‘Let your passion inspire others to play their part in protecting what they love – the oceans, mountains, forests, deserts… Share your passion, it’s incredible how infectious ‘passion’ is’. Cat Vinton
Cat Vinton is an internationally respected adventure and ethnographic photographer who has dedicated over a decade to photographing ways of life. She has lived amongst some the earths last remaining nomadic communities, documenting their ways of life across snow, desert, ocean and mountains.
From Chang Tang – Pa, the Tibetan nomads who have sought refuge in the Indian Himalayas. The isolated yak caravans of the Dolpo-Pa, the salt traders of the Himalayas, the nomadic families of the South Gobi desert and the Monken of the Andaman Sea.
Most of these rare communities have managed to evade modern society, making Cat’s images all the more special for allowing the world insight into these unique ways of life.
‘My ambition is to create a visual legacy of our common humanity through this disappearing way of life, to remind us that there are other ways of living and that we have a duty to protect our fragile planet.’ Cat Vinton
We were very excited and honoured to have some of Cat’s amazing images with us in October, at WAExpo 2017. She has been a big supporter of the Women’s Adventure Expo over the last 3 years, so it seemed the perfect time to find out more about her, her work and her latest projects.
Hi Cat, thank you so much for sharing some of your beautiful images from the Sink or Swim Project at WAExpo 2017. Please tell us more about this project?
I worked alongside Jon Bowermaster, an award-winning National Geographic filmmaker, on the Sink or Swim Project. We documented the health of the Indian Ocean, reefs and fisheries in the Maldives. Organizing a learn-to-swim programme – we told the story, through the people of this Island nation, through their eyes and their experience.
More than 1 million tourists visit the Maldives each year, travelling thousands of miles to enjoy pristine beaches and world class diving. Yet despite living in an island nation, most Maldivian women and children have never witnessed the wonder of their own coral reefs.
Our hope was to inspire environmental stewardship and simultaneously reduce the risk of drowning. Sink or Swim is the story of how those women and children conquered their fear and learnt to love the ocean and now be part of protecting it.
What an amazing project! What has been the impact of the Sink or Swim within the local community and especially for women?
The project was incredibly empowering for the women of these islands in Baa Atol.
We witnessed a huge pride in each one of the women who took part in this first learn-to-swim programme. Every one of them conquered their fear of the ocean and in just three weeks could swim un-assisted at the surface of deep water (fully clothed and a hijab), seeing a previously unknown underwater world through a mask and snorkel.
“The past week has been the most that I’ve ever spent in the water! When I came to this island I decided that first I would learn to ride a bike and then I would learn how to swim. I ride my bike so fast now that I am always crashing into things. If I can learn to swim, then I can conquer the world!” — Isha Afeef
It’s amazing how quickly people benefited from the project. Do you know how many children and adults have learnt to swim because of the Sink or Swim Project?
Since we worked on the film Sink Or Swim – 170 children have learnt to swim and 30 instructors have been certified. Newly qualified instructors include two mothers from the first swimming programme, four local police officers and two school teachers, providing a strong foundation for future programmes.
What has it meant to you to be able to photograph this project and why?
Climate change being the overarching issue of our generation; impacting every environmental challenge on this planet: It feels incredibly important to be able to use the power of photography (and film) to promote the protection of our oceans. Something I am extremely passionate about.
The Maldives is an archipelago of 1192 Islands located in the Indian Ocean. 192 Islands are inhabited with a total population of 330,000. It is Asia’s smallest country in population and landmass, and one of the world’s lowest countries with an average ground level elevation of just 1.5m. If global forecasts of sea level rise are accurate, the inhabitants of the Maldives face a very precarious future.
Eight-year-old Saanee participated in the swimming programme alongside her mother Aliyah. Her favourite school subject is environmental science. She says, “The icebergs are melting. The seas are rising. And it is because of fossil fuels.” Where will she live if the seas rise? “We will have to live in the sea!”
Saanee was one of the strongest swimmers, completely fell in love with the ocean and is now passionate about protecting the it.
Because of its size and topography, there is a great demand on available land in the Maldives, especially for municipal waste. What is the impact of this on the sea?
In a nation with few municipal waste facilities and great demand on available land, the sea has presented itself as a convenient dumping ground. A couple of generations ago, waste had been more biodegradable, but today there is so much plastic waste.
At current rates plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050, the Ellen McArthur Foundation warns.
We encouraged, the women and children we spent time with on this project, to take every opportunity to avoid single use of plastics. Hopefully instilling this strong message into these young minds.
We need to turn the tide, protect biodiversity, ensure the health of coastal communities, and preserve our world’s largest source of life. For now – less than 3% of the ocean has any protection.
Your work is often connected to the ocean. What is it about the ocean which draws you to share its story?
Photography is my part in the storytelling of life at the water’s edge – to inspire people to protect our oceans. Our oceans sustain life on this planet and they are in peril.
“The issues facing our oceans are massive in scope and the consequences serious and far-reaching.
Every other breath we take comes from the sea. The oceans are a primary source of food for one billion people. Oceans provide millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars to the world economy. Our oceans are our life support system, but they are endangered as a consequence of our apathy and ignorance in supporting them.” -SeaLegacy
I am very passionate about working with other people who are creating incredibly powerful projects that help our oceans….
Also, I was witness to some of the last years of nomadic Moken existence, a sustainable way of life that is in complete harmony with the rhythm of the sea. The isolated Islands, to the south of the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea, have long been home to the Moken, who have lived here as softly-treading hunter-gatherers for centuries. The ocean is their home and they are much a part of its song as the fish they have traditionally hunted both for sustenance and to be used as barter. Over the past few years it became more difficult for the dwindling numbers of nomadic Moken still clinging to their wandering way of life. Mass fishing and aggressive assimilation policies have firmly pointed them towards land, rendering them stateless. And they have no voice.
SABAI – MOKEN – (c) Cat Vinton
You have an extraordinary life, filled with travel and inspiration from all over the world, do you have a favourite place to be?
So many memories and encounters with amazing people, in wild places, in different terrains – it’s so hard to call a favourite….
The Himalaya is an extraordinary place – it has an ‘energy’ I’ve felt nowhere else… Crossing boundaries and merging cultures of five countries.
I’ve travelled across the high Himalaya with one of the last nomadic caravans of the world – the Dolpo Pa people of Nepal, (and possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done.) The Dolpo Pa pursue a biannual journey; they are the bloodstream of the Himalaya. These high-altitude traders transport life’s essentials across the mountains, pursuing the ancient grain-salt trade, between the Dropk-pa of Tibet and Rong-pa of Southern Nepal. I have witnessed the incredible people of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and India – deep in the Himalayan peaks. These people and mountains have a huge part of my heart.
MOTHER AND CHILD – DOLPO-PA – HIMALAYA – (c) Cat Vinton
SONAM – CHANG TANG-PA – HIMALAYA – (c) Cat Vinton
In contrast, the people who call the ocean their home – living with the last of the sea nomads in the Mergui Archipelago – take another huge part of my heart. I have a very special connection with these people of the Andaman Sea.
To witness the last nomadic days of these cultures is the whole reason I am on my journey.
What is your fascination with the nomadic way of life?
I have a curiosity for human nature and for the people who have so far escaped the long reach of today’s world. I am in search of the World’s remaining Nomadic Souls. These people roam the farthest corners of the earth – living in the wild – in rhythm with nature. They travel lightly on the land and they leave no mark. I am fascinated in this fragile connection between humans and nature.
My ambition is to create a visual legacy of our common humanity through this disappearing way of life, to remind us that there are other ways of living and that we have a duty to protect our fragile planet. As well as a memory for the next generation of nomads’ who may not witness their nomadic existence.
Indigenous people are facing huge challenges: climate change, government restrictions, border controls, aggressive assimilation policies, authorities compromising their freedom, cultures and natural disposition, replacing it with dependency and isolation. They continue to display a resilience that is humbling and inspiring.
Nomadic life is disappearing, despite their willingness to adapt, their irreplaceable knowledge and the fact that these people have loved and nurtured their land and ocean for generations and are best placed to protect it.
So what advice would you have for anyone who wants to move around the world, while they live and work?
I have a strange ability to feel ‘at home’ in any environment almost immediately. So ‘moving around the world’ for me is very natural and a happy place to be.
I would say let your passion guide you – be open and don’t be afraid to say YES…
People are amazing. If you’re careful with them and you respect them, they will offer a part of themselves that they don’t often share.
Let your passion inspire others to play their part in protecting what they love – the oceans, mountains, forests, deserts… Share your passion, it’s incredible how infectious ‘passion’ is.
I have been incredibly lucky to have gained an intimate insight into another way of living – the nomadic life. One that has huge respect for nature and everything living, one of no waste, of simple values and of a spiritual nature. We still have so much to learn from these people, I hope that by sharing their stories it will inspire others to protect what they love.
Who has inspired you and why?
Eve Arnold has particularly inspired me since I was a young girl – drawn into her words “What do you hang on the walls of your mind”. Eve, a photographer from 1950-1997, photographed until she was 85. She was inquisitive and independent, intrepid and determined, an incredible woman, photographer and writer.
One of the characteristics of her work was the ease with people from all professions and all walks of life and her ability to win their trust. She would follow her subjects, out of a wish to learn.
Sebastião Salgado, one of the world’s greatest photographers and his incredible wife Lélia Wanick Salgado, who’s written words are as captivating, have inspired me in more recent years.
Salgardo’s photographs in his latest project ‘Genesis’: “His love letter to the planet, capture the majesty and mystery of life. They also express the complexity of the challenges we face. An inspiring testament to the fragile beauty of the World, guided by a shared commitment to better understand humanity and our natural environment and to share this understanding as widely as possible. A tribute to the breath taking and precious wealth of our planet and all the unique ways of life that coexist. His images are a call for action, for us all to recognise the roll that each of us must play in safe guarding the world and ways of life that nourish us. ‘Earth Eternal’ is a photographic homage to our planet in its natural state. This project is dedicated to showing the beauty of our planet, reversing the damage done to it and preserving it for the future.” Lélia Wanick Salgado
Lélia and Sebastião also have worked together since 1991 on the restoration of a small part of the Atlantic Forest (where Salgado is from) in Brazil to its natural state. In 1998 they succeeded in making this land a nature reserve and created Instituto Terra, which includes an educational centre for the environment. More than 500,000 trees have been planted, and the project is at the heart of a much larger community effort focusing on sustainable development in the Rio Doce valley.
Women’s Adventure Expo find your work incredibly inspiring. As the first and only female Travel Photographer of the year, what do you think should be done to inspire more female adventure photographers, and what could be done to encourage their success?
I am, still the ‘only’ female Travel Photographer of the year. I really hope this year it’s another female who steals the judge’s hearts.
I think the adventure world is still ‘a boy’s game’ but mainly due to the media and where funding and sponsorship go. There are some incredible women adventurers and more and more female adventure photographers – it is changing.
I think being a woman has been ‘my gold’ particularly on my Nomadic Souls project. I am accepted into a family on a level I don’t think a guy alone would. I think being a strong, independent woman gives you a tenacity and sensitivity that somehow offers you a key to moments of human endeavour not often shown. We need to treasure these moments and let them be the inspiration for pushing us out there as female adventurers. We have something different – it opens us to experiencing different perspectives.
We also need to ‘show’ ourselves more, talk, enter competitions, share, inspire, keep getting out there.
You recently spent time in Australia photographing a wonderful journey with Alienor Le Gouvello, can you tell us a little more about the adventure?
Alienor is an incredible girl and her 3 wild horses (brumbies from the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horses). It’s was a total honour to have joined them for 5 weeks on their epic 13 month journey crossing Australia – along the Great Dividing Range from Melbourne to Cooktown, a total of 5,330 KM. Alienor, originally French has lived the last 11 years working on Aboriginal communities, across central Australia. She has dedicated the last 3 years to this journey…. A total legend, a huge inspiration and someone I now call an amazing friend.
I have witnessed such an incredible connection between a girl and her horses – their uncompromised mutual – bond – trust and respect. These horses haven’t put one-foot wrong – the entire journey. Alienor is promoting better management of these wild horses, descendants of the whaler.
The country has been epic – big long red roads – open plains – rainforest and we reached the ocean! Finding water was the challenge everyday – we had some nights of frost and some super-hot tropical nights! Coffee by the fire every morning in the dark – winter daylight!! Some hot gruelling days of sun and plenty days of rain…
ALIENOR – (c) Cat Vinton
Do you have any tips for women to feel more equipped and comfortable with solo travel?
Trust your intuition – trust why you are there – go with your heart and with your eyes wide open.
There has been a pattern on my Nomadic Souls project. The nomads seem confused at the beginning – why am I alone, where is my husband and children – but a few days in, I’ve begun to earn their trust and they seem to accept me and treat me as one of them. This intimacy has led to some rare and incredible encounters and lifelong friendships.
When I arrive somewhere new the first thing I do is make a friend with a girl I’m drawn to, rather than finding a guide or translator. My entire nomad project has evolved through empathy and trust, the connections and friendships I make, and whether or not it ‘feels’ right.
Thank you so much Cat for talking to Women’s Adventure Expo. We have loved hearing more about your projects and the work behind them. Your ability to immerse yourself into these different ways of life is truly inspiring! We look forward to hearing more about your future projects, and of course seeing more of your beautiful photographs.