In my last interview I mentioned how this week’s featured travel blogger is actually a husband and wife duo, Stephen and Laura Cook. However because both of them were such fantastic interviewees I felt the only way to do them justice was with two separate posts.
For those of you that missed yesterday’s post, be sure to also read my interesting interview with Stephen Cook. Below is an equally enthralling conversation with Laura Cook. All photographs featured during this interview are hers.
And now the thrilling conclusion to my interview with the Cook duo!
Let’s start with the basics: please tell us more about yourself, your photographs, and your new blog, The Thing With Feathers.
Hi, I am Laura from England and I guess I would describe myself as a Christian, wife, traveller and humanitarian photographer, and I would put those things in that order. I have always loved seeing lots of the world and have yet to outgrow the urge to travel, I have permanent itchy feet! I began taking my photography seriously three years ago and am planning to go freelance with this in 2013 but currently get to use photography a lot with my work for an international development charity. I am a very recent entry to the world of blogging although I have enjoyed following others for years now. I decided to start blogging to take people on my journey as I give up the ‘normal’ UK lifestyle and start becoming more digitally nomadic. For me photography and words are a way of weaving stories and I think storytelling is a really powerful force for good.
It looks like a lot of your travels have a big humanitarian aspect to them. Do you get any joy out of tourism when you visit some of the poorer places or is more just an overwhelming urge to help?
I really do see myself as a tourist, or certainly a visitor, wherever I go. My photography would definitely be defined as humanitarian photography but that has stemmed out of a love of meeting new people, this is something I enjoy whether travelling for work or as a tourist. Every country I have been to has had loads to offer to tourists and I do get a real kick out of experiencing those hidden gems off the beaten track such as a powder white sandy beach in Sierra Leone or an ancient church in Ethiopia.
Many of the countries I have been to are trying to appeal more to tourists and if done in the right way sustainable tourism has a lot to offer those living in poverty. Most people would prefer the opportunity to work themselves out of poverty to a hand-out and I think it is important to remember that when we travel. There is also a lot of joy in coming alongside those living in poverty and having the honour of helping them to tell their story, I do hope that my photography opens up people’s eyes to the world around them but I am a fortunate girl as I genuinely love doing what I do!
I love the way you highlight the beauty of Africa instead of the poverty. Is there one country that you found most impressive, or one that you would recommend most to first time Africa-explorers who want an authentic experience?
Africa is an amazing continent and there is so much beauty to be found! So many countries are also lifting themselves out of poverty as well and I am not sure that this good news gets shared often enough. I have enjoyed everywhere I have travelled but I was particularly impressed with Ethiopia and as I only went for a week I really want to go back for a lot longer. Ethiopia is like nowhere else I have ever been, a mix of ancient culture and language with a real emphasis on embracing the modern as well. I spent most of my time in an area near the Wof Washa Valley and the real highlight for me was sipping rich Ethiopian coffee in a bustling little market area surrounded by these towering green mountains. I do not think it is possible to capture the intoxicating atmosphere in words as Ethiopia was an absolute joy to the senses.
If I had to suggest a first time place to go for travellers new to the continent I would suggest a different country though, the ‘warm heart of Africa’ Malawi. I have been to Malawi a few times and I think it is a great place to start as it is a very friendly and open country with options for every sort of budget, it also has a really diverse landscape and so you would be able to get a real feel for the variety of wildlife and landscape on offer across the continent. My top tip would be to start your Malawian travels with some time in the Salima area by Lake Malawi as it is a great base for getting a taste of the country in a stunning location.
Your information on the current state of Sierra Leone was quite surprising to me. Could you tell us all more about it, from what you have seen firsthand?
When we told friends and family we were travelling to Sierra Leone for a holiday we were greeted with one of two reactions: People either stared at us in horror and then began to talk about the civil war and child soldiers or they simply asked ‘why would you go there’? My husband and I travelled to the affectionately known ‘Sweet Salone’ with our best friend Sam (who had never travelled to Africa before) and spent a week in the northern jungle regions around Kamakwie and then a week exploring some of the beaches including River No.2 and Sussex.
We loved Sierra Leone and it is probably one of the most beautiful countries I have been to anywhere in the world. The war ended in 2002 and the country is now very peaceful and has its doors wide open for tourism. The beaches easily rival those at luxury resorts in the Carribean and it is hard to believe there are not more people dipping their toes in the turquoise sea in Salone. There are also forests full of wildlife (hearing chimpanzees in the wild was really special), a thriving music scene and plenty of Robinson Crusoe style islands for exploration. Sierra Leone is still a very poor country though and most of its population live in very challenging circumstances, tourism is one way to boost the economy but at the moment Sierra Leone is not receiving many visitors there for that reason alone. If you are a more adventurous tourist I would definitely recommend Sierra Leone as a great place to explore.
So I know you have traveled a lot throughout Africa… it seems like every country! Is there one you’ve missed? One that is still on your dream list? How about elsewhere in the world?
Still plenty of places left to see! I have also travelled very quickly through many of the countries I have been to and so I would really like to visit lots of places again but travel more slowly and get to know people and places more intimately. In Africa I would love to go to Namibia, I saw photographs of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia in a travel book a few years ago and I have wanted to travel the area since then.
Sadly at the moment I do not think we will be in Namibia in the next couple of years but it is written in bold on the destination wish list! When I went to university I studied South East Asian cultures and peoples and yet ten years later I have still not been to South East Asia so as far as the rest of the world goes countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand are must-see destinations for me.
My husband Steve has not travelled that way either so it would be fantastic to explore and get to know this part of the world together.
What are the best and worst parts about traveling with a significant other?
Worst part – the snoring! That applies at home as well though (sorry Steve!). In all seriousness I think I am really blessed to have found someone I can travel so easily with. We are very different travellers in some ways; Steve likes being up early, I enjoy my sleep, Steve loves going to famous landmarks whereas I prioritise spending time meeting new people but I think for us the fact we enjoy different things works well.
Steve has encouraged me to go to places I maybe wouldn’t have chosen myself but have ended up really enjoying and I have helped him chill out a bit more about not necessarily having every detail tied down before we travel. We are both really independent people so are pretty good at giving each other space when we need to which helps keep things tension free but most the time we love nothing better than discovering new places together. The best thing about travelling with Steve is that he is really funny and is my best friend as well as my husband, if you can have humour when you travel most tricky situations are easily overcome. I often hear the phrase that travel can ‘make or break’ a couple but I have always just found travelling together a pretty natural extension of who we are. I suspect my obsession with finding the good light for my photography drives Steve a little crazy sometimes though!
You have a unique way of choosing your subjects which I love. What goes through your head when you are looking around trying to choose what to shoot next?
To be honest I just try and spend as much time as I can with people or in a place without snapping to then get a feel for what I want to capture. I really believe in the power of storytelling and so I try and see scenes that fit into a larger story. Something else that I do if I have an extended amount of time with someone is to ask them how they would like to be photographed or to show me a place or object that is special to them, this often leads to a much more intimate view of life.
No matter how hard I try, my photographs — whether of people, landscapes, cityscapes, etc — all come out as “touristy.” Do you have any photographer’s tricks that you’ve learned over the years which you might be willing to share?
Don’t be so hard on yourself! I have only been taking photography seriously for the last three years and so I am still learning lots myself but I will give you my top four tips for improving travel snaps:
1) Get up early!
I mentioned before that I get very obsessive about the light, there is good reason for that. The best light for photography is usually the first hour after sunrise, those people portraits will then have a beautiful golden tone to them and landscapes can come to life… it does mean setting the alarm to make sure you take advantage of the opportunity though! I still find it hard to get up but never regret rolling out of bed that bit earlier.
2) Take your time getting to know people.
When you are taking photographs of people simply taking the time to have a chat with them is well worth it for a number of reasons. You get to connect with someone and get a glimpse into their life and I think that is much more dignified and ethical than trying to sneak up on them with a telephoto lens, you get time to think about where it would be best to place your subject and finally you will probably end up with a better photo as well as your subject is relaxed. It is always good to remember it is a fellow human being at the other end of your lens and if you do that you will find your whole approach changes.
3) Get a critical friend.Sounds really obvious but if you are honestly keen to improve then best tip is practice, practice and then practice some more. You don’t need to be abroad to do this – your home town is someone else’s travel destination! Go out and shoot your local area as if you are seeing it for the first time.
Find someone who will not just say your photos look great (your mum will ALWAYS think your photos look great!) but will actually challenge you and help you improve. This could just be a friend who takes photos you really admire or you could go one step further and look at a travel photography course such as the excellent one from MatadorU. Finding professionals who would comment on my work with honesty really helped me develop and I continue to use this forum to get better. Sometimes it hurts if someone doesn’t like the photo you spent an hour trying to perfect but this critic will help you improve much more quickly. If you then need the ego boost ask your mum!
I remember one of your photographs won a photography competition. If I am not mistaken, it actually landed the two of you another trip to Africa later this year. Can you tell us all more about it?
I did win The Guardian Been There photography competition for 2011 wbich is a big contest in the UK with a photo I took in Sierra Leone. I was blown away to get the overall award and the husband and I are off to South Africa in September where I will be completing an assignment for The Guardian newspaper at the Ngala Safari Lodge within Kruger National Park. I am really excited as South Africa is somewhere I have never been before and I have heard such good things. The pressure is on for me to get some good wildlife shots though as if you browse my website you will see this is not normally something I do. Watch this space!
Any words of advice for new photographers and/or travel bloggers?
Do it because you love it, create things you are passionate about and then don’t give up on that vision!