From Passion to Profession – The Ascend Collective in Focus

At the inaugural running of the Twisted Branch Trail Run in August of 2015, the Rochester, NY and Finger Lakes region was introduced to what has quickly become the premiere sports photography business in the area. The Ascend Collective announced they would be on hand to document their first event.

Founded by three local endurance athletes who also love to take part in events from behind the lens, the Ascend Collective quickly became known for creative shots in isolated places that sometimes require them to cover more miles than the runners in the race do!

Ron Heerkens Jr, Michael Lesher and Alex Tong, (who recently moved on from The Collective) worked together to launch The Ascend Collective. They envisioned a place where they could mutually make their work easier for people in the community to find. They each had the same belief of high quality photography where each photo as Heerkens likes to say, is “Hand crafted.”

Photo Credit Ron Heerkens Jr -Taken after climbing Lucifer’s Steps        in Ithaca – NY

With the availability of smart phone cameras, affordable DSLR tools and commercial photography recently entering the field, the Ascend Collective wanted to create something different. “We had a vision that we could take our photography in the same direction as the best wedding photographers. Bring the average race photo to that level and even exceed it” Heerkens says.

With a mutual love for the Western New York/Finger Lakes region, Lesher agrees. “We could showcase the region and sport of trail running more effectively with this than anything else we could do, all while capturing participants being awesome as they are accomplishing goals.”

Michael Lesher braving the cold after hanging out on the ski hill at the Winter Trail Festival. Photo Credit: Chris Patterson

Setting them apart from the general photography business, The Ascend Collective is  proud that all of their work is of the every day person, not professional models set up for a photo shoot. Heerkens, as a runner himself understands what goes into competing in the events. “People train long for these awesome events, why not capture the event in that same way and make it truly something special?” he asks.

What sets the Ascend Collective apart though is the ability and desire to take photos in locations that most other photographers would not dream of going to. Everyone expects a picture at the finish line, however many are shocked to see Ron a top a mountain as they summit through the clouds or Michael actually standing in the water as they cross a picturesque bridge. The photographers from The Ascend Collective scout courses ahead of time and often hike out hours before the race starts so they can be in position to capture the race photo of a lifetime.

Ron climbing his way to a great photo opportunity full gear in tow. Credit: Mountain Peak Fitness

Why spend this kind of energy when so many other photography options exist? Lesher says the reason is simple, “To create something beautiful.” To not be the “point and click” photographers. In their eyes, there are plenty of photographers who do capture an event, but Lesher and Heerkens feel they are often left with a one dimensional approach to the day. The team wants to bring art to what they do and they actually capture the mood of the day. They want runners to remember the event. “What was the day like? How did you feel? These are questions we constantly ask ourselves.” With so little time to accomplish great things Lesher believes to not do something meaningful seems like a tremendous waste.


Photo by Michael Lesher


Working together with two different perspectives but the same goal of quality over quantity has led to an incredible partnership. Lesher views himself as a photojournalist and a story teller who really enjoys showing people what these events are all about. Heerkens on the other hand views his photography as a filmmaker would. “My world vision is one constantly played and re-framed a movie”, he says.  They both continue to look at photography in new and unique ways to grow and improve as artists.

Having taken photos at almost all of the local trail races The Ascend Collective has begun to branch out through New York State and have their lens focused on events across the country. They want to travel to see special places and take special photos. Look for more great shots including upcoming videos as well as drone and aerial photography in the future as they branches out in the future. They want to document the journey that runners go through whether that be the moment of glory at the finish line or complete despair in the middle of an ultra. It’s art and The Ascend Collective is here to share it.

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Video by Ron can be found here