‘To roam the farthest corners of the earth, where people live in the wild, is a privilege reserved for an adventurous handful.’
Cat Vinton is an internationally respected adventure and ethnographic photographer, whose wonderful vision and dedication to her projects have made her the first and only woman to have won the Travel Photographer of the Year award in 2007.
Cat’s ongoing project is a quest to find the World’s remaining nomadic souls, remote communities of free-spirited people. A bit of a nomad herself, she dedicates much of her time to travelling and living with nomadic families, visually documenting a disappearing way of life before it has been totally absorbed by ‘modern society’. Her work is structured around journeys, life and movement; her projects address themes of freedom, space, spirit and adventure, across many locations, cultures and people around the world.
We spoke to Cat about her Nomadic Souls Project and her plans for the future.
We’ve never seen anything like the Nomadic Souls project and think it’s incredible. Can you give us some background as to how you came up with the idea?
I have a curiosity for human nature and for the people who have so far escaped the long reach of today’s world. For thousands of years nomadic people have co-existed in harmony with nature because they have traveled lightly on the land and left no mark. I am fascinated in this frangible connection between people and land – something we have lost in the modern world.
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.
Thinking back, what were you most apprehensive about before you originally started with this project? How did these concerns compare with the reality of the project?
I guess my apprehension was in ‘finding’ the nomads and making ‘my connection’ – trusting my intuition. There has been a pattern – the nomads seem confused at the beginning – why am I alone, where is my husband and children – but a few days in, I begin to earn their trust and they seem to accept me and treat me as one of them. This intimacy has allowed me to capture the human spirit and the raw nomadic existence. It has led to some rare and incredible encounters and lifelong friendships – I guess there was no need for my apprehension.
Your projects have taken you ‘across the world, from the snow, to the desert, to the ocean, to the mountains; in some of the most isolated and challenging locations in the world.’ Are there any aspects of the environments you work in that you find particularly challenging?
I am lucky I guess – I have a strange ability to feel ‘at home’ in any environment almost immediately. Maybe because I am living with a family, as one of them, and for generations their extraordinary resilience and self-sufficiency has seen them survive in their relentlessly challenged terrain. Shooting in these environments can be incredibly challenging though – all I can do is be as prepared as possible before I arrive and then let nature take its course.
You must have so many incredible memories, but if you could only pick two or three memories to convey your work, what would those be?
So many memories and encounters with amazing people. But for me this was probably the hardest thing I have ever done and conveys my commitment to my Nomadic Souls project. I had traveled for six weeks and over a thousand miles across the high Himalaya with one of the last nomadic caravans of the world – the Dolpa Pa people of Nepal and Pasang, a Sherpa. We had woken at dawn to a whirling snowstorm and chaos in camp; a yak had been lost in the night. Pasang insisted we went ahead to reach the Nangdalo La (pass), 5,350 meters high. We waited, frozen at the pass – the Dolpa Pa didn’t come. I wanted a shot of the yaks crossing the pass in the snow – as for me this portrayed these high altitude traders – the bloodstream of the Himalaya. We finally arrived at a new camp that night in the pitch black, exhausted. At dawn, we repeated the trek back up to the pass and waited frozen, all day, staring into the snow. They didn’t come. We returned to our camp again in the dark. Three days in a row we made this journey. On the fourth day Pasang said we had to rest – the journey up to the pass was at such high altitude – we’d already pushed our bodies too far. That morning a caravan came. I had missed them at the pass. I practically ran up the mountain to try to meet Thinle’s caravan (the one I’d been traveling with.) I saw them come charging down over the pass – it was Thinle – this was my moment, I was just below the pass and I got my shot. I was exhausted but I had managed to reach them, just in time, as they crossed the pass in front of me.
Another strong memory – for 3 days I tried to persuade the Mongolian nomads to herd their wild horses towards me as I lay on the ground in the middle of the Gobi desert – to capture the energy of wild horses. Finally they agreed – the deal was 4 Mongolian men would stand straddled over my body to protect me.
Finally a blurred memory of when I was hallucinating from coral poisoning that had got into a small cut on my foot, whilst I was living on a kabang (boat) with the last of the sea nomads in the Andaman Sea. I ‘lost’ 3 days – luckily the bad spirits spared me.
I’d imagine Nomadic people can be fairly difficult to contact! How do you first find out about these nomadic groups and then approach them to work with them?
First its weeks of research from my desk in London – I have a huge list of the last nomadic souls of the world I hope to meet. Then it’s connecting with people once I arrive – this can’t be done from a far. I hope to make a ‘friend’ (preferably a girl) rather than find a guide or a translator. My entire nomad project has evolved through ‘empathy’ the connections and friendships I make and if it ‘feels’ right – it is where I stay.
How did you find fitting in within these communities?
I usually make ‘my way’ directly to one family and try to cross the inherent boundaries of language and culture to move beyond the ‘stranger’. Making a connection with them is imperative. I will always try to meet the shaman or chief too, out of respect. I have found with all the nomads I’ve been lucky enough to live with, that there is an equality between the men and women – they both have their role to ensure survival. I haven’t really come face on with any struggles of ‘fitting’ in.
Are there any lessons you’ve taken away from your experiences, and have you found yourself re-examining your own outlook on life?
If you’re careful with people and you respect them, they will offer a part of themselves that they don’t often share. I have been incredibly lucky to have gained an intimate insight into another way of living. 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 who have never lost the visceral connections between people, land and community. These nomadic souls are the true dwellers of the land – from whom I have learned a great deal and hope to share through my images.
There are, obviously, enormous differences in how the different nomadic communities work, live and exist in their landscapes. Are there any similarities you found particularly striking?
As ‘a people’ we are profoundly different to ‘another people’, these differences hold the key to each cultural survival, but I found the nomadic ‘soul’ to be the same across the different communities and landscapes. There is ‘a rhythm’ in their ancient way of life, defined by myths and beliefs. There is a need to move across the plains, tundra’s, deserts, oceans and mountains in search of food. They all lead a sustainable way of life in harmony with nature. I have been invited into their world as an equal, being taught the ways of a nomad, milking, herding, hunting, gathering, cooking, singing and survival in each challenging land they call home. Their herds of wild animals provide them with food, clothing, shelter and transportation. Water is precious to each community and holds a value we can’t comprehend from the comfort of the modern world.
Presumably, native cultures are currently dealing with enormous changes due to the spread of the globalised world. How is this tension, between the homogenous, globalised world, and the cultural ‘ethnosphere’ being played out in these communities and how are they responding to these changes?
All 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 to behold.
Nomadic life is disappearing, despite their willingness to adapt, their irreplaceable knowledge and the fact that these people have loved and nurtured their land for generations and are best placed to protect it.
With the world now in ‘meltdown’ we can only hope that enough people will understand how much we still have to learn from those a little wiser and a little humbler, who have never lost the connection with nature.
I hope the ‘ethnosphere’ – that invisible layer that envelops the planet – can continue to hold all of humanity’s dreams, hopes, beliefs, traditions, languages, cultures, thoughts and intuitions.
Having experienced ways of life which rely far more upon the natural world, do you now feel a greater responsibility for how we are treating our planet?
Yes I feel a huge responsibility to how we are respecting our planet and to how I lead my life. To roam the farthest corners of the earth, where people live in the wild, is a privilege reserved for an adventurous handful. Even though most of us may never live with these communities of people, images can help us understand the urgency many photographers feel to protect these wild people and places.
Can you tell us about your current projects? Where are you heading to next?
I have grown with my Nomadic Souls project and it’s only the beginning. I have plans to continue this project as one constant journey – with everything I’ve learned on the way – I just need the funds!
You were the first, and only so far, female Travel Photographer of the Year when you won in 2007. Adventure is quite typically seen as a boy’s game, do you think this is changing?
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’ on my Nomadic Souls project – I am ‘let in’ to a family on a level I don’t think ‘a single guy’ would. I think being a strong, independent woman – gives you a tenacity and sensitivity that some how offers you a key to moments of human endeavor not often shown.
Finally, what are your big plans for the future? And having spent so much time with such different groups of people, if you could spend time photographing anyone anywhere in the world, who would it be?
My big plans for the future are disappearing on one long journey to find the last of the Nomadic Souls.
If I could spend time photographing anyone in any place – it would be with His Holiness the Dalai Lama – who was ‘chosen’ at the age of two, from Amdo – a nomadic part of the old Tibet. My dream would be to make the journey back to Tibet with the Dalai Lama returning to his homeland. I hope this happens in his lifetime for the Tibetan people.
I would also love to photograph a very special Moken woman underwater.