I’m originally from New Zealand but have been living and working as a photographer in London for my sins for the last 15 years. Growing up in NZ, the outdoors is pretty much part of your DNA. It’s coded in there somewhere directly after Rugby. So when I’m out shooting on location I’m at my happiest. If that location happens to be somewhere far flung, and a bit isolated, then all the better. I’ve always said there’s beach people and mountain people, and I’m most definitely the latter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very adept at lying on my back on a sandy sun lounger with a beer close to hand. But there’s something about being up a mountain. The sheer scale, and perspective it can give you I find really calming and inspiring.
Commercially, I specialize in advertising photography. But each year I try to undertake 1-2 personal projects to keep myself fresh from a creative standpoint. I get to go out and create work purely the way I want to, answering only to myself. The last 5 or so years these projects have lead me down the path of shooting various subcultures and groups around the world. The lesser known the better. I’m fascinated by these small and compelling groups who have a unique perspective on life and the way they approach it. Aside from being creatively cathartic, shooting these projects helps to land me more ad work, and in turn the ad work helps finance the next project. It’s a perfect little symbiotic relationship. I’ve been to Japan to shoot Dekotora truck drivers, Reindeer racing in Lapland, and most recently to Bolivia to shoot the ‘Cholitas Escaladoras’. The Climbing Cholitas.
My research for each of the projects I work on varies from series to series. On a couple of occasions it has been a case being on the road shooting a campaign for a client and quite literally stumbling across an idea that presents itself in the course of that. But these sorts of happy accidents are few and far between. Normally it is a very conscious process, where I have a gap in my shooting schedule and I’m feeling restless, so I begin researching across the internet. For my series on Japanese Dekotora truck culture, I specifically researched various Japanese sub-cultures as there is such a rich vein of that sort of thing over there, so it was a much more defined search for ideas.
In the case of this project on the climbing Cholitas, my starting point was the thought that people want to engage the narrative behind the images as much as the images themselves. I began trawling the internet looking for inspirational stories from around the world that might pique my interest. I stumbled across an image of the Cholitas relating to a story about them having just summited Mt. Aconcagua, which I instantly thought had potential. Aside from the obvious visual fascination provided by the fact they climb while wearing their traditional, colorful Aymara dresses, as is always the case with these personal projects, it’s their backstory that really sold it to me.
With the idea now firmly and irrevocably lodged in my mind, I had the small but crucial detail to contend with, of how get in contact with them and see if they were actually interested in working with me on the project. With only an extremely cursory amount of Spanish in my back pocket and no phone number or email address that I could use to get in touch with them, I decided to treat things very much as I would one of my commercial advertising shoots.
I contacted an amazing local Bolivian producer/fixer called Esteban Barriga Prado and his production company Pariente. He was very keen to get on board, as much like myself he finds working on personal projects in between his commercial ones very rewarding. We spent many hours talking over Skype as I walked through what it was that I was trying to achieve, both visually and also in the context of the wider story. As luck would have it, no sooner had I finished initially laying things out than he said, “No problem, I know Lidia, the leader of the climbing group!” He was able to explain to them what I was trying to achieve so that they felt comfortable in being part of the project, which is vitally important. I think these projects need to feel like a team endeavor that you’re working towards in collaboration with your subjects. It should never feel like you’re just showing up to take the photos purely for your own personal benefit, before hopping straight on a flight out of there at the end. That initial hurdle and their involvement fortuitously sorted out, he began pulling together everything that we’d need on the ground there to make the shoot happen. Transport to get myself and my assistant, along with himself, the porters, guides and Cholitas from El Alto to Huayana Potosi mountain. As well as making sure we’d be fed and watered and have a steady supply of Coca leaves to chew on to combat the altitude! After much discussion, my assistant and I are still not 100% sure whether it was the altitude or the Coca which was making our entire bodies feel distinctly and completely abnormal on the first day of climbing.
With pre-production underway and flights booked, it was time to think about the creative aspects of the shoot. The style I wanted to shoot it in and shots I ideally wanted to achieve. Every photographer has their own way of working and I’m personally very much a photographer who likes to have an initial framework worked out of the shots I would like to get, and where I’d like to take them, long before the shoot itself starts. I’m very controlled in how I shoot, methodical and thought through. I’m almost editing the shoot before I even get my camera up to my eye, deciding what frames to shoot, and which ones aren’t even worth pressing the shutter on. From there, once I’m on location, I use that framework to guide me but not to stick to religiously. So a framework, but with complete freedom to move around inside of and react to what unfolds in front of you. That way I have the comfort of knowing going into the shoot that I’m going to come away with something, but have the freedom to express myself as opportunities arise during the shoot. In this instance I got some location images from the Cholitas in advance, showing the mountain and the glacier so I knew what to expect to a degree and could begin planning things in my mind. But for all the planning it’s obviously very different once you’re there seeing it with your own eyes, and having variables like the weather to contend with.
For me, when I’m shooting these projects, it’s about asking myself the question ‘How am I going to elevate the images out of the everyday’. There is such a saturation of images being produced in the world at the moment, that whatever you’re going to shoot and put out into the world needs to have some sort of visual impact that separates it from what is around it. I knew I wanted to stage the Cholitas in such a way as to look proud and iconic in each scene, to reflect their rise out of being racially discriminated and marginalized over many many years.
As part of that I decided I also wanted to give the images and almost anthropological feel by lending them a quality of almost being set in a museum diorama, the ones you see with the painted backgrounds of mountains open plains, coupled with perfect lighting. So with that in mind I used flash to light all of the images, balancing their output exactly with the ambient light so there were no bright highlights or deep shadows. The result gives the images a slightly painterly, stylized edge to them, and achieves my desire to create a visual twist on the photos.
When I’m working on projects like this, obviously the photography is the primary reason for being there. But what makes each shoot special, and memorable, and keeps me wanting to find the next subject, is the people. Having the privileged opportunity to spend time with them and get a small glimpse into their unique lives is something absolutely immeasurable, and photography provides me the key to be able to open those doors. On this shoot we had a number of shared experiences that I’ll always remember. On the first day, we sat at foot of Zongo glacier, the summit of Huayana towering above us, and had an Apthapi (communal meal) together. We didn’t all speak the same language as each other, but in a way that shared experience provides a large part of the conversation. My producers would translate when any of us wanted to ask questions directly, but other times you find yourself able to work out what is being said by picking up the occasional word in conjunction with a tone of voice or a laugh. As humans we have an amazing ability to communicate without necessarily speaking, and I think there’s an important lesson in that.