Cat Vinton is one of a rare breed of adventure and ethnographic photographers, documenting the world’s remaining communities of nomads. Cat’s photography illuminates the precarious position that these communities exist in – almost entirely due to climate change and global warming. Simultaneously, we see the care and respect that they have for their environment, and the simplicity of their existence.
What first drew you to photography and when did you first realise that you wanted to commit to it full-time?
I’ve definitely always been visual – words are my struggle! “What do you hang on the walls of your mind” Eve Arnold. She was fascinated with colour and the images that flooded her mind – This all resonates with me!
I have early memories of a neighbour Christopher Angelogalou, photographer and picture editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. His incredible collection of photography books, that I spent hours pouring over, were a huge inspiration. Christopher also helped me buy my first camera – a Nikon FM2.
After successfully graduating from Camberwell School of Art and Design, I left the UK to work in the People’s Democratic Republic of Lao. A place and an experience that fuelled my curiosity to explore everywhere and to see everything. During my two years in Lao, I photographed stories for the United Nations and Redd Barna. I knew then, that photography was my life journey…
What first drew you to documenting nomadic communities and which was your first project?
I have always felt akin to people who move, whose wealth isn’t measured in possessions.
Nomadic people roam the very farthest corners of the earth and for thousands of years they have co-existed in harmony with nature. They travel lightly on the land and leave no mark. I am fascinated by this fragile connection between people and land.
We are seeing a global reduction in the number of people still living a truly nomadic existence. They face aggressive assimilation policies and have to deal with authorities that constantly compromise their freedom, culture and natural disposition, as well as devastating effects from climate change and global warming. All they get in return is dependency, isolation and a lost identity. My Nomadic Souls Project is a visual tribute to a fragile planet that we all have a duty to protect and a visual memory for the next generation who may never witness first hand their family’s nomadic existence.
The Sami were the first nomadic people I lived with, moving across the frozen tundra in search of food for hundreds of reindeer.
When did you travel to the Arctic Circle, what surprised you about the Sami tribe and what did you love most about their way of life?
Sámpi is a vast open land, perched on the edge of the Arctic Circle, that encompasses parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. In 2005 I lived with Sámi reindeer herders, the indigenous people of the Arctic, who live a nomadic subsistence roaming the Finnmark plateau – Norway’s ‘big sky country’ – one of the last great and undisturbed wilderness areas in Northern Europe. The Sámi, move their herds of reindeers across the region with the seasons. Their culture has been shaped by a landscape of the Arctic Ocean, the fjords and the tundra.
It was incredible to witness the Sami way of life – to learn how much the reindeer means to them – providing transport, food, clothing and shelter. Their clothing was made from sealskin and they wore a reindeer-bone belt, the reindeer skins cover the snow inside the lávvu (tipi) and always accompanied a husky excursion. Warmth is rare on the open tundra and the skins actually radiate heat – they are incredible. I have one now, on my boat.
My surprise, I think, has come more recently after living and travelling with five different nomadic peoples. How precious WATER is, to each nomadic community, it holds a value we can’t comprehend from the comfort of the modern world.
Looking to the future, what new projects are you looking forward to immersing yourself in?
So I am super excited about joining Alienor le Gouvello, who is crossing Australia on the Bicentennial Trail with her 3 wild Guy Fawkes brumbies (horses). I will join her for the last month and half of her journey, after over 10 months. Sixteen years ago, an aerial cull of 600 horses in the Guy Fawkes National Park led locals to form the Guys Fawkes Heritage – Alienor’s journey is raising awareness of the loyal, resilient, strong brumbie horses.
I’m also about to join The SLOW LIFE Symposium at Soneva Kiri in Thailand – an annual convening of sustainability champions. World-class scientists, business leaders, cultural ambassadors, philanthropists and environmentalists – who gather to share insights, ideas and projects for collaboration (SLOW LIFE – Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wellness Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experiences). It’s always incredibly inspiring. “It’s not often you go to an event that leaves you profoundly moved and inspired to dream bigger, be more curious and more determined to have an impact”David De Rothschild, SLOW LIFE Symposium 2013
And I am very excited to be working on a project with the Moken children in the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea. I will be teaching the children how to photograph their way of life – exploring the theme of identity. The Moken – a people who are incredibly close to my heart – a nomadic way of life that has disappeared – a stateless nation – a people of the sea. I will be sharing the children’s vision through PhotoVoiceUk and a gallery with the Guardian. I am working on the project with BurmaBoating.
I may also be taking this project to the Aboriginal children of the Pukatja community in the central Australian desert – with the NPY women’s council. Also exploring the theme of identity. Both indigenous communities were once nomadic. The contrast of ocean and desert ways of life will be fascinating to find the similarities and differences..
AND I have BIG plans for disappearing on one-long journey to find the last of the Nomadic Souls of the world!
Do you feel photography can have an impact for social change?
Accepting that there is an overwhelming need for social change, I feel the power of photography can play a vital role. By illustrating/documenting the fragile connection between people, land and community that does still exist in remote corners of the world. It is time for a cultural shift in our relationship with nature in our everyday lives: in the media, education and throughout all aspects of society.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Sustainability is a framework for humanity to be able to safeguard a stable planet without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage by overuse and development. It is a way for humanity to re-evaluate the power of nature, biodiversity and balanced ecosystems.
A successful economy nurtures a thriving society within a healthy biosphere. ‘Bhutan, since 1971, has rejected GDP as the only way to measure progress. In it’s place, it’s championed a new approach to development, which measures prosperity through formal principles of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.’ It is an example to the rest of the world and a reminder to us all that we have a duty to protect our fragile planet.
“Only when the last tree has been chopped and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.” Indigenous bushman
What do you do on a daily basis to live a positive life?
I live on a boat, on the east London canals. Life on a boat, even in the middle of a vibrant, fast, city life, makes you much more aware of our impact on resources – the water we consume – the energy we use to light, heat and cook on a daily basis. Living on a boat, life is a much simpler existence and highlights the potential waste of basic essentials that most of us do in our western way of life.
And she has just launched a new venture: Illuminate.
All images courtesy of Cat Vinton