Freya Dowson is a UK-based photographer who has photographed and travelled all over the world. We spoke to her about how her career got started, the causes she shoots for, and how she developed her individual style of storytelling.
Can you tell me about how you started doing this work?
I’ve been working as a photographer for the past four years. I started off in the charity sector, which is where I got my first serious job. I was working in communications and public relations for not-for-profits, and I was really frustrated by the level of content coming through from overseas. Eventually I became so frustrated that the person in charge said, “Well, just go and get the story yourself then.” And I said, “OK.” She asked if I could do that and I said, “Of course I can!” In theory I could, but, in practice, I was in way over my head. The assignment was in Kenya, and I knew there was no way I could pass up an opportunity like that.
So I started working as a producer, which meant I was sourcing stories and working with a videographer. My first day that I landed in Nairobi completely on my own, work hadn’t started and I thought “what am I doing, I’m completely in over my head, this is a nightmare! Did I just make a massive mistake?” So I went outside to clear my head. I went to the elephant orphanage in Nairobi National Park – you can go everyday and watch them be fed. I thought, “if I can take this opportunity and really make the most of it, imagine what my life could be like. This could become my career, and maybe I could even work with elephants one day.”
How did that first job end up going?
For that first job in Kenya, I was working for a not-for-profit named, “Brooke.” Brooke is an animal welfare charity that works to educate people who rely on their animals to support their livelihood. I was working with a young girl who had been taught how to trim the hooves of the donkeys in her village. The training was open to everyone but geared more towards men — farriery is quite a male dominated field. The people in her village said, “This isn’t for you,” and she said, “Now that you told me I can’t, I’ll do it anyway.” She was really sweet and her family invited us to stay in their home. She had done a lot of good in her community because she helped improve the welfare of the animals, which directly impacted the livelihood of the people. It was so interesting. Last year I was wondering about her, so I looked her up on Facebook and I found her!
How did that first assignment lead to further projects?
That trip went pretty well considering it was my first time. When I got back to London, I started pitching for more and more projects. I worked with the content I produced, taught myself how to film and edit, mostly creating content for social media. Soon after Kenya, I was asked to go to Nicaragua. I thought, “Ok, I guess this is happening!”
The more I traveled, the more I found that I had such a specific vision of what I wanted and how I wanted to represent the work of not-for-profits. I was finding it hard to break away from the traditional sad, gut wrenching, guilt-inducing imagery that many not-for-profits use in their marketing. It drove me crazy. I needed to find ways to represent the work that was respectful, does [the work] justice, and represents the people affected.
So I borrowed my mom’s camera and taught myself photography. I was so stubborn about it. I worked on photography day and night for two years, while still producing and working with freelancers. As my photography took off, I started getting more offers of work from other people and organizations, all while I was still doing that producing work full. Often, I was working as a consultant with agencies to help produce the films and campaigns. Then, over time, my photography started to overtake my producing and consultancy work. And eventually my career became photography!
Why was it important to create the imagery yourself instead of being a typical producer?
I didn’t expect photography to be a job or career for me, but I think it was the only way for me to accurately express what I was seeing as I traveled. If it wasn’t photography and videography, it would have been something else creative. It was the best way for me to do justice to what’s going on overseas, and tell these stories in a way I thought was more accurate and less of a disservice to the people I’d met or the cause I’d worked on. There is so much more to this work than just telling a sad story.
How did you develop your style?
I was really interested in combining documentary with editorial styles, so my style became specifically documentary editorial. It is a bit of a weird mash up! Traditionally not-for-profit pictures are so one dimensional and are sort of a disservice to the stories represented, but also to the people who might be donating. I think audiences are much more savvy and clued in as to whether or not they are only being shown one side to a story.
I try to use beautiful and emotional images that are honest and can captivate a viewer while telling a beautiful, truthful, human story. I combine a documentary shoot method with an editorial approach, so there’s a lot of movement. I do pose some of my photos, such as portraits, but when I shoot on the fly, I’m showing what is actually happening. And then I edit with a more editorial and artistic eye.
It sounds like you developed your photography practice in tandem with your traveling. How do you think that impacted the development of your artistry?
That’s an interesting question. I did shoot some lifestyle images, especially in the beginning when I was in London, to get better at photography. I really enjoyed that, and I still enjoy shooting portraits. So whether it was here at home, or overseas, I think I would have developed more into portraiture.
While I enjoy shooting lifestyle and working for some really great brands here in London, I find it harder to orchestrate and set a scene – I have to work hard at styling. I shoot better when I’m photographing what I see, real life as it happens, and I think I would have really struggled to make photography a career had I not traveled.
Since your work often takes you abroad, do you have trouble traveling for pleasure?
Yes and no. When I travel, I always photograph. Photographing is part of the experience. I never feel like I’m working when I take out my camera, it’s how I process life.
Recently I was in a tricky, dangerous situation with work. My first reaction when something like that happens is to pick up my camera and shoot. I realized that’s how I cope and process, through photography. But when I travel for work, the shoot time is small compared to the time it takes to get there. Sometimes it can be a five-hour car ride, and a two-hour window to shoot. It’s planes, on the road, in a different hotel every night. That to me is the most tiring part, the constant moving.
Last year, my husband and I took a roadtrip across Cuba as our holiday. We drove from one end to the other, and it was a lot of driving and never staying in one spot for too long. He loved it, and thought it was an amazing adventure and I was like … this is like work for me! I think if I didn’t move so quickly when I worked, I might enjoy road trips more or location-hopping more.
You seem to be in South Asia a lot. What is that like?
I seem to end up in India at least once a year. It’s usually for work, and oftentimes it’s a lot of photographing in the community. I shoot in a lot in brick kilns, with the animals and people working together. A lot of my work at the moment is around animal welfare and people. Going into brick kilns is always really interesting because it gives an insight into the lives of the people who work there. Sometimes charities aren’t allowed inside the kilns because the kilns themselves are violating human rights laws using child labor. Usually it’s whole families working under terrible circumstances — they are indentured servants in a way. Having access to the kilns has allowed me to create an interesting body of work about how the animals and the people working together are so intricately connected and how they rely on each other for survival. But also it’s given me a unique access to the people and the children: their homes, their lives, their work days. Photographing that has really been an important part of my growth as a photographer.
India is one of those places that seems to call me back, but I’m not complaining — I love it. I find so much peace in a crazy crowd or a busy city. People often find the sensory overload and the sheer volume of life really overwhelming, but for me, it clears my head.
I feel like one of my superpowers as a photographer is to become invisible. Before I started traveling to India, a lot of my friends were from the not-for-profit world and they traveled frequently. They said I would find [India] stressful, especially attracting a crowd. I don’t know why, but I never get hassled in India. I notice that the more I travel, the more I can blend into the background. In London, that can be a pretty lonely way to feel, but, actually, in my line of work it’s something I’ve grown to really appreciate because it means that I can capture things as they are happening without always disrupting the situation with my presence.
Have you returned to work in Kenya?
Yes, I go there quite often these days. A lot of my work there is still around animal welfare. The way that the world is now, you can rarely separate that from humanitarian work. Where you have animals, you have people. It’s such a dense world nowadays. You can’t live without one bumping up against the other and it’s a conflicting relationship I see wherever I am.
In the case of domesticated animals it’s about animal welfare, but also the people who live alongside the animals. It’s about telling both sides of the story and how they depend on each other. For some families, if they didn’t have their working animal they would be destitute. If it’s wildlife, it’s the conflicting relationship between animals and humans. It’s taking the time to represent the impact that humans are having on wildlife and the struggles surrounding conservation.
For wildlife, it very much feels like Kenya is shrinking. Construction and the demands of an ever increasing population, the need for more agricultural land and livestock – it’s an increasingly complicated negotiation for space. How do you protect the wildlife and the people when they are living on top of each other? It’s complicated and often tragic.