One Camera, One Lens
Photographer Liz Loh-Taylor gave
up a career in finance to start a
humanitarian foundation and to
work as a photographer. Equipped
with only an M9 and a 35mm lens,
her bare bones approach is giving a
voice to people being squeezed out
of their homelands.
What made you take the leap from working in finance to pursing photography? What was the biggest
hurdle you had to overcome?
I always knew that while I enjoyed the challenge that finance presented, it wasn’t enough. I knew I loved something else more. This sounds cliché but I was reading Magnum Stories one morning, and suddenly thought, “wouldn’t it be great if I could just photograph every single day, then get home and PP (post production) some more!” That’s literally what I thought. With that, I thought life would be pretty damn amazing! So by the end of the week coming, I had requested a year-long career break. By the end of 2009 I was experiencing life as a photographer. When end 2010 came, I made the decision to solidify this change. It has been an incredible journey to date!
Hurdles are what we create in our minds. Impulse helps with not having to face these thoughts for too long…
Another famous economist turned photographer Sebastiao Salgado, used his previous work experience
to inform his work. Do you feel any connection to his strain of photo documentation?
Sebastiao Salgado is an inspiring photographer and human being. He gives me some hope that I’ll be able to make a mark in this ever-changing world of photography.
I read a lot about the economic impacts of change on the world. There is flow on impacts from everything that we choose to do, from financial to structural societal repercussions to behavioral adaptations. Whilst a lot of my photography stems from my involvement in humanitarian work, much of it also draws from my knowledge in finance. Every bit of knowledge helps I guess.
Color photography has been the dominant choice in the last two decades. Why have you decided to
buck the trend and shoot black and white?
I do have a rebellious nature…but no this is not the reason for bucking the trend. I love black and white photography. I find black and white more commanding. It tells a story minus superfluous distractions. Suddenly the highlights and shadows become appreciable. Suddenly the world lights up with all its merits! That is not to say however that I will not experiment with my future work.
Do you see a distinction between shooting black and white film versus black and white digital
photography? Is there any reason you prefer shooting an M9 to other Leica film cameras?
I love the convenience of the digital darkroom. I guess I have fallen gluttony to the technological world like a lot of us. That said, the M9 is a beautiful tool that enables me to attain the type of black and white images that I love. No complains there.
Recently though, my grandfather shared some pictures of him when he was a boy. It was a marvel, truly! Every single image, at least 80 years of age, is beautifully preserved though in a tattered photo album, as though they were all printed yesterday. The depth achieved from film is magical.
Analogue M’s certainly are on my mind. I love the sheer discipline that traditional photography instills, the M’s whether digital or analogue certainly upholds that.
There is a consistent layering of foreground, subject, and background in your images. How do
you feel selective focus allows for a narrative to emerge from your images?
Selective focus facilitates the emphasis of one subject over another. However it does not render the secondary subject redundant as everything in the image counts for something, otherwise it should not be in the image to begin with.
Shooting a 35mm focal length, there are a number of potential subjects in a single frame. How
do you select the main subject in each image?
I usually start with a story or theme in mind. This also means that I typically have an understanding of the subjects I am photographing which helps with selection of a main subject.
Something that my mentor always says to me “justify the full frame! This is something that I think about all the time.
Leica produces a seductive line of lens options, why have you decided to shoot the majority of
your work with a 35mm Summicron lens?
The 35mm on the M9 is intuitive. It gives me just enough scope to achieve a good balance in my images. Not too much, not too focused. Having too many in the suite confuses things, especially compositions.
How do you choose the projects and countries for your work? Do you feel called to them or do
you take a more rational approach?
Photography was reintroduced into my life because of my interest in humanitarian work. 7 years ago, I started traveling to Africa to try and help make a difference to the lives of so many who are less privileged. I was hoping to make a dent but instead it made a dent in me. I came to learn the enormity of the issues. For me, photography is a means for raising awareness and that is the means for initiating change. Hence, the projects I choose echo my concerns and the countries I choose to work in will echo that.
Many of your photographs depict native cultures that are being threatened by neglect or first
world expansion. How do you view your role, as a photographer and advocate, for the
More and more, I think that humankind will be the cause of the end of our existence. We purport to understand the repercussions of our actions, even on behalf of generations to come. The earth has been around for millions of years. We have on the other hand, been around for much less. What I’m getting at is, do we and can we really understand the consequences of our actions?
Native cultures and their environments are viciously compromised by first world expansion. My project titled ‘Co-existence’ will continue to dig into the meaning of ‘culture’. It is what differentiates us, is it not? And its very existence is being challenged with each and every move that we take to make this world ‘a better place’.
As a photographer, I aim to document these cultures as they are, their lives, their traditions, what differentiates them from the rest. I share their lives with people in hope that there will be thought before action.
Photographing a struggling culture can be an emotional experience, especially as you spend
more time in a community. How do you balance the emotion strain of working in difficult
conditions which may not have simple solutions with your own peace of mind?
I think feeling their emotions is a good thing. It drives me to photograph differently, to tell a story with passion. A midst the struggle, I feel their utmost resilience and strength. They are strong people, amazingly so considering what they have been through. The intensity of those emotions truly rubs off. I want those sentiments to also come through my images.
When you come into a new community who usually responds to you first? What are the differences
between photographing adults or children?
The women and children. I guess I still look rather young at 31. The women feel the need to protect me, and the children think I’m a big kid!
No difference in a sense that for them to share a bit of their souls with me, I will have to earn their trusts and respects, or I simply get an image without a soul. I photograph children a lot because to me, they are our future. Change for better prospects lies with them.
Many of your images capture people lost in thought. What connection do you feel to these momentary
reflections? Do they echo your own thought process?
We talk, laugh and feel together. Then there were those moments when they were at ease with my presence or had shared an intimate part of their lives with me. I am very humbled to be able to share in that.
How do your pictures change the longer you spend inside of a community?
I get attached. I tell myself not to, but I do. I think my photography will reflect that, which I don’t mind.
Will it be possible for native cultures to coexist with societies who value ideas like technological progress?
My personal belief is that it is difficult for native cultures to coexist with modern societies. The desire for less developing societies to improve and develop the way they live, and the desire for more developed societies to further expand our ever progressing advancements, will simply see rapid changes in the near future. It is only inevitable that we strive to create change that facilitates improvements, whether we are in the developed or developing world.
I imagine that all of this traveling leaves hours of down time on planes and buses. While you are not
taking pictures, do you draw your inspirations from literary, artistic, or musical influences?
During looong transits at airports, I get into PP’ing (post production). I know I have to do it all again when I get home using a proper monitor etc but I still can’t help myself. I read, gaining insights for a potential next project or understanding an existing one better. I must admit though that I sometimes feel so drained after a project that I just do absolutely nothing. Fortunately I’m one of those who could sleep anywhere, so I make sure the ‘do not disturb’ sticker is in clear sight, curl up into a nice little ball and konk out on the plane!
If you could imagine someone from the Amazon, whose home at risk of disappearing, sitting down
with a Palestinian, how would you envision their dialogue? Do you think isolated groups share a
No doubt. One thing that I have realized in all my travels is that no matter where your home, be it atop a sewerage dump or in a slum, you want somewhere to call home. Home gives people a sense of identity and belonging, and I believe, a sense of peace. When I was in Lebanon, a Palestinian refugee said to me, “all we want is to breathe the air near Palestine. Palestine is home. The only home we know.” Likewise in Latin America, they would rather fight to build their homes above a sewerage site, where sewerage pipes protruded from the base of their houses, but that was enough. They had something that was theirs. Displacement has more implications than physical belonging. It impacts every aspect of living.
How do people react to having their pictures taken? Is there an excitement that the world is taking
an interest in their life or are they sometimes put off by the exposure? Is there anything you do to
take the edge off of a tense situation?
Depending on where I am photographing, the reactions are quite vast. Children love being photographed but in more remote parts of the world, they are petrified of the camera! The thing is, we don’t know what a person has experienced that moment or that day or their entire life! I try to make a connection even where language comes between us. Everything begins with respect and trust.
What is the most challenging aspect of photography?
To have them reveal a bit of their souls to me.
In your travels what is the best meal you have had on the road?
Nshima (like millie meal) with sausage relish and a vegetable called ‘five years’ because the plant supposedly takes 5 years to establish!! My Zambian mom is a fabulous cook!
Check out more of Liz Loh-Taylor’s work and charity below: