Freya Dowson lives in London and travels the world, documenting the beautiful places she visits and sharing candid portraits of the people she meets. Working on behalf of NGOs, she records the plight of animals to promote their welfare or communities in, often, developing contexts. On her blog, Nishaantishu, she shares these images alongside editorial & lifestyle shots of life in London. We chatted about how she began her photography career, what inspires her and how she captures the personality & warmth of her photographic subjects. She shares tales about her travels & thoughts on sustainability below.
Did you start out as a photographer?
No, I didn’t, I got my first job ages ago, but there wasn’t really a lot of work for me to do...so I’d get my entire day’s work done in the first two hours. Then I’d just find stuff to do and, failing that, would mess around on the internet for a bit...I came across an article on blogging in the Guardian and I was, like, "I could do that!" [laughs] So, I started my own blog and was really frustrated with it because it just never looked good—then I realised it was because of the photography.
So your blog came first?
Yeah...So then I started working really hard on my photography...getting into lenses and stuff. One time I had to go overseas for work, I came back with all of these story ideas, and [work] were like, “well, ok, go back to Kenya and get those stories” and I was like “ok...!”
So I did, and I wasn’t doing the photography, but then, over time, as I worked harder on my photography (on my own blog) it became my job. And I went from being an assistant—from being really pigeonholed—to this photography role
Because now you organise the shoots? Is that kind of your role—you organise it, pick the stories you want to tell and...? Amazing—and its all come out of doing your blog?
I have a masters in journalism so I’ve always written but I didn’t really love journalism...and then I drifted towards PR, which was even worse. And then—I don’t think I ever would have gone in this direction if it hadn't been for blogging.
So, pursuing photography—was it from a desire to tell people’s stories from different cultures and communities?
Yeah, kind of... I do want to tell peoples’ stories—that is primarily what it’s about—but, I think, for me, I don’t know what it is that draws me to certain photographs and certain scenes. It’s something that’s purely felt and I just, I see a picture and know immediately if that’s a picture—then I look at it afterwards and it tells so much more of a story than I even realise. I do think about composition a lot and what’s going on, but it’s more instinctual—less on purpose. Now I‘m trying to look at [composition] more and it's almost figuring out what that instinct is and reasoning it out, then trying to capture it.
Yes... I think, when I look at your photos, they always seems very candid. When you photograph people, they’re often looking directly into the camera and you can really see, well, it feels like you’re in the middle of a chat with them—there’s some kind of emotion coming through. Is that how you do it? Do you talk to them whilst you’re photographing them? Do you spend time with them?
It’s a really different kind of situation for me when I go into communities to take photos, I’m there with not for profit organisations. That organisation have worked in that community for a really long time and have a really good relationship with them. So when I come in, I come in as part of that team and am already an accepted person.
So they’re quite comfortable with you?
They know who I am, they know where I’ve come from, they know what I’m about, they know what I’m there to do—as they’ve already previously agreed to it. So I don’t have to stumble over that getting to know you...of course, you would never just walk into a community and—just because they know you’re there—start taking pictures. You do get to know people. And I find it so much easier to photograph people when I don’t speak their language because I’m not so good with words. I can more easily communicate with my face and gestures and through indicating that I think their children are beautiful, which they love. You know, I find that a lot easier.
Is that your favourite aspect of taking photographs? The, kind of, one-on-one with people...is it something that keeps you going?
It is, it’s the one-on-one with people but it’s also...I think what keeps me going—and what I really strive for—is to open up a different way of seeing things for people. Because what actually drove me to start creating content for this organisation was the fact that I was looking at their content and it was so old fashioned. It was like old fashioned, photojournalistic, with minimal editing—very flat, not very crisp photography, and there was nothing beautiful about it. It was very matter-of-fact and, for me, when you’re photographing people’s lives you need to imprint some of their personality on that photo, even as far as the editing. So I wanted to go in to show an audience what it’s like over there beyond a black and white two dimensional photograph.
Some of the situations you photograph must be quite hard for you to see and [could be] hard to view [as an audience], but there’s always a warmth to them, it always seems like you’re left feeling positive.
Yeah, there are some horrific things that you see and things that stick with you. But I don’t—I’m not a photojournalist—so If I come across a situation that I think is a particularly hard story, I think that photo needs to get out there, [and] there are platforms to get that photo out there and to get that story out there. But when I’m generally disseminating my work—either for my blog or for my instagram—I don’t want people to look at pictures of work overseas in developing contexts and see terrible stories, grim lives.
It’s more about the people?
It’s more about the people but also it’s not like that, you know? I mean, yeah, some bits of it are. A lot of not for profits—they’re money-making outfits—so they show you the worst of the worst to be like, “this is how hard it is, you should donate towards it” and I don’t think you need to do that. I think you should want to donate towards development and not towards pity. There are circumstances that (like emergency situations) you donate to because people are in an awful situation and you feel bad and you want to help. But then there’s more sustainable development where you’re like: this is how good peoples’ lives are, but this is how you can make them better.
So your message is ultimately a positive one.
I wanted to ask about your influences as a photographer—I read your Senegal piece this morning mentioning Sebastião Salgado. Is there anyone else’s work who means a lot to you that you’d like to share?
I’m really bad with names...it’s less specific to people, more to photography movements, I guess you could say. I first started blogging when minimalism had just started becoming trendy, so I remember the early days of Kinfolk where it was like wooden tables and candles in jam jars...and now it’s like legitimate, colour block, no make-up, asymmetrical haircuts, and stuff like that. And it’s interesting to see that progression from rustic to polished, and I started out being really influenced by that kind of approach to minimalist community photography with beautiful editing. And then as it progressed to a more, still quite soft, but very cutting lines and that kind of thing, I didn’t follow that all the way because I don’t get that—it doesn’t speak to me. You can’t go on instagram or social media without stumbling across photography trends and some of it speaks to me, some of it doesn’t, and it’s just taking those trends and incorporating them into my work. But again it’s not on purpose and its very very rare that...whenever I go into the field with a photo in mind and I’m like "I’m going to get this photo, it’s going to be so good!", it never works out [laughs].
I know what you mean...!
Yeah, so I find I just like to be spontaneous about it. Also, whatever it is that drives me to take photos is a lot more intelligent that my brain is, I feel. And so, I’ll take photos and my brain will be like, "uh, I don’t think that I got anything good" and my creative instinct—whatever—is like "wait & see...". Then I’ll get back into editing and I’ll look at them and, again, unedited, my brain will be like "no..." and then my creative instinct is like, "yeah, but look!" I start picking out all of the things that subconsciously I spotted, but if I thought about it too much, if I let my brain take over I think it’d be really bad. So, I don’t know, I don’t think a lot of people rate artistic influence and instinct ...
A more intuitive process?
Yeah... I don’t think they bring it into overseas photography & development photography. I think they look at it as like photojournalism telling a really specific story, and I like to mix photojournalistic shots with that candid kind of shoot with a sense of beauty that you get with editorial work. So you know when you look at a piece of editorial work and it just makes your heart flutter because it’s pretty? I love that. Whereas you don’t get that with a lot of photojournalism. When you’re telling an NGO story I think it works quite well to combine the two, so that people can look at a charity’s work, and photographs, and get that heart flutter. If it’s beautiful, they’re more likely to stop and be like, "wait, what is this?" And, you know, that’s a cause that has put a lot of work into thinking about how they portray themselves and I can get behind that. That’s kind of how I want to do it.
Is it the same [process] with your editorial photography, or is there more of a brief before you start?
With my client work some of them give me a brief, though a lot more see the work I produce constantly for my blog and their like, "I want more of that."
Yeah... ”You do what you do but you do it for me.” And I’m like “Ok!” And that’s easier...but I am getting better at styling lifestyle photography. It’s not my strong point, so I often bring in a friend who’s a really strong lifestyle blogger, or something like that, to style the shoot or model the shoot.
And with Nishaantishu, again it feels very like candid—frank—what inspired you to start writing your blog and what’s your motivation for that as well?
To make it so personal, you mean? ...Or to keep blogging?
Both, if that’s ok?!
When I first saw blogs and I was like “I can do that!”, I really loved what everyone seems to hate about lifestyle blogging—that people portray their life in a really positive light. And I know that there’s a lot of hate online because people say "it’s not real, that’s not true"...but I just really love the constant output of positivity. I like choosing to see the good and to share the good and, though, of course, it’s important to have a balance there...
Both have their place.
Exactly so, but then with my with my being personal, I don’t know, I think again, if I’d listened to my head, I probably wouldn’t... And I have so many times written things that I haven’t published and I’m just like “Save that, Freya”. But, I don’t know, part of me thinks, just try and hold back, but I can’t—as much as I would love to write a post that was interesting and impersonal—I don’t think I’m very good at it. And also I found that I connected more with people by being honest—truthful—and when I talk about the difficult things but in a positive way. You know I would never say: Senegal was hard, I don’t know if I want to do my job anymore, this really sucks, I don’t know what to do... you know, it’s personal but it’s not—it’s still a blog—it’s still for people to read. Obviously that’s not the way I feel, but in the end it still needs to have an element of “this is reality”, but I keep on doing it because...it’s that feeling...It’s not like: I don’t know what the hell I’m thinking, get me out of here!
I'd like to ask just about sustainability...do you have any thoughts about it? I feel like you represent it through your work...But do you have any thoughts about it as an issue at all? Whatever you think.
I think when it comes to sustainability—in the not for profit sector where sustainability is thrown around a lot—sometimes you get the feeling that, oh, is it mentioned because that’s what funders want to hear?
It’s become a bit of a buzzword.
Yeah, and what does it really mean? Some places I’ve gone and I’ve seen people talking to communities, the community is engaging and giving back and they know what you want to hear. And then I’ve been to communities where, you know, you can talk about the importance of good animal handling and thinking about the welfare of your animals, for example, and you can hear people coming back with “that’s all very well and good for you to tell us, but what does it actually mean? How can we apply it to our lives and how can we teach our children?” And then you’re like, that’s sustainability. That’s what sustainability actually means and looks like in practice. And I think that there’s all kinds of different buzzwords around sustainability, but when it comes to overseas work, it’s going in to do work with an exit strategy in mind. You don’t want to set up shop and be there forever, you want to set up shop and help make some change—really to facilitate a community to make their own changes—and then leave knowing that you’ve had that impact and it’s real. From there they can grow in their own way, not in the way that you think they should, not in the way that everybody else thinks they should, but in their own way—to adapt it for their own uses. And especially when it comes to fashion I think that I don’t really know enough about it to define sustainability—but I have worked in environments where...I’ve worked in a lot of garbage dumps—a lot of garbage dumps around the world—and a lot of it is offcuts. The second to last time I was in India I was shooting in a place where there was a construction site next to a river of garbage and the island that was separating the construction site from the river of garbage—which was next to an open sewer where people were working—was made entirely of offcuts.
Oh my god, really?!
And it was a quarter of a mile long. It was all fabric.
...And then there was the river of garbage and it was like black sludge and sewage—I was in the sewer and there were animals and people—men barefoot in their underwear and animals with packs on their backs—just taking offcuts and transporting them from one end of the sewer to the other and just dumping them in the river, so they could be pushed downstream. And it’s like—where does that come from? Where is it going? And why is it being produced in such quantities? I think it’s just asking these questions and being aware that the things we buy and the things we chuck away—they end up somewhere.
I’ve just the one more question—where’s your next destination?
I’ve five trips planned—I’ll be going to Nepal, Nicaragua, Kenya, India—every year I seem to go to India! Then, Pakistan. I really want to go to Nepal. I love going to India to work, I feel most at home there, the people are super duper friendly, very welcoming. Also, I’m trying to convince my husband to go to Cuba!
For a holiday?