Photography News | Issue 46 | absolutephoto.com
Alison Cahill on finding a project
Above Rather than sniping pictures from a distance “like a hunter”, Joel says the best way to approach travel shots like this is to spend time with the subjects, getting to know them and winning their trust.
Although she considers herself an enthusiast, Alison Cahill (alisoncahillphotography.com) has been recognised for her travel photography three times in TPOTY. In 2014, she was a finalist in the Tribes category, followed by a commendation in the New Talent section of TPOTY 2015 with a series of shots on street culture. In 2016 her Son & Dad Barbers project won the New Talent category of TPOTY. As her home is usually on her back, she travels light gear wise, with a Nikon D610 and two lenses; a 50mm f/1.4 and 24-120mm f/4. For Alison, preconceived projects are extremely helpful: “when I started out in travel photography, I was documenting all my experiences as most travellers do, but as time has progressed so have my goals. Now I try to go to places with a clear idea of what I want to achieve. This comes through research, or because I’ve been there before and found something I’d like to explore further.” Alison feels that the best projects come about this way; themes that ‘come from a photographer’s own passion for a subject or particular style of shooting’, but which also evolve and bear repeated visits. For her Son & Dad Barbers project, she took a chance encounter and ran with it. “I was in Penang, Malaysia getting a visa for Indonesia when I got lost onmy way back tomy guesthouse,” she explains. “Then I saw a barber’s shop that looked really interesting. I went in to have a look and that’s how I discovered ‘Son & Dad’. I spoke with the owner, Elyas, and asked if it would be possible to come by the next day and take some photos.” Thanks to this friendly approach, Elyas agreed and she went back next day, shooting for hours.
Above Even when people are suspicious of photographers, showing them the pictures you’re taking can win them over, says Joel. He even finds room in his bag for a mobile printer, so he can leave some of his work with the people whose stories he’s told.
But the waiting paid off and eventually, one of them came to the shore and spoke to him. “That’s when I could explain, that I didn’t mean any harm and I was just fascinated; that my own country is full of fishermen and that I would really love to tell this story.” “As I started to take photos they became more confident, and finally let me come out with them on one of their wooden planks. You see, they believe the lake is an entity and can’t be touched by iron.” Getting that level of closeness, that access, made a huge difference to Joel’s images. Instead of a sniper’s view from the shore, they’re intimately taken at water level: “I’m laying down on the plank, trying to get as connected to them as possible.” This process of integrating with the subjects is very important to Joel, and he says that there are unhelpful habits that many photographers fall into. “I’ve organised many tours to places like India; at first photographers can be afraid toshoot local people. But later,whenconfidence grows, they can get too cocky and disregard people’s privacy.” This shooting-and-running approach, he says, makes photographers more like hunters, collecting trophies, with no connection to the subject. “That approach
has nothing to do with telling a person’s story. It’s not to say I don’t love the candid ‘first look portrait’. I do, but I always approach and show the person, trying to get to know them. If I’m asked to delete, I will. You have to be human, to smile and be respectful, not like a leopard waiting for prey!” To help with this, he often takes a mobile printer with him: “when you’re travelling to these small villages in far off places, you can’t just give them pictures electronically. I take less underwear to fit a printer!” A different perspective Shooting projects from a new perspective is also something that Joel evangelises. For some years he has been shooting from drones to do it. His second TPOTY 16 winning project was shot in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, and was the first TPOTY winner to be shot using a drone-mounted camera. “I wanted to show how hard this place is,” Joel says, “one of the hottest, harshest environments on Earth; it averages around 60ºC. So how can I tell this story? How do I show the camel trains, the volcanic landscape, and the colours and patterns of the salt? I had photos from the
Reaching Indonesia, Alison sent some photos from the shoot to Elyas and asked if she could return to spendmore time, making it a proper project. “Again he agreed and just over a year later I returned, spending around three months on and off at the shop trying to get a feel for daily life there. They were amazing, very welcoming, friendly and funny and just let me domy thing. It was a great experience and a learning curve.” It sounds like a smooth ride, but Alison is quick to point out, this isn’t always the case: “I’ve realised that actually sometimes you just need to employ a ‘fixer’ to have more control over a completely foreign situation.” Even this doesn’t always go to plan, though. She describes visiting an island off West Sumatra called Mentawai where she wanted to shoot the ‘medicine men’ for part of her ongoing tattoo project: “It took me over a week to organise a suitable guide in Padang but when I arrived at the island he wasn’t there – he wasn’t even on the same island as me! It ended up being impossible to achieve my initial project concept, but I made the most of the situation – it was frustrating but also part of the adventure.”
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