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On Storytelling and the Unknowns of Africa: An Interview with Jonathon Collins

Instagram has brought a lot of great things to my life, but most of all it’s introduced me to some of my very favourite photographers. Photographers which move, inspire and encourage me to continue taking photos . Jonathon Collins is one such photographer. His account @easternsuns takes you on a journey through the lands he has visited; from the streets of Yangon to the towers of Tokyo, through the villages of  Indonesia and, most of all, to a real and vibrant vision of Africa. Later on, I was introduced to his words, and now his visions are instantly connected with the stories he weaves around them. With each story he tells, you feel the humanity of the people whose eyes pierce his camera and the breathless feeling of the landscapes he captures. In this interview, I asked him about his passion for storytelling, his experiences overlanding in Africa and found out what’s next for him.
“I wanted those that viewed my work to look into the eyes of another; someone living a totally different life on the other side of the world, and simply see themselves.” 
When did your passion for storytelling begin? What drew you to the art of combining photographs and words?
I like to think that storytelling is etched into our genetic fabric from the day we are born; it is simply how we chose to exhibit or express it over the course of our lives. My passion for storytelling is the combined effort of each and every person that has come in and out of my life in twenty five years.
It began with a strand from my Mother’s side; fluid, gentle and artistic. Another strand from my Father’s side; rigid, practical and precise. The other pieces came to me almost like a jigsaw puzzle being built slowly over time; being told stories of travel and different cultures while growing up, flicking through magazines like National Geographic, and then experimenting with different mediums of art and writing in school. The beauty of primary and secondary school is that you get to try a bit of everything and I took advantage of that. I read, I painted, I wrote, I photographed, but most importantly, I listened. It allowed me to develop a deeper curiosity to know the stories of others and appreciate exactly what those stories can do for another. When I finally decided to pursue photography as a hobby at the age of eighteen, I knew it had the potential to capture that curiosity and tell the story of a mere moment. It was only natural to then combine the photographs with words; to describe how each moment unfolded through a lens.
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When did you start traveling? Can you tell us a little about that experience, or about an early trip which sparked your fascination for exploring the world?
I booked a flight to Japan with my best friend when I was nineteen. It was a place I’d always dreamed of going, having watched Japanese anime and Hayao Miyazaki films growing up, and hearing many wild and wonderful stories. My friend and I had similar travelling styles, which we later discovered on that trip and others we shared together. We knew it was more important to see fewer places and immerse ourselves in the culture rather than jumping from place to place. We spent two weeks between Tokyo and Kyoto; sharing miniature rooms, finding bargains in supermarkets, riding bicycles through back alleys, dancing until 5AM in smoky clubs and falling asleep on the metro numerous times. I bought my first DSLR before that trip, and would spend every day taking photos of almost everything. Japan was such an overwhelming country to try and capture with a limited experience in photography. Everything felt so different to what I was used to; the blur of shapes, the shadows of buildings and everyday moments in passing. The country was as visually wonderful as I’d always dreamt, and the experience instilled a desire to see more and to learn more about the art-form of photography.
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Do you think being an environmental scientist changes your perspective on travel and storytelling? In what way has this affected or contributed in any way to what you create and the way you approach cultures?
I like to think my background in environmental science developed a deeper understanding of how the Earth became what it is today. From the geological structures of mountains and deep sea trenches, to the very fundamentals of the space which humankind has populated or made its own. This type of study instills a curiosity to understand other landscapes and other lives, and has definitely carried over into the subject matter of my storytelling.
During my four years of study, I was fortunate enough to conduct fieldwork in some extraordinary places; looking at topics such as conservation in the Great Barrier Reef, environmental education in rural Indonesia, and climate change adaptation in coastal Bangladesh. This type of research taught me how important it is to be self aware of the numerous cultural sensitivities that must be recognised and respected in cross-cultural research. Photography and writing are no different to research in this sense. They are art forms that should not be intrusive, and act as a connecting point between cultures rather than a barrier.
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You’ve travelled extensively in Africa. What drew you to the continent in the first place? What surprised you about traveling there compared to the preconceptions you had?
I believe the ‘unknown’ drew me to Africa initially. I read travel articles and blogs about backpacking just about everywhere else in the world, and yet travel resources and stories from independent travellers finding their own routes through Africa were extremely limited. When I first began telling people that I wanted to backpack the eastern coast of Africa, they questioned if it was even possible. This is mainly because ‘tourism’ in Africa is targeted to overland package tours and safaris, neither of which interested me in the slightest. I soon realised that the reason we see so little about independent travel in Africa is for a single reason; it is tough. Tough, but the most richly rewarding experience one can ever have.
As the birthplace of humankind, Africa boasts some of the richest and most unique cultures, dispersed across a vast and rugged landscape. My initial perception was that African countries would be similar in physicality, when in reality every single country has its own complexities; scenery, history, cuisines, languages, tribes and cultures. I’ve travelled extensively in twelve countries in Africa, and every single one could not be more different from the other.
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What was a highlight of traveling in this region of the world? Can you tell us any stories from your adventures that particularly stuck with you?
The highlight of Africa is without a doubt the people you meet. Africans are so proud of their heritage, and proud to be born on a continent that has faced such a difficult history. For almost every country, the fight for independence paved the way to countless injustices, unrest, oppression of minorities, racial and tribal segregation, genocide, economic hardship and a deeply ingrained political corruption in their governing system. Over the last few decades, most African countries were fighting for an identity away from colonial rule while the rest of the world progressed. Yet with each complexity in a country’s history, there is a way of life that is repeated no matter where you travel. A value that is not of sympathy, but of strength. Gratitude, humour, resilience; all in light of even the greatest hardships that a country has faced. The African spirit is truly unbreakable, no matter where you go or whatever life you make for yourself.
It is almost impossible to recount the hospitality of those who helped buy a bus ticket, welcomed me into their home, shared a meal, translated a confusing scenario, or simply made a joke at the right moment. One day I always remember was in Lalibela – central Ethiopia – during a time I was beginning to feel exhausted with the hassle of being a foreigner everywhere I went. I decided to walk beyond the outskirts of town, where I met a guy named Debash who asked if he could join me. We walked almost four hours together, sharing so many details about our lives, our studies, families and aspirations; all to the immense backdrop of rolling mountains and tiny scattered villages. He was a young man who had grown up with such immense disadvantages and yet had always been determined to make a life for himself; to study and work and support his family. On the walk back to Lalibela, Debash invited me into his home, and his grandmother and mother performed a coffee ceremony before sharing a single plate of dinner amongst six of us. It was such an immense honour to be welcomed into their home. Debash has become a good friend of mine, and I still smile with every email we exchange updating each other on our lives.
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Recently, you seem to have spent more time exploring Asia. What are the highlights for you of traveling in this region and how does it differ to exploring Africa?
The greatest gift of photography is that is has taken me back to countries for various experiences and collaborations with different clients or brands. My most recent trips in Hong Kong, Myanmar and Japan were an incredible way to revisit old places with a completely different eye, a result of taking those journeys alongside other photographers, writers, videographers and artists that I really admire.
Asia is a continent that I could spend the rest of my life dedicated to exploring. It also has an immensely rich diversity in cultures and landscapes; the sweeping deserts and ancient souks of the Middle East, rich colours and crowds in the South, chilled tropical vibes in the South East and incredible history and societal traditions in the North. Countries like India and China change by state or province; sometimes in language, cuisine, religion, people and culture, so there is never a moment where you aren’t learning a new way of life. In the far reaches of Mongolia and Nepal I’ve never felt more remote or disconnected, and in subways in Japan and traffic jams in Bangladesh I’ve never felt more overcrowded and cramped. I love that every single day is different, and no experience or encounter the same.
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I would say the greatest difference between Asia and Africa is the infrastructure to support independent tourism. Asia has a combined population of nearly 4 billion people and subsequently, one of the most efficient networks of trains, buses, ferries and flights at very affordable costs to cater for constant flow. If you need to get from one place to another, it’s always possible. This is where Africa differs, and an independent traveller grows accustomed to ‘African time’, frequent stops, poor road infrastructure, run down public transport options and high fuel costs. Patience is absolutely key to travelling in Africa, as no bus or minivan leaves unless every seat is full to make it worthwhile. In just about every case, you’ll be trapped next to a window that is broken shut, sharing a single seat with one or two other people; with feet crushed by a cage of chickens or bags of potatoes and maize, bouncing up and down on an unsealed road.
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Wherever you travel in the world, your work always contains a striking and personal human connection. How do you think you achieve this feeling, what draws you specifically to people, culture and moments?
The key was definitely perception change. When I first started travelling, I looked at the fundamental aspects of the human condition, and what set us apart and what makes us inherently different. It separated me from my subject, and I found it hard to connect. As I travelled more, I witnessed interactions and emotions that showed just how many layers of the human condition were mere externalities. Race, religion, gender, economic status, sexuality, political preferences; each were just boundaries or ‘constructs’ that we imposed on ourselves. Far too often do we deny the fluidity of each, and the underlying and inevitable truth to this world; we are just humans. When I realised this, I knew how important it was for me to not only experience it, but to capture every moment I witnessed that exact feeling. Eventually, I wanted those that viewed my work to look into the eyes of another; someone living a totally different life on the other side of the world, and simply see themselves.
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Do you have an all-time favourite photograph?
It is very hard to pick a favourite as so many images conjure incredible stories or memories, but one that sticks out is an image I took in Bangladesh. The photo was taken on a 24-hour ferry journey from Dhaka to Panpatti, a small village in Southern Bangladesh where I would stay for my thesis research. A light rain had begun to hit the top deck of the boat and most people were shouting to get undercover. I can remember closing my eyes and feeling a sense of relief, as the rain had broken the stifling humidity of another day in the monsoon season. When I opened my eyes again, I saw the girl’s hands reach out from the deck below. She was reaching to feel the rain as it dropped from the sky. My time in Bangladesh truly opened my eyes to the everyday struggles of billions living in the developing world. For me, the henna tattoo of a sun in the girl’s outstretched palm is a symbol of incredible resilience and hope.
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How has your approach to photography evolved as a medium over the years? Where do you see it going in the future?
I would definitely say that the greatest change to my photographic journey coincided with the growth of various social media platforms in the last five years. Before I joined Instagram a few years ago, my photography was purely a personal hobby to help document my trips to friends and family. As I began sharing my world and experiences to a broader public, it allowed me to start thinking about my brand and what I truly wanted to represent across each of the evolving platforms that I was sharing my work on. I like to think that my content stayed very much the same; as all I ever wanted was to capture real moments from all my adventures. The greatest difference was that the techniques and my knowledge of gear and equipment shifted. I connected with other photographers, writers and different brands or clients on each of the various platforms; trialling different cameras and lenses, shooting at different angles, exploring new places and gaining insight into what type of work was engaging and marketable vs. the material that was simply honest and insightful. When shooting, the thought process remained organic and experimental. However, when editing I began to think in squares or in blog layouts, and more broadly questioned who I was sharing an image with and why. The growth of social media added extra facets to something I was already using as a medium, and it totally opened my world to the changing creative market.
As I grow more in the fields of photography and writing, my goal is to tell stories that inspire real change or give insight into a part of the world through my lens. I would love to take a leap into the world of photojournalism, especially in the realm of environment and development, and I plan to do so in the next few years.
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What’s next for you?
At the start of 2017, I’ll be hitting the road once more to start a project that has been conjuring in my mind for quite some time. Without giving too much away, the project will combine my background in environmental science, and my passion for photography and writing through a more structured photojournalistic piece about climate change and the developing world. I’ll be spending time living with fishing communities in the Coral Triangle of Southeast Asia, and with nomadic herdsmen in the far reaches of the African Sahel.
As far as travel goes, my eyes are set on Latin America. Once this project ties up, I’ll be heading to Colombia for a lifestyle change and to learn Spanish, and plan to travel extensively in Central and South America while there.

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Jonathon Collins is a writer, storyteller and photographer based in Australia. He has worked with Passion Passport, Intrepid Travel, Spirited Pursuit and many more. You can view his portfolio here or follow him on Instagram at @easternsuns.

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4 Comments

  • Reply The Common Wanderer November 14, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    Jon is one of our favourite photographers and story tellers so this interview was incredible. What we love most is his eloquent yet relatable way of describing his experiences.

    • Reply Annapurna Mellor November 16, 2016 at 9:30 pm

      We love his work too! Thanks for checking this out! We’d love to interview you guys in the future for ROAM! We’ll get in touch soon and see if you’re interested!

  • Reply Jonathon November 14, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    Anna, thank you so much for the write up, and for being an incredible storyteller yourself. Your interview style conjured enough memories to really recount why photography became a part of me. Keep on traveling, excited to keep following your adventures.

    • Reply Annapurna Mellor November 16, 2016 at 9:29 pm

      Thanks so much Jon! It was a pleasure to interview you and have you part of the ROAM family! 🙂

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