One of the seminal moments in my photography journey was my decision to partake in a workshop with Hawai'i based photographer, Scott Reither. This one day re-framed the way that I thought about my work, and helped set the direction for the path that I now feel I am on, with Scott's philosophical approach to photography resonating deeply with me. I am so grateful that in the years since Scott has become a good friend and mentor to me. I encourage you to check out his website www.scottreither.com .
in 2019 Scott interviewed me as part of a conversations series that he has been developing on his site and I have taken the liberty to publish the full interview here.
What compels a 7 year old boy to make a goal to travel and see the world?
How does three words - God is Good - lead to a unique interaction with the Dalai Lama?
How does an early on the path photographer raise tens of thousands of dollars to help provide at-risk youth with tools and resources to lead more healthy, productive lives?
60 COUNTRIES, PHOTOGRAPHY & THE DALAI LAMA
I was naturally drawn to Jaymal Nathwani for edition 002 of Conversations, and wanted to explore these topics and others with him.
Jaymal Nathwani has a day job in finance but moonlights as a world-traveler, a photographer and a philanthropist.
In an age where most young travelers and photographers are simply after the next check-mark on their list of popular locations and iconic shots, it is refreshing to see a twenty-something that has figured out the importance and value of delving deeper.
Jaymal has figured out that travel and photography isn’t just about stories and snapshots. He’s discovered there’s worlds of depth beneath the surface. He’s learned what it means to make art.
Absolutely, it is impressive what he has seen as a traveler. And yes, it is notable what he has done with the camera in just a few short years of working with it. But what I find most exciting about Jaymal is - he reminds us to make dreams and have the courage to pursue them. To follow our hearts and intuition, and surrender to the flow of life. To be open and available to what is presented to us. And to always remember the less fortunate and offer our compassion and generosity and spread our own good fortunes.
Many thanks and much respect to Jaymal for serving us these reminders!
Without further ado, here is my conversation with Jaymal Nathwani.
SCOTT REITHER: I’ve been following your Instagram lately and I’m exhausted! [laughing] You’ve been a busy guy!
JAYMAL NATHWANI: I know, it's been a bit of a whirlwind of a year actually. I just spent my day at a big photo exhibition in London this weekend. All of the big galleries were here. And last night I went to see Salgado who was speaking. Which was amazing. I'd never seen him speak in the flesh before, so that was a pretty cool experience.
SR: He’s one of the master photographers that I’ve been turning people to study and learn from more and more because I feel like his work just oozes with so much life and spirit and emotion - and that's ultimately what makes for the best kind of photographs. I don't think there's anyone in photography more successful than him with making these emotive images.
JN: Yeah. You know, it was interesting cause I watched his film and I've watched a lot of his interviews as well and when you see him speak, it kind of ties a lot of things together and you really appreciate his work even more - just how amazing he is, and this sort of world view that he portrays. I took along my old boss - who was the person who encouraged me to have an exhibition and paid for the whole thing - and she knows his work. She'd never seen him speak and she felt it was pretty life changing - to hear him as well as see his stuff. It’s one of those things where he spoke for an hour and I felt like I could sit there all night and listen. He's such a great storyteller.
SR: The first time I saw his work in person, Becca and I were traveling in Paris and just roaming the city aimlessly. It coincided with the opening of his Genesis exhibit a number of years ago, and we happened to stumble onto it. It was opening at a big gallery, and his work took up all four stories of the building - a solo artist exhibit like I had never seen before. Must have been well over 200 pieces. And many XXL sized ones. Up until then, I had only seen his work in books or online. That was the first time I saw it in person and it totally blew me away. We were taking it all in as slow as possible. We must have spent three or four hours in that exhibit. He was there giving interviews, but I didn’t have the chance to meet him.
Coincidentally, a few years later, I was in Hong Kong and cruising around the city and stumbled onto another Salgado/Genesis exhibit. This time much smaller, but still just as powerful and evocative as the first. It just so happened that he was doing a talk the night I was leaving to fly out. So, I missed him again! I still haven't heard him speak live about his work, but seeing his work in person has absolutely changed my view and made me recognize his mastery. His work doesn't translate nearly as dynamically in book or online - you have to see it in person. Like so many master works.
In this digital age where a lot of photographers want to overly focus on megapixels and resolution and the like - his work serves as a great example to show that’s not what leads to the success of a photograph. He’s pushes photographic formats beyond their limits, taking small formats and making huge prints. They often are so grainy that, up close it looks like a grainy mess. But with his work, it doesn’t matter. The images still succeed and the spirit comes through. They speak loud and clear.
JN: And the raw emotion he is able to put into the work, definitely. When I was walking around the exhibit, he had three or four pieces that were there. One of them was the cover shot for Genesis, which is the valley and clouds. You’re in a room of 50 photos, but that one is the one that your eyes can't peel away from. It's just so powerful. I think he's amazing.
This new book that he's launching, which is why he was here and speaking, it looks really amazing because it's basically shot in a gold mine in Brazil, in the 80s, and they’re photos that he took and basically never did anything with. So, it's a real step back in time to an industrial era where he's capturing this colossal scale of what man was doing before machine came along and that sort of thing. It’s extremely raw.
SR: Looking at his images - just imagine the experiences he's had! You often forget that somebody had to be there and witness all that and capture those images.
JN: It's funny because the guy who was interviewing him, he's pretty established as well. I can't remember who it was, but he couldn't get a word in edgewise because Sebastiao is just telling stories and everyone was so captivated and just wanted more of that. It was just like - his experiences sound so amazing.
How's everything with you? I read the interview you did with Brandin Cooks - I really enjoyed that. It was cool.
SR: Thank you, I appreciate that. I'm looking forward to having these exchanges. I went through a few years after losing someone really close to me where I just withdrew. I was still delving into my photography, but in many ways I pulled away from the world. So now, I’m in some ways coming out the other side of that, and I find myself having this desire to connect with people more. That’s where this feeling to do these conversations was born out of.
JN: I read the piece - your Dark Coast. It was one of my favorite things. I sent that to so many people. It's very beautiful.
SR: Thank you so much. That work definitely came from the soul.
THE PHOTOGRAPHIC SPARK
SR: Now that we have gushed over Salgado, let's discuss some of your story. What do you do professionally?
JN: My professional life is in finance. I'm in the trading business and I've been doing that for almost 10 years now. My days are mostly spent looking at the financial markets and trying to understand what's going on in the world economy and current affairs. It's a very different way of life to being on the road and taking photographs.
SR: When we met about a year and a half ago, you were on a multi-month trip to a bunch of different locations. Since then, I've followed your journeys on Instagram and you've gone to places like Greenland, India and Bhutan. Was your love for photography born out of the love of travel?
JN: Yes, for sure. When I look back, I think I was seven years old when I made a goal in life to see 30 countries before age 50. I want to see more places and go to as many places as I can. I was lucky that Bhutan, where I was last month, it was actually country number 60. And I’m not quite 30 yet, so I kind of moved up the curve pretty quickly, which is cool. That's been the driving force of my life - wanting to see the world and explore it - and I think photography has come directly from that.
SR: What initially sparked that wanderlust? Were your parents big travelers?
JN: My dad has always traveled a lot for work and I think he always made a point to take us with him wherever he could. So yeah, I remember the first trip I was five, maybe six years old. He took us on a three or four week long trip around the Far East. We were in Bali and Hong Kong and all these places. And it was this adventure of going on flights, staying in hotels - I became very adept to that very quickly. So it really came from that. And my family has traveled around a lot. I'm originally from India, but my great grandfather moved to Uganda in the 1920s or thirties. And then they moved from Uganda to the UK in the 70s. And so I've always had this kind of desire to go and see the places that I've come from and they've always encouraged that as well.
SR: London was your home base where you grew up?
JN: I grew up in Birmingham, which is a couple of hours north, and then I moved to London in 2008. I studied and went to college down here. I've been working here ever since and it's been a great place.
SR: And what age did you pick up the camera?
JN: I remember two experiences actually. With the whole traveling thing, I used to go on some pretty crazy trips. When I was 16, I went backpacking around Peru for a month. And I just took a little Sony cyber shot camera at the time. But I remember, I have these photos still, where we were in the Amazon rain forest and capturing these reflections on a lake as the sun goes down at night, while canoeing on the lake. That was my first recollection of shooting.
Then I didn't really use a camera again until 2010. With the family, we went on a big trip where we basically flew around the world in 35 days. We bought an SLR to take with us on that trip. It's pretty funny because I look back and I had no idea how to use it. So, I have some quite nice photos - but could I tell you how I took them in terms of what settings I was using? I was more just trying a bunch of things until something made sense to me in terms of how it looked. I didn't really know what I was doing. That was that trip where I took probably my first sort of good photos. But again, I put the camera down again for five years and it wasn't until 2016 where I had this urge to pick it up again and actually learn what all of the different things were. I didn't even know what shutter speed or ISO meant. So it's really been three years since I’ve been serious about it.
SR: I've got a photograph of a monk in a temple in Kathmandu that represents the beginning of my photographic journey. When I think of early photographs, that was really the one where the spark took hold. Do you have a photograph like that - one that represents the beginning of your photographic journey?
JN: It's split between two. One was taken on that around-the-world trip where I was on the Great Wall of China and I leaned out from the wall and took a shot of the wall going out into the distance. I managed to capture the depth of field, again without knowing how exactly how I got it. That one always stands out in my mind.
The other one, I was in a wine cellar in South America, in Chile. I took this one photo that I ended up entering into a competition at my university and they ended up printing it and putting it on the wall. I got commended for it. So, those were the two which sparked things.
SR: That wine cellar photo that was received well by others - did you also have that feeling like, this is a photo that I feel works well and is strong?
JN: Yes, I felt like it was very popular. It was black and white. It had this beautiful beam of light traveling through the photo and into the camera. It was one of those photos that you had to look at and figure out what you were looking at. We were in this very famous wine cellar called the Devil Cellar. They turn down the lights to make it scary and just beam this light across a the barrels. With the photo, you’re not sure if you're looking at an underground train track or a wine cellar or what it is. There’s that interplay of all of the structure of the space and then the light filling it. So I knew it was a good photo when I took it. And yes, it was really cool and it was the first thing I ever had and on print, on a wall.
SR: And that was handheld, still not really understanding the settings and all that?
JN: I have no idea how I took it.
SR: Sometimes that works out pretty well! When I look back on the first big trip I went on where photography initially sparked, I didn’t know what I was doing about settings or exposure or any of that - I made a couple dozen images that, to this day, I feel like are pretty good. Well, they were composed well enough and had balance and some emotion.
JN: I think that's what I realized when I looked back on my early photos was that even though I didn't know how to use specific settings of the camera, I had a reasonably good eye for the composition of the picture. Maybe that's just how my mind works in terms of like how it cuts up the spaces that I'm looking at. But I always looked at my photos, even the ones that I did 10 years ago, and I think they were actually composed alright.
SR: I think when you’re at the beginning of working with the camera, things are more simplified and you simply focus on seeing. As the spark gets going and you begin moving down this photographic path, often times you take a giant step backwards. Now you're trying to learn all these technical aspects and settings and you’re in your head way too much. You begin to experience a sort of overwhelm. I definitely see that looking back. My second year, I took a huge step backwards and I remember really reflecting on this and wondering - what the hell is going on? I bought all this gear, I'm learning all this new stuff and my work is worse now than it was the first year when I didn't even know what I was doing!
JN: I feel the same when I look back. I think your mind goes from flow to process. Until you get over that and can just sort of think without thinking.
SR: I often say in workshops, learn to work without thinking. The thinking mind has little place in creative expression.
JN: Yes, I would agree with that.
GREENLAND PHOTO TOUR
SR: Greenland has become high on my list of places I want to go. Seeing your images from there - it just looks so incredible. The icebergs and their dramatic shapes, and of course the light! It looks amazing! Tell us about your Greenland trip.
JN: I went there in August of 2018. I'd always wanted to go. I'd been pretty far north to Finland many years ago, and so I'd been inside the Arctic circle and it's just a different place. From earlier my travels and from meeting you at the end of them, I decided that I wanted to really pursue this, and become serious about photography. The whole backstory was that I had been asked to make work and people wanted to buy my stuff and it morphed into this whole - I'm going to do an exhibition and see where this all goes. And I knew that, okay, if I'm going to do this, then I need something really, really special to show people. Not only in terms of the subject matter, but also in the quality of the work. So I signed up for this trip with a photographer who I met through Instagram - Daniel Kordan. We spent a week up in Greenland. I took a Fuji GFX out with me that I had rented - because I knew that I wanted to shoot big stuff that I wanted to blow up into big print sizes, and come back with some really impressive images. The place is just something else. We were there for a week, right at the end of the midnight sun. We would have only one hour of the night where the sun was below the horizon. So from basically 9pm to 5am, we were in either a blue hour or golden hour. It was such a cool experience because you now have to switch off from the rest of the world because you're just on a different cycle. Everyday we would go out at 5 or 6pm on these two boats. We take one of the boats, go to a nearby village and stop off for some food and look around around the village. And then from 8:30pm to 5am, we were just hunting icebergs. It's just the most surreal experience. You’re on the water, there’s nobody else around except the odd whale, some birds, and these colossal structures. And of course the light that you get is second to none.
SR: Did you join the photo tour because you felt that would be more productive for getting these great shots?
JN: Yeah, I think for me it is a case of having to balance photography with a full time job. Having the sort of stress of the logistical side of things taken care of was nice. And I also just enjoy being with people who also wanted to spend the whole night taking photos. You know, it's difficult when you are traveling either with friends or family, they probably don't have the same appreciation for why you want to sit and look at one thing for three hours, as people who love taking photos do. And so there's a nice social aspect to that. Also, just in terms of going to places that remote - it is pretty hard to do on your own.
The fact that we had this boat means that we were able to get so much closer to all of these incredible icebergs. And we had the captain and crew of the boat from Russia -they basically sail these two boats half of the year off the coast of Greenland and then through passages and down to Antarctica. So their skill and ability to get into tight spots in these places where it could potentially be a little bit dangerous, allowed us to get into much more incredible situations than you'd be able to if you went to a generic tourist boat.
SR: How many people were on that photo tour?
JN: I think there was about 10 of us. Daniel as the leader, with another guy Dennis. They're setting up all the logistics. We did a couple of sit down-workshop sessions, like in a classroom, before we went out on the boat, just to discuss what kind of settings would be appropriate in different situations. And then obviously on the boat we were able to ask them questions and get some pointers. I think what I found the most interesting about the experience was, you think to yourself - I'm on a boat with 10 people, that’s only 40 feet long and we're all looking at the same thing, so how are my photos going to be any different? And actually when we saw what we all came out with, they were different. That was quite a revealing experience. Why do I see something that's the same thing in front of me as the person next to me in a completely different way to how they see it? What am I trying to capture? And that's when I learned to more fully appreciate the emotional aspects of the craft.
SR: I would assume that Daniel's work really moved you and inspired you to want to do this tour with him, beyond just having the logistics taken care of. Is that right? Has the view on his work changed since working with him and seeing behind the scenes of it all?
JN: My impression when I saw his work was, I love his photos, but they’re not necessarily the way that I want to shoot. What I was drawn to from his Instagram and my interaction with him was him as a person. I could just see that he really loved what he was doing and wanted to share that experience with people. That was really what drew me to his tour. And that proved to be a really great decision because he was a great guide, and was just really fun and nice to hang out with. But as I said, in terms of how I wanted my photos to come out, I wasn't actually trying to aspire to that style necessarily, even though it's great.
SR: Now that you've traveled to that location, if you wanted to go back, do you feel like you could be as successful logistically planning it on your own?
JN: I think it's tough to go on your own unless you really have very, very deep pockets and a lot of time because they're having two boats on the water for like a week. That alone makes it very challenging. I think it would be very hard to go back and do a better job by yourself.
SR: Well, I really love those images that you captured and made from your time there. Do you feel that they have been successful and have resonated well with your audience?
JN: When I decided to do the exhibition, I booked this trip at the same time knowing that this was going to be the centerpiece of my work. So it was a bit of time pressure because the exhibition was a month later. So the turnaround time was tight. But I got it done and people love them. I think I made a couple of good decisions. One was taking the GFX. When shooting that sort of resolution and blowing stuff up big, I think you know. It's very hard when you see these pictures on Instagram and you're looking at an iceberg that's a hundred meters tall to get a sense of the scale, and what it really is. Just being able to make a bigger print format changes a lot for people.
One thing that I really loved about the ice, it's of course very tragic in a way, but at the same time, it's kind of the natural order of life is that, the things that I shot will never be there again. It's a completely unique situation that no one can go and try and recapture, myself included.
And so I think people really liked it because there's this sort of deeper message about the world and what's going on. And so even though you're presenting something that you want to present as very beautiful, there's also a much deeper meaning to it. And so those photos have been among the best sellers that I’ve had, which has been great.
SR: What was the biggest challenge with shooting in Greenland?
JN: I think the hardest thing was, a lot of the stuff that I've tended to shoot has been using a tripod and you've been able to compensate for low light conditions. And so the hard thing here was that you're on a moving boat and even though we have good light, it's still challenging. There's a lot of pressure on using the camera well and really understanding what you're doing. And that's when Daniel was really helpful because he showed us a few tricks that, and I was able to get what I needed from the image files. So I think that was probably the biggest challenge.
Also, being out in the cold for eight+ hours - it’s pretty tiring. It's so beautiful that it's not hard to feel excited, but there's a point when you've been out for six or seven hours and your fingers are frozen solid, but you've got to keep going.
SR: Going from the Fuji X system to the Fuji GFX50S, I imagine must have presented some challenge. You’re jumping up two formats bigger than what you’re accustomed to and the GFX requires much more impeccable workflow, plus the challenge of shooting on a moving boat in low light. How was that?
JN: The thing that I found both good and bad with that was I only took one lens with that. I only took the 23mm prime.
SR: Really, that’s all you took?
JN: That’s all I took. It was a bit of a last minute decision actually. I was like, should I take it, should I not? I couldn't get hold of the zoom lens that I wanted to take with me. But, I managed to get the GFX 50S on rental and a wide angle. I just had that. So that was a challenge as well, because I didn't have the ability to zoom. Again, you're on a boat, the captain is determining how far you are from the thing that you’re shooting, so that was a little bit of a challenge.
SR: Were you also shooting with a second camera?
JN: Yeah, so some of the stuff that I made and put into print format was using the XT-2 and a zoom lens. But, obviously I ended up printing that in smaller sizes. But I think I was lucky. The images that I wanted to make big, we got them with the big format.
SR: Are you sold on the GFX? Did you run out and buy one after using it?
JN: I am. The thing that was the most revealing to me about it was in the post production process. I was thinking, well these images from GFX are going to have to take so much more work to get to print format because they're just bigger files and there's so much more information embedded, etc. And then I think you realize that the quality of the sensor on the medium format and the dynamic range is so great that those images, even though they're my biggest ones by a country mile, they really didn't take a lot of time to post process. They just came out of the camera so nicely. It definitely was a game changer. I think the only thing that's stopped me from getting one is knowing they’re coming out with a new one. I'm thinking it's better to just wait it out and, if I'm going to invest a reasonable chunk of money then I may as well wait for the new one and that will see me through the next few years. But it's funny, when you shoot with the GFX and then you go back to XT-2 - it’s tough! The GFX is a great camera,
SR: I have to say the GFX has been my favorite camera to date.
EXHIBITING & RAISING MONEY FOR CHARITY
SR: I believe it was after your Greenland trip that you reached out to me and asked for some input on printing and finishing. I just nudged you in the right direction, but in a way that wasn’t revealing too much. I wasn’t laying it all out there for you. You’d still have to do the work and figure things out. I was so impressed with the fact that you just took that little nudge and ran with it. I think within two weeks, you were posting on Instagram pics of doing all these test prints and test strips and it wasn't much longer that you were putting together a full on exhibit, that ultimately had a lot of success and raised funds for a charity. So, talk a little about this first experience of taking your images to finished print and ultimately to the wall, and how the charity aspect inspired you.
JN: To take one step back, I started taking photos just for myself. I didn't really have a goal of exhibiting or selling work. I always thought it'd be really cool to have my work in my own apartment one day, that was probably the end game. Nothing really further than that. And then as I started to shoot and post to Instagram and share with friends and family, a lot of people in my life really began encouraging me to continue down this path. They loved what I was sharing, and I found that for me it became this medium for which I could express myself. And I'm generally a little bit of an introvert and relatively shy, so this became my way of saying - this is who I am. And so when I took this six month break between jobs, I knew that I wanted to devote that time to photography and it was something that was a rare opportunity. And even at the start of that process, I knew I was going to travel on I knew I wanted to work on it. I didn't know where I was going to go. Essentially, people kept pushing me to get better. As I was posting stuff, people in my life were like: hey, can you make a print of this for me? And I was like, I follow a lot of photographers and I know that my work is not worthy of your wall, but it's really humbling that you want it. So, I'll get back to you. It was kind of this message that I sent to people and I wanted to go get better. And so I started doing a few different workshops, because I wanted to find people who I could aspire to be like. That is one of the reasons why I reached out to you and wanted to work with you, I wanted to get better at this and actually make something that is worthy of someone's wall.
When I came back to, to London at the end of 2017, I had probably 12 or 13,000 images that I shot over a one year period. One of my uncles is a portrait photographer. I went to see him when I came back and he was really impressed with the work that I showed him and he helped me to make a print - one of the images we shot together in Maui. Along the way of taking photos, putting them on my Stories on Instagram, I put on there that I had finally made a print - and kind of jokingly asked “who wants to buy one?” 120 people replied to me saying Yes. I thought - this is crazy. But then I took a step back and when I thought about it, I figured I'm not really going to charge my friends for photos and then go and spend the money on beer and holidays. So let me think about how to do this, and thought I’ll just give the money to charity. For me, I felt like photography had changed my life to the extent that it wasn't really about money for me and I'd already got what I needed or wanted out of the experience. So okay, I'll just do this for charity.
I came into 2018 with the idea of doing a small print run, maybe selling a hundred prints, and maybe raising a bit of money. And then I started a new job and my boss really encouraged me along the process and the few people were like, why don’t you do an exhibition of your work? It seemed like a very far fetched idea to me at the time. But, then two months later I was feeling, why not? Let's just do one. There was a charity that I always wanted to support called Empower. They do really, really amazing work around the world. They support at-risk youth in 15 emerging market countries. And I'd always wanted to do something for them. My idea was if I sell a bunch of prints - it serves many purposes. People who want my work get to get to buy it, I get something of a return for the time it's going to take me to make this piece wall worthy, and the person who buys a print and gives money to this amazing cause, it's going to feel like they got something great with their money as well.
That was the genesis of the idea. And then I basically publicly committed myself to doing it without really knowing what I was getting myself in for. I put on my Instagram, I'm going to do this exhibition and this is the plan and lets see what happens. At that point I didn't have a website, I'd never printed anything myself, I didn't really know how to do post production. And so I went on this three month binge of going all in on the process and countless all nighters and trips and weekends dedicated to - how do I get this work to be the standard that it needs to be to do this exhibition.
And I got really lucky along the way. I found this really great printer and when I walked into their studio, they asked - what do you know about paper? Nothing. What do you know about ink? Nothing. What do you know about post production? Not much. And then he's like, okay, when is the exhibition? Three months. [laughing] But they believed in me and gave me the time and advice - as well as you did - and all these people kind of came together in my life to push me along and say, this is what you need to do. This is how you need to get it to work. And so I just had this three months of full devotion to this before the Greenland trip, and got the prints done. That was a great experience. Learning the different paper types, learning the different inks, and how the process works.
I look back at all of these things and I really punching above my weight for a while. I was trying to achieve and if all these people hadn't come into my life, it never would have happened. I never would have been able to succeed. So it was a really cool experience.
SR: How important was that it for you to publicly announce all of this and put it out there long before it was manifested? Looking back, had you not done that, do you think you still would have accomplished all of this?
JN: No. I think I really put myself out there in terms of saying - I'm going to do it. And then I think that set a timer in motion. It would have been very easy to just kind of kick the can down the road with the process. Once I committed to doing it, it was like - okay, you're going to look really stupid if this doesn't work out, so you better make it work. That extra little bit of pressure I think really put me into gear.
OMAN, BHUTAN & MEETING THE DALAI LAMA
SR: You recently returned from another trip. Where did you go on this one?
JN: I did. It was a 3 week trip where I did one week in Oman, a week in Bhutan and a week in India. It was awesome.
SR: I could not pick Oman out on a map. I have to admit.
JN: I'd always wanted to go there. It's a strange one. My great grandfather actually lived that for about a year, in the 1920s. I didn't actually know that till more recently in my life. So it's not something I was completely aware of, but I think since finding that out, I've always had this fascination to go there and see it. I'd been to Uganda, which is where most of my family and my parents were born, but this was kind of like a completing a list of the places that I'm from. I had seen so many pictures and it's kind of an interesting place because it's in the Middle East, but it's also very green, which is not what you would typically think of when you picture the Middle East in your mind. It's a really special place. Oman is very famous because it has all of these Wadi’s*. One of the things that, people do there is they go and explore these places and they’re these calm oasis in otherwise harsh landscapes. It's a very mountainous place. That was just one of the days where I was kind of out with the camera and I hadn't really stopped for quite awhile. I'd been so focused on the exhibition and the production process rather than actually taking photos and I went out with a local guy and basically spent a day just traveling around and he took me to this place. It was just like one of those pictures, you know, you sort of seeing in, you can almost like drink it. It just feels calming and cool.
SR: From Oman, you traveled to Bhutan. They have the reputation as being the happiest place on Earth. Is that true?
JN: Yeah. I went on this trip to Peru when I was like 16, and because of the life experience that I had there, I’ve always maintained that it was my favorite place in the world. But now, within two days of being in Bhutan, I was like, this is my favorite place in the world I've been to. It's just the way of life. You land on the tarmac and you get off the plane and you feel like you’ve gone back 300 years. It's just different. And it's very hard to pinpoint exactly, but I think that the people have a certain reverence for life that is lost in the modern world. The pace of which they do things and the kind of care with which they do things is really special and they've done an amazing job of preserving the heritage. Both from the religion, but also the government has been very focused on the environment. They have, for example, a law that 60% of the country has to be forest. Currently it is 72%. So it's just so green. And the country is made up of like 20 different valleys, and all of the towns that you go to are in the foothills of these beautiful valleys, and it's just trees everywhere and the air is super clean. You realize - what more do you really need in life. There is a big population of monks and there's lots of monasteries, and the majority of population still wear this really amazing traditional dress that I had never seen before. You feel like you're in the 1700’s and some movie that you've seen in your mind.
SR: Can you go to Bhutan as an individual single traveler?
JN: You can go as an individual, but basically the way that the government there has decided to combat tourism and not having an influx of people come in is they've implemented a tourist tax. And so essentially, as part of your visa you have to spend, I think it was $250 or something around that a day, in the country. That includes what you spend on food, hotels, going to see various shrines or museums or whatever it is. So it's not just a tax you pay and don’t see anything from, but I think that whole point with that is number one, obviously, it regulates the number of people coming in. But also it means that there's not really a backpacker community, which is what they, for whatever reason, want to avoid. I had a guide that took me around and that was a great decision because it's very hard to really appreciate the history and understand the culture. Having that person was what made the experience so great.
SR: Tiger’s Nest is one of those places seared into my brain. How was visiting and shooting that location?
JN: It's a mind boggling day. I's a five kilometer hike up starting at 2500 and finishing at 3500ish meters. So it's not crazy difficult, but it's definitely not a walk in the park. You stand at the bottom of the valley and you can see this tiny speck of a building perched on a hill and you're thinking, how am I going to get up there? We set off on the hike at probably 8:30am, and we were hiking basically through to midday or one o'clock, with a break for like lunch. As you get further and further up the mountain, you just look at this building and you think, this hike is pretty hard. I’m here in the 21st century with my walking shoes and all of the equipment. How did they carry a building up this thing? It's just a really amazing place. It was built in 1692. But the first monks that were there were from the eighth century. When you get to the to the actual monastery, there's a small kind of cave in the first room where, the of founder of Buddhism in Bhutan was meditating in like the eight hundreds. So there's been some spiritual presence there for a very long time. It's just as amazing structure. The way that it's built, it kind of defies the mind a little bit. The amazing thing about Bhutan is that in all of the monasteries that they have, you can't take photographs inside. It’s nice because you go in them and you just kinda forget about trying to capture it. You just be. And they as impressive on the inside as they are on the outside because you have all of these ornaments and huge Buddhist statues that have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. You really feel like the spirit of the place.
SR: You left Bhutan and went to India. Where all did you go?
JN: The girl who organized my Bhutan trip was also going to be in India. We flew there together and we split up for a couple days. My best friend from growing up lives in Hong Kong and he came out to India. He’d never been to the Taj Mahal, so I took him down there. So we spent two days down in Agra. One day we did sunset across the river bank from the Taj. And then the next day we woke up at sunrise and went to see that. Then we drove back to Delhi was able to go and visit one of the Empower projects - the charity that my photos are supporting. Then we flew up to Dharmsala in the foothills of the Himalayas. We spent four days there.
SR: Where you ended up meeting a very special person. So tell us about that experience. Who did you meet?
JN: I met the Dalai Lama. And the way that this came about was basically in the process of planning this whole trip. I realized I was going to have three or four weeks of time to travel and I didn't really know where I want it to go, or what I wanted to do. So I spent a weekend throwing out a bunch of ideas to the universe, ideas like safari in Africa, or driving a car across California and shooting there, and India was another option. In thinking about going to India, I messaged, a friend of a friend of a friend who I didn't really know, um, who lived in Bhutan and said, you know, I'm thinking about coming to Bhutan, can you help me organize a trip and help me organize a visa. And she replied saying, yeah, sure. As we begin to discuss things, she says she has an audience with the Dalai Lama. I'm sitting there at home with my parents thinking like, Whoa, what's going on here, is this for real? And then my dad says, you should go. And I'm like, yeah, sure. And then the next message from this friend was, why don't you come with me? And I was like, this is crazy. Someone I don't even know is inviting me to go meet the Dalai Lama. And so I was like, yeah, I'll be there. And I literally just planned the whole trip around going to see him. We flew up to Dharmsala where his monastery is, and we basically spent two days there, and on one of the days we had the pleasure of meeting him. It was just an amazing experience.
SR: I can imagine. So what was that like?
JN: It was kind of crazy. He doesn't really travel much anymore because he's getting pretty old and it’s tiresome for him, but he's also very aware that people want to see him. And so he periodically holds these audiences where people can go, and essentially, he gives them blessings. We had the privilege of having slightly more time with him and the chance to actually take photos, et cetera. The girl who organized the trip suggested I bring one of my photos to give to him, and he’ll also like bless it for you. Which was just a crazy idea, having the opportunity to do that. So I took one of my prints and we sort of sat in a holding room for a couple of hours and then eventually we got escorted up to see him. It's one of those things in your life where you're like, Whoa, you know, what do you say? Or what do you do? How do you be? But he just seems to make time slow down. I think the energy that he has, and the calm and the awareness - for him it's just meeting another person, but for you it's one of the biggest moments of your whole life. He was really great and I got to give him one of my pictures and we got to take some photos with him, and it was one of those moments in life, which passes like a blur, but also it feels like it lasted for hours. You just take that energy and it kind of carries you for a very long time. And I think the interesting thing to me was that having spent a week in Bhutan, in a monastery every single day, and then having been in his monastery the day before, but without him, you feel very peaceful. You feel that sort of calm. Then when you meet him, you understand that there's another level that only certain people have the ability to unlock. The work that they've done in their lives to be in that state - you feel that. It’s something that I'll never forget.
SR: When you realized you would bring a print and perhaps be able to present it to the Dalai Lama - was it an easy or difficult decision as to which image you would bring?
JN: Very easy, it was very easy. It’s funny because a lot of my work is the stuff that I shot for my exhibition from Greenland and Norway and relatively cold places. There was one trip that I did last year to Ghana and it was actually a work trip that I had an extra day at the end where wanted to go and explore. The night before I had dinner with a friend who lived there and they told me about this place called Jamestown. So I decided to just go and check it out and basically had half an hour in this fishing village. I walked around with my camera and that's one of the moments in my life that I'll never forget. This was my first moment of seeing a scene that is, for me - how God is my inspiration to do photography. It was my first moment where I'm like, this is like slightly Salgado-esque. It's like very biblical, very intense. And so I took a bunch of photos in this place, one of which is from the back of these boats looking out on the water and there's two boats in front of the picture, one of which says God is Good. And then the next one says Happy Home. I knew as soon as I took that photo that it was going to be a special one. And you know, in my exhibition in terms of number of prints sold, that was the best selling one. And I think it's one of those that people love to give to their kids, would give to other people or just having in the home as a reminder of being in a good spirit and reminding themselves of God. It was the natural choice to give to the Dalai Lama. That was the one that I took.
SR: Would you say that's a signature image for you?
JN: Yeah. That was one of those moments where I couldn't quite contain the excitement of where I was and what I was doing, even though I hadn’t taken a photo. I just knew that these were going to be special images because I was in a place that was, so raw and unique and I'd never seen anything like it. And it was just all the perfect conditions. It was the right energetic place. Everything that was probably as it was 150 years ago. No electricity and these wooden boats, an amazing sky - I knew I had a very moody, dramatic image that was going to unfold in front of me. So yes, as soon as I took that photo I knew that was going to be maybe one of the best photos I ever take.
SR: It is very Salgado-esque, I would say.
JN: It’s the one that I'm the most proud of because it was really the first moment where I was like, okay, you know, this is the guy that I've idolized and actually, I can see the world in his way. Like I've found it somehow.
MEETING MENTORS & THE ENRICHING PATH
SR: You have met some great photographers that have come through London like Salgado, David Yarrow, and Jimmy Nelson. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? Like David Yarrow. I don't think I had heard of him five years ago and then this last five years he’s blown up and taken the photography world by storm - specifically, fine art wildlife photography.
JN: Yes. He's a real idol of mine for a couple of reasons. Of course his work is amazing, but he also has a very similar story to mine, but I’m much more junior to the path. He was in the same industry as me for 25 years and was involved in the markets, but was also taking photos along the way. I didn't really know about him. I knew his name and I've maybe seen one or two pictures, but hadn't followed too closely. And then one of my former colleagues sent me a message one day. I was like - have you heard of this fellow David Yarrow, you do realize you’re the next him, in a way. And I was like, what do you mean? I looked up his story and I was surprised to see he literally had the same career steps in his main career as I had, timing wise and also what he was looking at and doing. I obviously started to follow him a lot more closely after that and really fell in love with this work.
After I'd done my exhibition, he was speaking at an event launch here in London, so I went. You know, I'm usually quite shy and I'm never the person to go and ask for a photo or try and talk to somebody. But we met, I took a photo with him and then I kind of left the gallery and I was kind of halfway down the street and I was like, you know what, you need to go and speak to this guy. Like, if you're not gonna speak to him, you're not gonna speak to anybody who inspires you. So turn around. And so I turned around, went back to the gallery, waited for people to kind of clear out, and then I approached him at the end and I said - you're a huge inspiration to me because I felt like I'm on this path with you as a kind of role model in terms of the fact that you had these two careers assembled, made the switch and I want to know, when did you make the switch, why did you make the switch when you made it and how did you make these two things work together?
So we got to speak for a little bit. He was really great. He kind of sat me down and asked me what inspired my journey and where I wanted to go with it. And he was pretty honest in saying that, he took a long time before he made the decision to quit his day job and become a photographer full time, because he would stall building his confidence in this process and the craft. And then there was kind of a point where you realize like, okay, you took this one photo, which is, I think it's called Mankind which he shot in Sudan. And he said, you know, I took that photo and within two weeks I basically just decided this was the rest of my life.
He also shoots a lot of stuff in Africa, and a lot of stuff in black and white. So, he sat me down and says show me some of your stuff. And I'm sitting there on this couch, absolutely shaking. I was like, this guy’s going to think this is rubbish. But, I showed him some of the Greenland stuff and he liked it and he'd been to been to the same place, so we were just having a conversation about it. But it wasn’t like anything for him that he hadn't seen before. And then I showed him on my phone my God is Good image and he just grabbed my phone off me and was like, zooming in, zooming out, like looking at all the details of the photos. And he’s like, where did you take this? So I told him about the place and he was like, I love to go shoot there with you. And I’m just thinking this guy who I idolize just told me, he wants to go shooting with me. That's crazy. So we've been in loose contact since and he has a copy of that print.
I'm hoping at some point I may get the opportunity to go and apprentice under him and just go and learn from him. But yeah, obviously he is a big inspiration on the path that I’m very early on.
SR: Very cool that you have the Dalai Lama as a collector to God is Good, and now David Yarrow too. Also, good job turning around and going back to have that interaction. We have so many of those sort of moments in our lives and often we don't have the courage to follow our heart.
JN: Yeah. You know, I walked out of the gallery and I called my mom and I was like, this just happened. And uh, she's like, that's crazy. It's funny because I'm just not that person. Usually I don't have like the courage to do it in many situations, but I thought - this is the person that you should be really willing to speak to.
SR: I think we all know that feeling of just wanting to walk away. It's just easier, and in many ways more comfortable in that moment. Putting yourself out there - it’s really difficult. That's part of what you're discovering as you're going down this photographic path. Putting yourself out there, putting your work out there into the world and allowing others to be able to have thoughts and critiques about it. It's scary in a lot of ways…
JN: For me, the exhibition was interesting because I didn't know what people would think and it was quite a nerve wracking process of people showing up and seeing your stuff. But, it's also fascinating to see what people see in the work and what they like. And it's not necessarily what you think is great about it. Your favorite photo might be someone else's 10th favorite photo. And that's kind of the joy of the process.
SR: Absolutely. You never really know what's going to resonate with people. What you think might be the greatest photo of all time just draws no attention and the one you think is just so-so really resonates with people and they love it.
JN: My second or third best selling picture was one that I included in and I was indecisive about whether I should or I should not add it and I didn't think much of it. And so many people are like, I love this. And so that was really interesting.
SR: I think the best photographers in the world have that issue. It’s so often difficult to know what's going to resonate with people on that larger level.
While exhibiting as the artist, did you have a lot of interaction with people? What was your most favorite interaction and least favorite interaction? Was there a common question that you enjoyed fielding and one that you really did not?
JN: [long pause] Good question. I enjoyed it, but I struggled being the center of attention. I came back from that night and it was pretty emotionally draining actually. The best thing for me was when you have all these big prints on the wall, and I just noticed that there was a couple of people just standing there looking at it. And so I was standing and looking at them, while they're looking at my picture and they did not move for five minutes and that's one of the best feelings you can ever have because you made something that people really liked lose themselves in. Seeing that was really awesome. And then when people bought my work and sent me pictures of it in their houses, that's a cool experience.
In terms of least favorite interaction, I think it’s hard when people ask me what was the inspiration behind this, or what were you feeling? It's kind of hard to express it. I feel like the picture is the expression. So I find it hard to sit there and give a spiel, so to speak. I really spent a lot of time thinking about what I call my pictures and that's all I want to say about that, in a way. And then I'll let leave the rest up to how it makes you feel and what you can take away from it.
SR: How has photography added value to your life and enriched your experiences while you travel?
JN: I think it's completely changed my life. It's changed the whole way that I approach who I want to be and what I want to be. And I think it's from a few angles. The first is it's really taught me how to express myself in a way maybe I didn't know how to do. And, it's connected me with a lot of people. Both people that I hadn't spoken to in a long time that kind of saw my work and didn't know that I was capable of that. And then just rekindling old relationships and friendships with people that I may never spoken to again. It's just continuing to fuel my passion for traveling. What I realized along the way is that when I look at the world through my camera lens, I have no fear. I have no limitation. The idea of going on a super long hike to find something cool to take a photo of, or doing things that I might have been previously scared about - those fears just dissipate. I see the world completely different when I'm looking at it through the camera.
And then I think also for me, it's been this show me how much good you can do, in a way. Based on how the photos were received and how it went for the charity - we have been able to raise $75,000 so far, and the print sales from my store are still going to EMpower - to think that a simple idea and passion could help make a positive change is a hugely uplifting feeling. But, also sending a message through your work and using that to spread your world view. I think that's really powerful.
I think the biggest thing is, especially living in a big city, it's very easy to kind of go about day to day life without really thinking about what you're doing. It has made me much more deliberate about everything and has made me much more aware of my surroundings and what I'm doing. I’m trying to understand everything that's going on around me because there might be a photo in it. Looking at life through a different lens has been a huge perspective shift in life.
SR: I am stoked to have this conversation with you, and to see the value you are getting from the photographic path. It is so refreshing to hear about your love of the process and how it is leading to self discovery, expression and communication. Thank you for taking the time to share your stories and offer a glimpse into your photographic journey.
JN: I remember during our workshop in Maui when we were driving on the Road to Hana and you spoke about photography as a meditation. It was kind of this Aha! moment of these two things in my life that had been running in parallel. They just completely came together. And so for me, the whole point of doing photography is actually a meditation. It's a way of thinking about life and contemplating and trying to understand my Self and the world that I'm living in better.