Interview With Travel Photographer Lynn Gail

This is a repost of an interview I did with my friend Lynn back in January 2016. It’s a long interview, but full of insight into a life of travel and photography. If you haven’t read it, make some time. Lynn reminded me afterwards that we’d actually first met at Magnum Workshops in Fremantle, Western Australia, not on a photowalk.

I first met Lynn during the blur of my life as a corporate monkey in Perth, Western Australia; I think we might have attended a photowalk organized by a local photographer who is a mutual friend. Dry humored, diminutive and sporting a pair of tellingly worn shoes, I was only slightly jealous when I found out that she traveled for a living, shooting for the likes of Lonely Planet and Getty Images. I interviewed Lynn over the (email) wire, keen to know how she came to do what she does. Many pots of Earl Grey were consumed during the course of this interview by us both. – Charlene

How did you come to be a photographer?

I left home at 16 after failing badly at secretarial college (uni was never mentioned at home). Boredom had seeped in very quickly – the typewriter keys never bounced in the right direction and after several bottles of white-out I left the UK to live in New Zealand, where I stayed for two years.

On returning to the UK I joined The Hastings (a local newspaper) and St-Leonards-On-Sea Observer where I became an apprentice typesetter. Unfulfilled in this typist/compositor role, I’d easily get distracted by the bushy tailed squirrels running around outside my window; I day-dreamed of something more meaningful than pressing small squares of letters on the black keyboard.

The darkroom, initially off limits, became a room of magical little moments as the editorial photographers allowed me to watch them develop their negatives. I wanted to know why parts of an image were soft while others parts were sharp. The aperture ring helped me focus on my life and I began studying the old masters, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Helmut Newton, Elliot Erwitt etc. With a Canon AE-1, I began photographing everything that did and didn’t move, writing down each setting to match to each print. People fascinated me though – I wanted to get beneath a person’s veneer and capture their essence – and travel photography seemed the perfect fit.

What sort of work do you do / have you done?

Photo: Lynn Gail

I’ve had no formal education apart from a six week black and white darkroom course when I first came to Australia. For several years I photographed day-care centres, T-Ball teams, built a rustic out-door studio set up for family portraiture, photographed people in commissioned shoots for For Me Magazine (no longer in print) and photographed weddings while raising two very special young men.

Having a restless, wandering mind, travel has always been part of my thought process. When I met Richard I’Anson, founder of the Lonely Planet stock library, I asked him to look over my travel images. I wanted to know how cultures worked, what made them so diverse. I didn’t just want to observe; I wanted to make a connection. I’Anson generously helped me with an initial 500 image submission that was necessary for acceptance into Lonely Planet Images. I also became a contributor of the UK stock library, Robert Harding World Imagery.

One thing invariably led to another. After completing two short on-line travel writing courses, I began contacting travel magazine editors with a view to supplying features articles. Having been published just twice in several years, getting a commission took many knocks on editors’ doors. Knock long enough though, and the door eventually creaks open. My initial articles had appeared in Australia Photography Magazine (now +Digital) and Better Photography. More recently, my work has appeared in Australian Traveller Magazine, Get Up and Go Magazine, Get Lost Magazine (Jan 2016) and Australian Photography +Digital (due out Feb 2016). Travel Directors, a specialist small group tour company based in West Leederville, also hosted me on one of their tours to Madagascar to shoot video/stills for their advertising material.

New journeys inspire new ideas. Through meeting some kindred and clever souls in the places I’ve been lucky enough to visit, I have recently started running small personalised photo tours with Seng Mah [a fellow professional in Perth, Western Australia]. Our website – Cultural Connections – has just been launched. In 2016 we visit Madagascar, return to the Yolngu people in Arnhem Land (one of the gentlest cultures on our planet), and we also visit Sardinia for a recce trip. Our bucket list is growing pretty fast! We want these tours to be immersive, where participants really connect with the people they visit and not just pass through without gaining any real sense of the journey they are on.

Through being focused firmly on travel, I’ve recently neglected the all-important creative process of personal work; as a photographer I feel one feeds the other. Business and personal paths don’t have to meet, but they should run a close parallel to one another.

As a travel photographer / writer, you come into contact with a lot of people. Making connections is obviously important for you… how do you get underneath someone’s skin to understand what’s under their veneer, in a short amount of time?

When I’m on the road it’s not always easy making a deep connection, especially in a fleeting moment. I often feel uncomfortable ‘grabbing’ the shot, but the reactive photographer in me struggles with not recording a slice that resonates. Essentially we are all the same, regardless of culture, skin colour and conditioning: our basic human instinct to be accepted and to accept the World around us is paramount to our survival.

So, how do I get beneath someone’s veneer in a short amount of time? I try to be open and honest and connect to their existence through my own existence, some people you can do this with instantly, and others take a little more time to build trust with. I want to learn about people’s rhythms, their daily routines and their belief systems. Understanding others helps us to understand ourselves and where we fit in. These chance or planned meetings, however brief help to shape the road ahead and make it a tiny bit straighter and sharper.

An occasion that put my life in perspective occurred in Cambodia. We had a driver for two weeks who took us off the tourist trail (the best place to be). We drove through an area called Battambang and stopped at a local village to stretch our legs. I always explore unplanned stops, so I walked into a brick-making factory where I met two young boys. One was 12, the other 15, around the same age as my youngest son, both were skinny and wearing tatty shorts, pushing a heavy load of newly made bricks up a steep incline into the factory. I found out that they worked every day with rare days off, and the money they earned went directly to their families, whom they saw once a month.

These hardship stories of children working to support their families are common, but what struck me was: grim their as situation would seem to many Western children who live far more comfortable lives, they found reasons to smile.

Also, there’s always laughter on the road.

“You want sex?” The dark haired man asked, sitting in his white panel-van at Phmon Phen’s airport in Cambodia when I handed over a wad of US dollars.

“For driving”, I said, as confused as he was. “You’re Sarat?”

At this point, I turned, and noticed the real Sarat sitting in an identical white van whilst my two companions were on their knees, doubled-over with laughter. I snatched the wad of cash back from the poor confused man, mumbled an apology and quickly walked away, head hung low. I’ve never quite lived that one down!

Getting ready to perform in Lao Ramayana, Royal Theatre, Th Sisavangvong. Photo: Lynn Gail

Images: Can you share some of your personal favourites made over the years, and tell us about them?

Girl In Tall Grass. Photo: Lynn Gail

We were just returning from an impromptu rodeo in a rural village in Madagascar. Watching angry cows buck against rum warmed men was not my idea of a good time, so I walked ahead of the group. This young girl was as interested in me as I was in her – her clothes matched the tall dry grass and her contrasting big round eyes just stared out at me. Fortunately I had a 70-200mm lens on the camera and quickly took two images as she looked right into the lens, then she was off running through the growth.

Portrait of young Laotian village girl holding baby in village near Kasi. Photo: Lynn Gail

This image of a young teenager looking after her sister was taken in a small hill-top village in Laos where they rarely have visitors. We shared no verbal communication, only wide open accepting smiles from this chance meeting of opposite worlds. After pointing to the camera she looked fixedly into the lens and I felt a connection for the briefest of moments as she shared a little of her soul.

Novice Monk In Robes. Photo: Lynn Gail

When eyes stare out at me, I get excited. At the New Moon Festival in Bagan, Myanmar, I spotted this novice monk peeking out at me through folds of dark maroon material. He was surrounded by a long line of older monks waiting to collect public donations under the intense sun. I’ve learned to wait, knowing that if someone looks once or twice they’ll invariably look again to see if you are still there – just as I took his picture I felt he looked safe yet vulnerable at the moment we made contact.

An Aboriginal elder – Djarlie. Photo: Lynn Gail

I had spent the day with Djarlie, a Yolngu elder, at Bawaka homeland in East Arnhem Land. I was there on assignment to write a feature article for Australian Traveller Magazine on the Top End outback. Initially Djarlie was reserved but after spending three hours riding alongside him in a battered 4WD on the most incredible coastline of Australia, he opened up once he discovered I had keen listening ears.

He took the time to show me what is involved in spear making, using the maluan and gutpa trees. Afterwards, demonstrated his prowess in fishing with the spear – once released from his hands, it always connected with its target, killing his prey immediately. He taught me there are six seasons, and each time the weather changes, the Yolngu people know which animal is ready to hunt, what plants are ready to use in their cooking/medicinal purposes and which can be used for the artefacts they make. The Yolngu people believe that rain is a recently departed Aboriginal elder’s spirit returning to land and country.

Djarlie is an exceptional character with a colourful past who is he is deeply connected to country. Once we had made an open connection his demeanour changed; I felt I was photographing the pages of his life, not just its cover.

Portrait Aboriginal girl, Bukudal Homeland, The Outback, East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. Photo: Lynn Gail.

On a more recent visit to East Arnhem Land I met Andrea at Bukudal Homeland in East Arnhem Land. A talented young Yolngu girl, Andrea sang and danced as I photographed her on the beach – her zest for life was intoxicating, but her quietness was what I wanted to capture. She struck me as being an old soul, for her young years. As we gathered on the communal mat, she spoke of the land and her people with a connection that belied her years. She struck me as an old soul, with a connection to her community that I can only imagine as an outsider, and it was this facet of her that I wanted to capture.

Laughter In Lombok. Photo: Lynn Gail

As a stock photographer it’s part of my work to be aware of up-and-coming destinations that are becoming popular. While trekking through the Mount Rinjani region in northern Lombok, Indonesia, my companion (Elana) and I came across a tiny hut in the middle of the tobacco fields.

Initially, we didn’t see a soul. Right as we walked past the hut, a child peeped out at us from a wooden door, then its father and mother appeared. I never give up an opportunity to mix with the locals if they appear friendly, so we stopped, waved and asked if we could visit in sign language – pointing to ourselves and back towards them, smiling. They waved us over, inviting us in. People in this area are not used to seeing Caucasian women loaded with camera gear trekking through their fields, so I think it was as much a novelty to them as it was to us.

In the hut, they also served us think black strong coffee in plastic cups. I don’t drink coffee, but my companion, Elana sipped on hers, making a face at the taste of it. This sent our hosts into gales of laughter. They laughed the whole time we were there, and we didn’t really know what they were chortling about, but as we couldn’t help laughing ourselves, it seemed entirely natural! As we showed them images on the back of the camera this sent them into more raucous laughter – quite a memory in the middle of tobacco fields at the base of Mt Rinjani!

Being a travel photographer requires that you’re away from home a lot. How do you and your family make this work?

I met my husband at an airport – he was on the way back to China where he lived at the time, and I was emigrating to Australia. After several ping pong trips I moved to China and from there we moved to Malaysia, with lots of travelling in between.

Travel has always been a part of our relationship. When my boys were old enough and the opportunity presented itself for further travel, to do what I love, he was very supportive, which he continues to be to this day. We’ve never had a conventional relationship with conventional husband and wife roles. When I’m away he keeps everything in check; he’s also worked away from home a fair amount of time and understands the need for change and discovery. Without his unconditional support much of what I’ve been able to achieve could not have happened. I am eternally grateful to him for this.

Pine trees on snow covered mountain, Sierra Blanca. Photo: Lynn Gail

What are the challenges you’ve faced as a professional photographer?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced would be be bringing the inaugural tour to East Arnhem Land together.

I first had the idea for this tour when visiting East Arnhem Land in 2011 for the first time. There were no photographic tours running in the area and I could see the potential for the cultural and photographic aspect. Seng Mah invited me to be a part of Photo Expose in 2013. I got to see how skilful a teacher he was, and I invited him to join me in running my tour. That was the easy bit.

So many questions followed the idea: Could I teach? It’s easy knowing what you know, but imparting that knowledge is a different story, requiring a different set of skills. How do I keep a group of people engaged for a week? How do we fill the spots? Will everyone get along? All other photography jobs seemed a walk in the park compared to taking a small group of people on a personalised tour of Australia’s most remote territory.

I often tell myself that everything will work out though, along with a quote by Mother Teresa: ‘doubt takes away your freedom.’ Challenge creates focus which ultimately creates gratification and that excites me – I believe it’s healthy to feel accomplished when we achieve our goals. When the journey of any idea comes to fruition, it is a wonderful thing!

Personally, I always struggle with leaving my family behind – they are the people who balance and support me – but the itch to travel, photograph and write about my journeys run deep. The challenges and opportunities that travel provides, teaches me to be a better human being. I think it’s a wonderful assurance to my two talented sons to follow their dreams and get totally immersed into whatever excites them.

When you believe in yourself, the road becomes a lot less bumpy. Creativity can be both rewarding and an enemy when things don’t pan out as expected – imagination is a powerful tool; it can work both ways. I’m a fighter though – what gets me down also propels me forward to improve my work both in my personal and business life. I believe in the old adage: ‘where there is a will, there is very definitely a way’.

Myanmar. Photo: Lynn Gail.

Who’s your hero / Who are your heroes?

The photographers that grace my coffee table are the obvious ones: Steve McCurry, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Don George, Simon Reeve, Vivian Maier, Richard I’Asnson and the many other Magnum photographers – but are they my heroes?

These photographers certainly inspire my mind but it’s the unsung heroes who inspire my heart: My close friend Kaye, who fought cancer on and off for nearly 30 years, passed away last year at just 47. She never complained, even the day before she died she was still worrying about everyone else.

Special K, they called her.

This year I was involved in a volunteer project for the Australian Institute of Professional Photography – photographing the Anzacs to honour their lives. After getting to know these service men and women through their stories I realised what it really meant to be a hero – they fought for their country at the ages my sons are now.

I also volunteer for Heartfelt, an organisation that gives the gift of photographic memories when all else is lost – when people lose their babies and young children, often through a still birth, others through cot death, through disease and tragic accidents. When I am in the hospital room with those who have lost their children, I am always touched by the strength that they find to continue with their lives. They are heroes to me, the people who soldier on through their darkest hours. We give them a gift through Heartfelt, but they certainly gift us in return.

Photo: Lynn Gail

Photographically, are there any projects you haven’t taken on, that you burn to?

I had to have a good think about this one. If there was absolutely nothing in my way and Nat Geo rang to offer me an assignment (yeah right!) documenting say, Tribes Untouched by Tourism, then I’d be packing my bags pretty damn fast. I have a fascination with untouched cultures – there are so few left in the world. To document tribal rituals so foreign to our own lives with no outside influence would be the ultimate career clincher.

But a little closer to home, in 2016 I’m continuing an on-going project: People Reading Print – Books, newspapers, anything printed has been taken over so quickly by technology. I love to see people engrossed in tactile print – there seems to be a more connected expression, and often their surroundings add to the story.

I’m starting another personal project this year: ‘Seen through Windows.’ As a people photographer it stands to reason that I’m a people watcher – photographing people through windows in restaurants, in shops, on public transport and wherever there is a window that separates us. It’s about recording something completely in the moment, a slice of undisturbed life.

Photo: Lynn Gail

What sort of equipment do you typically use on assignment, and for personal work?

I generally use the same equipment for both personal work and assignments. I try to keep my kit down to three or four lenses due to weight. In the bag: Canon EF 70-200 f/4L, Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8, Canon EF 50ml f/1.8, Canon EF 28-70 f/2.8, Canon Extender EF 1.4. My tripod is a combination of a Manfrotto ball head and a Gitzo traveller titanium base – total weight 1KG.

Photo: Lynn Gail

What is your guiding philosophy in life?

My guiding philosophy would be: When first inspired by a seemingly unachievable goal – one that excites and focuses you like a meditation – follow it, stay with it, play with it. Follow it to fruition; the view is incredible.

Photo: Lynn Gail

Where are you heading to in 2016?

My youngest son has his ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) exams so I’m keeping the travelling to as much of a minimum as possible, while still covering three trips.

In May, Seng Mah and I are off the Sardinia, Italy to recce a possible tour we may be running in 2017. We have our inaugural photographic tour leaving for Madagasar/Mauritius on July 10th, and our East Arnhem Trip on September 10th.

If someone calls and the timing is right I’m sure I’ll squeeze it in ;)

Photo: Lynn Gail

Connect with Lynn

Instagram: @lynn_1_gail
Cultural Connections photo tours: