Colby Brown - It's the Human Element that Makes Us Whole

My introduction into the industry was actually through my interest of travel, not necessarily photography itself. I tried to do a standard 9-5 job for just a few months, and just couldn’t do it. I asked myself, ‘Okay, what do I want to do?' My answer was, I wanted to travel. At the time it was a very naive notion. But I was like, ‘Well, why don’t I just become a photographer? Why not? How hard can it be?’

Three or four days later, I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok. On the flight over, the woman sitting next to me was a rock climber from Jackson Hole, WY. She was actually going to get married. Long story short, her friend was a photographer who had to back out at the last second. And so my first paying gig ever was shooting a traditional Buddhist wedding in the middle of a rural village in Southern Thailand.

[Photography] forces you to look at the world differently. That’s kind of what drew me to travel in the first place. That contrasting sense of life, and how different people see things differently and how people live their lives differently culturally. I found myself wanting to experience more of the world not through a viewfinder. It’s an interesting statement to make as a photographer.

Affect on family

[Photography] helps me take away those things we take for granted. I have a two and a half year old son. He’s right at that amazing age where everything is new. One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Marcel Proust, and that’s 'The true voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.'

Favorite places

One of my favorite countries in the world is definitely Nepal. They have amazing festivals, and they’re just so kind. My heart is definitely in the mountains so being the Himalayas as a backdrop is kind of icing on the cake.

Iceland, as far as landscape specifically, is definitely a hotspot for me—such varied terrain, beautiful pastel light, just a very active location. I love the challenge of the unpredictability of places like Iceland and Patagonia. With the weather—as you know—just always keeping you on your toes.

It’s a very humbling reality to think about what I’ve been fortunate to do, and at the same time to think of how much more is out there, and how much more we can learn from other people and see more cultures and more landscapes and mountains and sunrises… the world out there is awesome.

The Giving Lens

Travel was always very superficial. You never really got the chance to get to know a country, or to know it’s issues or to know its people. You’re kind of just skimming through, maybe you have a week off work or what-not. That just never sat well with me.

With The Giving Lens, we take teams of photographers of varied skill sets to mostly developing countries to partner with an NGO that has chosen to fight for a specific cause—whether that’s child education like we do in Nicaragua and Peru, whether it’s women’s rights like we do in Jordan, species preservation like we’re doing in Africa, and I’d be lying if I said this probably wasn’t the most meaningful and passionate piece of my photo career, in general.

Finding meaningful ways for photographers to give back is so powerful. It makes such a difference. I mean, people that have been on some of our TGL trips have become board members of the NGO’s we partner with. Definitely try to do it organically. By that I mean, don’t  sit there and go to an organization and say, ‘This is what I can do.’ My recommendation would be, ‘How can I help?’

ALIVE

We’re listening to their story of the challenges they face, as we’re sitting inside their small little hut in the middle of Tanzania. One of our participants asked, ‘Are the children affected? Do they have HIV?’

And for the wife to answer and say, ‘No’ and to have such a great smile that even though they have HIV, they came together as a family and these kids don’t have HIV. It was very moving. I don’t think anyone left that room not crying.

Beyond solitude

It was the solitude that drew me to nature and landscape. I love being in the middle of the night in front of Mt Fitz Roy in Argentina. No one is around, and you’re just having this really intimate experience with nature. I think that’s very cathartic for me; it’s very important for who I am. But at the same time, a lot of what I was doing in those initial years was chasing after moments like that.

I love nature. I love solitude. But it’s the human element that connects us; it’s the human element that makes us whole.

Photographing people is not easy. A lot of people don’t like it, it makes them feel uncomfortable, I totally understand and respect that. But for me to see so many travel photographers out there label themselves as travel photographers—and even if they have exceptional work, like landing covers on Nat Geo—and to go through their portfolio and see a complete lack of a human element kind of, it bugs me in a way.

Motivation

I went to Tacloban just a few days after the typhoon. I was able to move some things around and just head there. People that have nothing, that lost so much, or everything—lost family members—to be willing to help their neighbors who are still struggling. That, to me, is motivational beyond anything else that I could ever experience.

Experience more at ColbyBrownPhotography and TheGivingLens.