Alison Wright is a New York based documentary photographer who has spent her career travelling to the remotest regions of the world (140 countries to date) capturing endangered cultures and documenting the human condition through her photographs and writing.
Published by the National Geographic, Outside, Islands, Smithsonian Magazine, American Photo, Natural History, Time, Forbes and The New York Times, Alison is a recipient of the Dorothea Lange Award in Documentary Photography, and a two-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award.
Inspired by a horrific bus accident on a remote jungle road in Laos when her life was nearly cut short, Alison set up the Faces of Hope Fund– a not-for-profit that helps provide medical care and education to children in crisis around the world.
One word that describes you?
In your own words, what do you do?
I am a documentary photographer who has spent a career capturing the connection of the universal human spirit through my photographs and writing. I travel to all regions of the globe photographing endangered cultures and people while covering issues concerning the human condition. I strive to find compassion in what can seem to be a world of chaos.
Who is your greatest influence in your career/life?
My parents gave me the wings to fly. My British mother was a flight attendant for Pan Am so I believe I got my wanderlust in utero. My Belgian dad always encouraged travel as part of my education. I’m just not sure he intended my education to go on for this long! My earliest influences were women explorers; I wanted to live in extreme conditions like Alexandra David-Neel who traveled throughout Tibet, Amelia Earhart, Dian Fossey, Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa). As far as photographers the great documentarians inspired me: Lewis Hine, Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Sebastiao Salgado, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the great humanitarians that stirred compassion: Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh.
What is your favourite part of your job?
Seeing new places (140 countries to date) and connecting with new people. It’s such a satisfying feeling to synchronize a magnificent subject with exquisite light— and then hoping that my photos might help or inspire someone on the planet in some small way.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Transporting all my equipment from one place to the next is often a challenge, especially with air travel nowadays. The highs and lows of freelance work are not for the faint of heart. You certainly don’t do this for the money and it’s challenging trying to find publishing markets any more. Wait, why do I do this job again?
What is your greatest achievement?
Surviving. From my travels over the years I’ve been hospitalized as a case study for two unusual diseases as well as contracting malaria, typhoid, hepatitis, Dengue fever, a worm in my head, giardia and dysentery too many times to count. I barely survived a terrible bus accident in Laos that required years of rehabilitation and over thirty surgeries. It inspired me to start my own non-profit, the Faces of Hope fund that I’m quite proud of. Last month I was attacked and bitten by a pack of monkeys in S. Sudan that required rabies shots and a slew of antibiotics. I feel a great deal of satisfaction that despite these obstacles I’m still strong enough to continue this job that I love so much. Knock on wood..I’m heading to the Congo this weekend…
What was your Plan B?
There was no plan B. I always very laser focused on who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do with my life–and I’m living it. I got my first little point and shoot camera when I was ten and loved to take photos. I was fifteen and working on the yearbook and school newspaper when Mr. Lee, my English teacher, took me aside and told me that I could actually make a living as a photojournalist. From the first time I heard that word I knew what I wanted to do with my life. And I’ve never wavered.
What is your most prized possession?
Memories. The things I treasure are a giant hairball coughed up by a lion and warthog tusk gifted to me by a Masai warrior and his wife in Kenya, the five small green cowrie shells presented to me by a woman in Sri Lanka because it’s all the devastating tsunami had left in her destroyed home, a pound of Haitian coffee given to me by a woman who had lost her home in the earthquake after I slept in her yard for three weeks. These are the most precious gifts I own and a daily reminder that it’s the people who have the least who are the ones who give the most.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Have medevac insurance.
What photo are you most proud of?
Tibet girl. She’s probably my most iconic photo. She was published on the cover and in National Geographic magazine and was chosen from their archive of images for the cover of the Taschen book celebrating 125 years of National Geographic. I also just like the photo. To me she captures the resiliency, the tenacity and a bit of the sadness that the Tibetan culture has endured for so many decades.
What is your favourite place you’ve visited so far and why?
Tibet. I’ve dreamed of going there ever since I was young and I’ve subsequently been going there nearly every year for the last twenty-five years, documenting the struggle of this culture trying to survive without a country. This body of work has become the basis of a number of my books including, “The Spirit of Tibet,” and led to a wonderful relationship that I developed with the Dalai Lama portrayed in ”A Simple Monk.” It also influenced my memoir “Learning to Breathe,” chronicling the devastating bus accident that I survived in Laos.
Please complete the sentence… I could not live without…
I could not live without friends and family. My life has been enriched by the support of my global tribe, especially my brother, Andrew. He’s a father to three beautiful girls that I adore and they’re a tether to my peripatetic life.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
I’d love a good sit down dinner with all four of my deceased grandparents. There’s so much more I’d like to ask them then when I knew them as a child. What an evening that would be!
Sustainability and consumption are two words you will hardly find in the same sentence – which brands do you think are good quality and are doing their bit for people and the planet?
I’ve been lucky that over the years I’ve been able to shoot for organizations that I believe are doing good things for those in need: Save the Children, UNICEF, BRAC, Women for Women, the Children’s Defense Fund, Nest, Seva, the Peter C. Alderman Foundation and the Nepal Youth Foundation. I avoid working for those organizations that I find tend to be more self-serving.
Do you support a charity or cause?
I support many through my fund that I was inspired to start after my accident. A number of years ago I established my own non-profit called Faces of Hope, a fund that globally supports women and children’s rights by creating visual awareness and donating directly to grass-roots organizations that help sustain them. I also continue to give back to the community by giving presentations at high schools, to corporations and workshops. As a photojournalist I hope that making a photo will create awareness and inspire someone to make a difference in the world. After my accident, I thought, why not me?
What is your personal luxury?
Massages. It can be taxing lugging this heavy equipment around the planet and carrying it all day in extreme conditions.
What steps do you take to make your life more positive?
Do something for someone else. I find it impossible to ever be depressed if you’re getting out of your own head and reaching out to help someone else.