Photographer Spotlight – Neil Thomas

 In News, Phase One, Photographer Spotlight

Tell us about yourself…

I was born and raised in Kenya and have spent most of my life on the move. My family moved to Kenya about a hundred years ago from the UK for adventure and new opportunities. I had a joyous upbringing in a stunning country full of wildlife and fascinating faces. As a family, we explored the region constantly. We often camped amongst the Maasai and Samburu people who inspired my fascination with differences – in people, in geography, in ideas over time – and I love exploring and capturing the world around me. In my teen’s I headed to the UK to school and then to Holland and South Africa for my graduate and postgraduate degrees. After the end of my master’s degree, I joined my girlfriend at the time in Holland and had six months to kill while she finished her degree. I decided to go to a photography school. Soon, I was on assignments doing features in Holland and France.

Returning to Kenya in 2000, my intention was to start my career in development work. However, I was soon picking up my camera and working in advertising and traveling the region photographing lodges/hotels and spending my spare time capturing the many different peoples of this region. I want to use the vehicle of photography to take viewers on a ride through the rich history, anthropology, and cultural landscape of indigenous peoples, and in this way, help counter the often negative and superficial portrayals common in today’s media. The additional benefit of the work is to provide a permanent archive of people’s lives and societies at exactly the time when I was there. I hope that my work can bring some of these hard to reach places to a broader audience and maybe even inspire some to go visit lesser-known places and communities. This world is amazing, and I think we could all learn something by stepping outside of our comfort zones.

How did you discover your love for photography?

My Grandmother gave me a tiny film camera in the 1970s, and I became obsessed with photographing everything around me. The cost of and access to film was the only thing that slowed me down. I spent years getting educated but realized my understanding of the world was always visual. My career as a professional photographer really started in my 30s, and I haven’t looked back since then.

Who are some of your favorite photographers? (Past or Present)

Joey L,  Jimmy Chin, Brent Stirton, Chris Johns, Pete Mueller, Frans Lanting, Steve McCurry and Li Zhensheng

Your portfolio contains beautiful portraiture of indigenous people in Africa – can you share your experience photographing different cultures?

This is something that really inspires me. In my life, I have witnessed first hand how cultures around me in Africa are changing rapidly. It was important in the past that tribes could quickly identify each other as either friend or foe and hence were all very flamboyantly dressed and adorned. As these countries move into the modern era, these differences are becoming lost, and people are all starting to look and dress similarly. Also, old customs and ideas are being lost. I have found that the tribes that still look amazing live on the geographical outer fringes in places challenging to get to and wild. These adventures are enjoyable, and being with these people moves me. I find they understand the change of seasons and are so much more connected to the earth than us westerners. I never rush into taking photographs when I’m there, and I like to spend time with people and get to know them. I speak a few local languages, and where I don’t, I usually have a guide/interpreter with me. This makes for a much more interesting experience, and I believe, better images.

Can you describe a photographically challenging situation that you were confronted with that you were able to resolve on the fly?

I am often among tribes that are armed, and sometimes if someone is upset and (as can often happen in Africa) sometimes drunk, things can get tricky quickly. I try to disarm with humor and humility. Recently on a shoot, we got stuck behind a flash flooded river in Ethiopia. We had to sit there (6 hours) until the waters subsided.

You primarily live in Kenya, as a photographer that must have pro’s and con’s, can you list some?

The pros are that I am rarely without subject matter to photograph and study. The cons are that we often cannot command the kinds of money that western photographers do. Also, the appreciation and value of photography as an art is not as well developed.

What is your favorite underrated photographic tool? Why? 

Hmm, maybe a spear! I usually carry one as it enhances the look of a warrior in a picture. Sometimes the warriors are not carrying one!

With so many great digital camera systems to choose from today, why Phase One?

I’ve had a P40 and a P65+ and ever since I saw the files from those backs, I’ve been sold on the Phase One system. There is nothing better!

If you were behind your camera and could choose anything you wanted to be in your viewfinder, where would you be and what would you be looking at?

I think either Petra in Jordan or Angkor Wat in Cambodia looking at the ancient structures.

Why did you select Capture Integration as your equipment partner?

I found the salespeople awesome and attentive to what I needed, and customer service to be top-notch.

Connect with Neil Thomas


Instagram: Neilthomasphotography

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