my friend and cleaning his house and doing weird office stuff for him.
We got this photo job in Italy—it was one of our first jobs—and it was this crazy fly, get off the plane, shoot for two days, get back on the plane and go home thing. We were jetlagged or drunk the whole time. I don’t remember any of it! On Monday, Jill went back to work. She had bought this statue of David apron from the gift shop with the dick on it and this chef’s hat that said “Pizza,” and she brought all that stuff into work, and everyone’s like, “Oh, what did you do this weekend?” “Went to Italy.” “Okay, cool.” [Laughs] No one believed her!
People didn’t really understand the balance of having to work a minimum wage job to facilitate the rest of the work we wanted to do…it was a really strange balance for awhile. But after you fall back into that, you can say for certain, “I don’t want this anymore.” Having had that experience on the road, knowing what it could look like, even though it was just the six months, that motivated us to keep going. Now we don’t have to do any other weird jobs.
Our next question is about success.
Kyla: [Quoting a sign on a passing truck:] “Driver carries no money.” [All laugh]
Do you guys feel successful, and how do you define success?
Jill: I feel more successful if someone that I respect as an artist or a photographer thinks that what I’m doing is cool. There’s a small group of people that I consider to be the most talented people that I know, and if one of them is ever like, “I really like that photo that you took,” I’m like, “Wow!” That’s so much more exciting to me than any form of commercial success.
Kyla: I think the moment where I felt like we were doing something really positive and I felt truly successful was when we both got to stop working those other jobs. That felt really good. It wasn’t a lie anymore. It was like, “No, we are working photographers. We’ve done it, and we don’t have to keep it afloat by doing these other jobs. We can just do it on our own.”
Jill: Yeah, I think being able to quit my job is a pretty good one, actually. I was like, “Fuck you. Fuck you. You’re cool. Fuck you.” [Laughs]
Kyla: But other than that, the really big one for me was after were were featured in a print magazine in Australia. They included a photo with a quote from us on it in the feature, and I found out that this young, teenage girl had put it up on her wall. To see this girl have our photo with our words on her wall and see how that has inspired her to do more for herself…I cried, it was so beautiful.
We got another email from these two girls in Quebec who told us that they had decided that they want to start taking photos and when they graduate high school, they want to go traveling like us. But they wanted to start now anyways, so they take the city bus as far as it goes around their home town, and they take photos together.
Aw, that’s so awesome!
Kyla: Yeah! I mean, we don’t care about money. We don’t want a lot of things. We can’t have a lot of things because of how we want to travel. I do eventually want, like, land and a home, but for now, it’s not important, so that’s not a big deal. Just enough to live.
Jill: I feel like I’m more successful doing what I’m doing than I thought I could be. I didn’t realize you could make this sustainable—just driving around, taking photos—that that was like a job someone could have. So in that way, I’m like, “Woah! Great success!” [Laughs]
Kyla: I think just the fact that we’re doing exactly what we want to be doing and living off it it—that’s success. And that will change—what we want to be doing will eventually change and maybe success will look different then.
Jill: Yeah because one day I want to be doing dudes! [All laugh] Then I will be very successful.
For people that want to take some time and go on the road as well, do you have advice or things that you’ve learned?
Jill: Don’t pay for shit that you can get for free. Water, coffee, internet—things like that. It sounds really stupid, but if you are buying water and coffee and things like that every day, that adds up really fast. We don’t eat out. There are a lot of times where I’m like, “Oh, it would be nice to eat a nice meal…or I could travel for fucking three more days.” [Laughs] Get a reliable car. That’s important! [Laughs]
Kyla: Move slow. Always plan to be moving slower than you think you’ll be moving. Because rushing through stuff is not worth it—you’re going to miss so much. When something feels right, and it’s fun…fuck it. Go for it. Stay.
Jill: Yeah, always stay. Don’t be afraid of talking to people. There’s been maybe one time ever where we talked to somebody and they turned out to be sketchy enough that it was like, “Shit, we shouldn’t have talked to that person.” But other than that, some of the best situations we’ve ever gotten ourselves into have been from talking to people that, like, may look kind of sketchy. [Laughs]
Kyla: Expect the best, accept the worst. [Laughs] Communicate. If you’re traveling with friends and you’re mad or upset about something or you feel like you want to say something, just say it. Because you don’t have time to stew on stuff. You’ve got to get it out there. People always ask us, “How do you guys get alone?” It’s because we just say everything we’re feeling right away. Then we’ll just have a very small argument because it’s out there immediately, and you don’t have to be upset.
Ask everyone you meet about what’s next. People can introduce you to other people in the next place you’re going, and chances are, if you like that person, you’re going to really enjoy the person they suggest, too. Be a good house guest. Always be respectful. We try to cook a meal when we stay at places. Pierogies are the thing we make—they’re really cheap but really labor-intensive, so we spend all day cooking dinner, but it costs us five dollars.
Jill: Don’t set a route. I think a lot of people are like, “I’m going on a road trip!” And they plot out every day of their trip. We’ve traveled with people like that, too. They want to know where we’re staying tomorrow and what we’re doing the day after that.
Kyla: It works itself out.
Jill: We never set a route for our first trip. We would just meet somebody, and they’d say, “You guys should go this way and do this thing.”
Kyla: Yeah, and if you make a plan and things goes wrong, it can feel like you’re failing. But if you don’t make a plan, everything’s a beautiful surprise. Things have a way of working out, and people are good. People are generally good out there, and if you’re a good person, that stuff comes back to you.
Make sure you’re following Our Wild Abandon on Instagram before they set out on their next trip this December! You can also check out Jill and Kyla’s amazing work on their website and follow them on Twitter, too.