At the relatively young age of 24, Emily Garthwaite has already established herself as a photojournalist of the highest caliber. Passionate travel photographer Elisa Bausch spoke with the member of Street Photography International at length about what it is like as a female photographer traveling alone, her connection to India and how synesthesia has affected her photo-editing.
ELISA: Maybe we can start very simply. How did you get into photography and approaching people with your camera?
EMILY: I was 15 and there was a forest fire at home. It was about 3 miles long and it was started by a single cigarette at a bus stop. It left me devastated. It was where I played as a child, building dens. I remember grabbing my mum’s camera and running out into the woods and photographing it with my dad. It was such peaty earth that the soil was burning but everything else was out. You had this incredible smoke that hung over the land. I ran back home and sent it to the local newspaper. That was the first time I was published.
ELISA: It’s incredible to discover your passion with such a sad coincidence, but it opened your eyes. It hurt you so much and you wanted to share it with everyone.
EMILY: It was quite beautiful. I don’t know why but I felt I just had to do it, to share it.
I think it’s probably a way of understanding. I didn’t have the best time at school because it wasn’t very creative. I found photography was an education. I could travel and meet people. Traveling to Ethiopia and learning about coffee or being at the refugee camp in Calais. It is just story telling and it goes back to caveman days. That’s what we do, we just share stories.
ELISA: So did you have an inspiration, someone who gave these lessons?
EMILY: I’m self-taught. No one ever taught me how to use a camera and I don’t think you need to be. It’s the best way to create a signature. People who are self-taught tend to have a “look” because they have taught themselves to see. I’m mostly inspired by painters. I spend a lot of time going to galleries and just looking at the old greats in the National Gallery in London and just seeing how they paint with light. The way good photography is constructed goes back to portrait painting. I would say that is my inspiration.
ELISA: I can see this very strongly in your photos. There’s a really intelligent interplay of light and color. Apart from the technical side of your photos, I’d like to know how you actually go about approaching people.
EMILY: I remember the first time I approached someone. It was in Turkey and he was at this kind of ruin. I must have been 17 and he said, “No”. I froze. I was so embarrassed but I tried again with someone else and they said, “Yes”. Regardless of what age you are, it’s nerve-wracking but once you believe in what you’re doing, and you understand your purpose, then people say, “Yes”. It should be a wonderful thing, it shouldn’t feel voyeuristic. It’s flattering and I think manners are very important. A lot of people open up.
ELISA: The closeness of the portraits opens up their stories.
EMILY: I’m a people person. I love people. I’m obsessed with them. If I didn’t have a camera I wouldn’t be able to approach any of these people. I love speaking with strangers. In the West we don’t talk to strangers. It’s an excuse to have a good chat! The Leica M Typ 240 plays a big role. I used to have a Canon D Mark III and it was quite intimidating. With a big lens it looks really bulky. The Leica has transformed my relationship to people. They’re not afraid of the camera so they look at you instead.
ELISA: I remember when I was traveling and there were some people chasing their subjects with huge cameras and telephoto lenses. There’s still such a distance because the equipment is in the way and people run away. They feel intimidated.
EMILY: I remember being in Varanasi in India, there was a workshop, kind of a camera tour and there were about 15 of them with these enormous cameras, some were carrying three. There was an Indian man cutting someone’s hair on the street and they all descended on him with their cameras! He was shouting but they carried on taking pictures. Then they just left. I sat with him afterwards and he couldn’t believe what had just happened.
ELISA: People underestimate the presence of the camera itself.
EMILY: Absolutely. It’s so much better when no one talks about the camera you have and instead talk about themselves. I can go straight to taking the picture.
ELISA: As a woman, do you find yourself empathizing more with women and children?
EMILY: I do. I feel it’s an immense privilege to be a female photographer.
ELISA: Is it a door opener being a female photographer?
EMILY: I would never want to be defined as a female photographer. Likewise people should never be defined as male photographers. I think I’m drawn to women and children because I’m a women but the way I see as a photographer. There is an instant connection between women. I feel stronger around other women. I know that for a man approaching women and children it’s a much more complex situation. I think it’s amazing how female photographers can approach people and have that instant connection. But I don’t know if it’s the same for all female photographers. How is it for you?
ELISA: I travelled with my ex-boyfriend and I felt I could approach people and subjects differently than he could. Feeling strength around women and showing them, as they have never been seen before is a special gift.
EMILY: I’m not that comfortable being photographed so I put myself in their position. I hope I can put women at ease. Just to be themselves and that’s enough. I want to celebrate women because they are so beautiful. The way they move, how they pose, adorned with make-up, jewelry. That’s what is so great about photographing children, they are always off-guard. They are not conscious of how they are moving, they are free and you don’t have to put them at ease – they just are.
ELISA: How does the Leica M Typ 240 fit into this process?
EMILY: Using a rangefinder has really transformed my work because you have to be quick. Without the rangefinder it is easy to get lazy. You can just point and shoot but with the rangefinder, if you miss the shot you miss it. I have really had to practice and nurture that. That’s what’s so good about the M 240, to get things right you have to be on it. It’s also a beautiful thing. There’s a sense of pride in that. People stop you on the street and just say “Leica” and a lot of opportunities have opened up just like that. There’s a real connection between people who are shooting with Leica. I’ve never experienced anything like it. And it’s great to be a woman in that community. I don’t know that many other female Leica photographers.
ELISA: It often seems like there is a lack of women in photography in general.
EMILY: Why aren’t there more female photographers?
ELISA: I don’t really know. I just have my assumptions. The female point of view is so important in the world but almost everything we see is seen through a man’s eye. If we want an equal world we need to look through a woman’s eye.
EMILY: I love to be surrounded by female photographers. I love working with men too but it’s just harder to come across women. I know they are out there. Elisa, I hope that you are sharing your work…
ELISA: I’m working on it. There are perhaps not so many female photographers because they don’t feel that their voice is important enough. They lack confidence and shy away from it. They tend not to share their work.
EMILY: The only reason I reached this type of work was that my grandmother grew up in north-east India and I wanted to go and follow her journey. She had dementia and died before I left so I never had the opportunity to ask her about her time in India. My mother said “You should take granny to India”. I carried her ashes around for three and a half months. That’s where all my work in India began. I felt so connected to that time. Being a young woman and stubborn and defiant. If a man went on his own no one would say it was reckless. Having that quiet spiritual support of my grandmother really helped. I didn’t feel alone. It wasn’t a conscious photojournalist journey so in that sense it was very pure. I was informed on my return that a lot of women in my family took photographs. I inherited my great-grandmothers Leica, which she took around the world. Another female relative Enid was the first woman to photograph remote tribes in India. Likewise, another relative was a 3D photographer and documented a lot of Picasso’s life in Antibes, France. It was extraordinary to discover that my family was full of photographers. I thought “Is this in my blood?”
ELISA: What an incredible story. I think that if you feel you’re strong enough you just do it and that’s what makes great work.
EMILY: I think being comfortable in solitude also gave me strength. Having time to reflect was very strengthening. No one needed to carry my bags or make sure I was safe. I knew I could do it myself. Even if it came from a stubborn or naïve point of view, it still worked and gave me strength to do what I wanted to.
ELISA: I don’t know if it was the same for you but when I went to India I was 21 and I did everything on my own because I had to.
EMILY: I loved that. When I went to Sumatra, I was with 10 men and no one offered to carry my bags. They were so heavy but I did it. There was a mutual respect. It can get ingrained from an early age that you’re a delicate flower and can’t do things for yourself but you learn very quickly that that’s not true. Traveling alone, you have to watch your own back. You have to be hyper aware and that’s great as a photographer. They are all transferable skills.
ELISA: I guess I have one last question and it’s about color. Your signature is really you use of color and I want to know what makes it so important for you?
EMILY: I found out after heavily shooting color that I was always conscious of my eyesight. I found I couldn’t really see properly. White was just infinite space. If I was in a black and white room I found it quite surreal. I found that colors had smells and I researched and found out about synesthesia. Where your senses get mixed up. I’m obsessed with smells. I think color was such an overpowering sense because I could also smell it. Some colors have the most delicious smells.
ELISA: What is your favorite color then?
EMILY: I think my favorite color is a rich burgundy red that smells sort of like vanilla. It’s very apparent in India. A very sweet but soothing smell. I can’t really explain it. That’s probably why I love color. I love editing and bringing those colors out. The tonality and richness of colors with the Leica M Typ 240 is just extraordinary. It’s an artist’s tool. I like the form of color rather than the geometry of buildings. I like how a color can pinpoint the subject, or where you want the eye to go, that it can shape the picture, just like light and shadow can. I feel that’s something, which is often neglected. I always try to maximize the color and the surroundings, even with muted tones. I’ve always loved color. As a child I was always painting. I’m even wearing a horrendously colorful outfit now! I’ve always been drawn to it.
ELISA: So you really enjoy enhancing the colors through editing?
EMILY: I love editing, it’s painting. Some people say with pride that their photos are unedited. I feel that’s a shame. The other half of the picture is all about sitting down and using that wonderful base and saying, “Now it’s time to make it my photo”. That’s how you make it yours. Sometimes I’m editing and something will just pop up. A lick of purple or the green tone in a wall. I love that.
I have a question for you now. Do you think I’m like my photographs?
ELISA: (Laughter) … I was really looking forward to talking to you, to meet the person behind the pictures. I think there couldn’t be a greater synergy between you and your photography. I find your pictures are as refreshing as your opinions!