My photography world opened up through BMX riding and travelling with friends. I wanted to photograph the amazing places we were visiting and over the years it just gained momentum. I started to think about how I could merge photography into my life and use it to explore my other interests, such as wildlife, the natural world, and science.
After working for a local newspaper in Tasmania I moved to Singapore to work as an in-house documentary photographer for the Singapore Zoo. I’d shoot a variety of work ranging from covering special zoological practices to advertising campaigns. Once I finished up in Singapore, I moved back to Tasmania to take on a project photographing the Tasmanian devil. I worked at this for around six years creating a body of work which I am very proud of. Most recently I spent 12 months working in Doha, Qatar documenting all things associated with progress towards the FIFA World Cup 2022.
Words and images by Heath Holden
Initially, my trip to Vanuatu was to take a break, relax, and shoot some casual travel work, and to photograph Yasur volcano on Tanna Island. I have always been fascinated by volcanoes and have visited a few over the years, including Merapi and Batur in Indonesia and Haleakala on Maui, Hawaii. Australia is not exactly a hotspot for geological activity, so it was nice to take a short flight from Sydney over to the volcanic Pacific islands, which were produced by tectonic subduction, to see some real-time volcanic activity.
Throughout 2018 I worked in the Middle East and was looking forward to heading off with a few ideas, but nothing excessively planned. I’m not one to just laze around on the beach, so I naturally started researching the islands and found some interesting information about Tanna Island. There is a long history of coffee production which is related to the volcanic activity and landscape. The mineral rich soil plays an important role in the farming success. Also, in 2015 Vanuatu was hit by Tropical Cyclone Pam, a category 5 storm which devastated the region, leveling 90% of the coffee farms. The Ni-Vanuatu people are proving their resilience and the coffee industry is recovering well. But the effects of climate change are a clear threat to livelihoods in the Pacific.
I treat these adventures as self-assignments, attempting to work in a photo-essay style, which I can use either as an editorial contribution or submit to the Lonely Planet collection. Vanuatu was a solo mission, which I like, as I can follow my own schedule and change at any moment to suit what’s happening on the ground.
This trip was relatively smooth, just the general challenges of a new and unknown place. Estimating how much cash to carry to Tanna Island was a bit of a guess. I had heard that the ATMs on Tanna island often do not work or will be out of cash, so I had no idea how much to carry for a week, and not a lot of places accept cards this far into the Pacific.
I find that travelling solo with a head full of potential ideas can be a little overwhelming. I get very indecisive. There are so many things you can do with the day and trying to arrange them in an efficient manner on location can sometimes be tough.
Travelling with camera gear can always be a challenge, for example, when I took a small inter-island flight from Port Vila to Tanna Island, the baggage allowance was actually less than what was stated on the website. My checked bag was over the limit, so I did some reshuffling, but it just seemed they were intent on me paying the excess fee. I handed them my card to pay, already knowing, from buying the plane ticket earlier, that the card machine wasn’t working, and so they had to let it go. Be tactical!
My bag of choice for this trip was my favourite f-stop pack, the Loka UL with a Pro ICU – Large. I use a Tilopa also, but the slightly smaller Loka UL was perfect for this trip. I can fit enough gear for a day of trekking around the volcano (or anywhere else), with room for jackets, snacks, and water. My camera gear for this trip consisted of a Leica Q, Canon 1DX, 24mm f/1.4L II, 50mm f/1.4, and 70-200mm f/4L IS. During the volcano safari I took my Gitzo (GT2531 LVL series 2) carbon tripod so I could shoot some longer exposures as the light faded.
If I were to give any advice while travelling with photographic intentions, it would be to simply slow down and not try to do EVERYTHING. Allow yourself some free time, and those serendipitous moments will surprise you. I like to go for walks in the streets with my Leica Q to keep it simple. It is much less obtrusive than a DSLR kit and the image quality is outstanding. Finding a good local bar or coffee shop to sit and observe is good, go to a market and interact with the people. Street photography is something which really grew on me while in the Middle East. The random wandering can lead you to some beautiful scenes, portraits, and new friends.
Photographing Mount Yasur up close as it erupted was pretty amazing. The sunset through the volcanic smoke really was beautiful, a truly unique colour. In terms of volcanic eruptions these are merely small coughs, but the power hidden below is obvious. While wandering the black sand beach just near Lenakel I met some young locals swimming and kicking a football around. I started talking with them and photographing them in this real-life situation and it produced some of my favourite shots from the trip.
The Ni-Vanuatu people were very friendly and pleasant. Their self-sufficiency is inspiring. They grow all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and poultry in their yards, and fresh fish is caught daily and served in the village restaurants. Tanna Island is still very much authentic village life. A quick look around and you know you are way out there away from all of the unnecessary western comforts.
There were lots of great food options here. One morning at the Jungle Oasis bungalow I saw Kelson (the owner) plucking a chicken. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but sure enough, that evening I ate the best chicken leg I’ve ever had.
You’ve probably heard it and read it over and over, but this statement is so true, photograph the subjects or issues which you are passionate about: the things you simply cannot stop thinking about. Invest in a trip or project instead of new megapixels or excessive gear. When you’re planning a photo trip, do some extensive research as you will discover something even more interesting which complements your original ideas. When in a new and unknown place, be empathetic and people will be willing to help you out when you need it. Spend time with locals and don’t be a fly-in-fly-out bucket-list photographer.
My work is primarily based around editorial assignments for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies. If I am approached for a job and there is something I find interesting about it or something I can learn, I’ll go for it and ask a lot of questions. You never know when this will come back to help you. I have held a few staff positions over the past 10 years in various countries, including Singapore, and most recently Qatar, in the Middle East. I have always been a very curious person, so whether it is human interest, adventure-based, or wildlife / nature conservation I’ll go for it. Photography has helped me open up as a person. I am naturally shy, and I do like my personal time and space, but when I’m in a stimulating environment I switch a bit and I go into story mode.
Later in the year I’ll be spending some time in Nairobi, Kenya taking part in the VII Photo Agency workshop “Rising Fast, Africa’s Changing Urban Spaces”. It will be an intense week-long photojournalism workshop led by Nichole Sobecki and Danny Wilcox Frazier, focusing on techniques required to produce an in-depth photo essay. I am completely self-taught, so I am always thinking about what I can do to elevate my work to the calibre of what I want to be doing. After this I plan to pursue some ideas in the Middle East, Africa, and Himalaya region. So, stay tuned!
The main spaces where my work can be seen are:
Tags: #tannatravel, #discovervanuatu, #tannacoffee, #mtyasur and any other you can think of.
Camera gear tags: @leica_camera_aus & @leicacamerausa, @canonaustralia, @gitzoinspires, @fstopgear