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Photographing Cultures and Finding Connection | An Interview with Storyteller Emory Hall

August 21, 2019

When I first came across the work of Emory Hall, it was a portrait of a Nepali woman with a vibrant headdress on which caught my eye. What brought me into this image as opposed to the other portraits which scattered my Instagram feed that day, was the connection. It’s something I always look for in my own work, and something I could instantly see was present in Emory’s.

The eyes of the subject were comfortable and connected. You could see there was a trust between the subject and the photographer, and that’s something I think is so important in travel photography, and something which in our age of rapid travel, is rare. As I have followed Emory Hall’s work over the years and learnt more about her story, the reason for that connection in her work has become more present. Emory is not only a photographer, who takes short visits to places and leaves – she embodies her craft, and through her connection to the spirituality and people of the lands she travels to, has developed a body of work which is unique, honest and connecting. I look at Emory’s work and I not only see the beauty of Nepal, India and the other countries she has documented, but also the person Emory is. This is something I find to be rare in photography. 

In this interview, I speak to Emory about her journey to photography and storytelling, her focus on spirituality and the stories behind her work. I hope you enjoy this insight into the work and life of Emory Hall.

How did you start taking photos? What sparked your passion for documenting?

I remember skipping class in high school to develop film in the darkroom. I would put my headphones on, turn off the world outside, and lose myself playing with light and shadow. Photographing the world as I saw it, freely and uninhibited, was a cathartic and healing experience for me. The darkroom became like a refuge – a space for me to express myself during a time when I was struggling to fit in and find my place.

Writing was a lot like that for me too – both have always been creative languages through which I could express my inner heart and creative self with the world. I was in love with them before I ever named them as “passions”, let alone before I ever named them as a career path.

When did you start travelling? Did travel or photography come first? What was the first trip you took which really got you hooked on exploring?

I grew up in a family that taught me a love of travel from a very young age. Some of my favourite and earliest memories are laying on my grandfather’s lap listening to his stories about his adventures in India, Egypt, Cuba and elsewhere. His stories were magnetic; they drew me so deeply into their fold that I swear I could almost smell the streets of Rajasthan and feel the humid air of Havana on my skin as he told them. When I was 8, my mother spent the summer travelling with my sisters and I down the entire eastern coast of the United States by train. By the time I was around 12, I was backpacking across Hawaii and Costa Rica with groups of kids I didn’t know. In that way, I think my love of travel came first because I began travelling well before I ever had a camera in my hand.

It wasn’t until my first trip to Nepal in 2010 that I witnessed first-hand the power in sharing stories through imagery and words. Coming home and sharing my bundles of photographs and pages of stories with friends and family was kind of my “ah-ha” moment. I saw how it affected others and I felt how it affected me. From that moment on, I haven’t stopped sharing stories.

You have spent a lot of time in Nepal and India. What attracts you to this part of the world and inspires you to keep returning?

This is a really deep one for me. I feel as though I’m still uncovering layers of my understanding of why I love that part of the world so much. What first drew me to India and Nepal were the spiritual practices and philosophies that I was reading about in books. I remember one day after class in college I bought a used book about India that I found in a crate on the side of the street. The book cost me $1, and in many ways, it changed my life.

When I took my first steps on the soil of Nepal, I truly felt as though I had finally come home. There was a feeling of connection I found there that was severely lacking in my life back in America. I lost my eldest sister when I was 8 years old, and for years I struggled to find an understanding of and peace with her death. When I landed in Nepal, I found a culture that gave me a spiritual understanding of death that healed so many of the wounds I had been carrying. There is an ancient wisdom that pulses through both India and Nepal and it lives in the hearts of the people there. I always say that it is the people of Nepal and India that keep me coming back – I have felt love and warmth from them that has forever touched and changed me.

Spirituality seems to play a big part in both your life and the subjects you choose to photograph. How did your spiritual side come to fruition?

When I lost my eldest sister in a horseback riding incident, I was forced to face a lot about the human experience that most 8-year-olds don’t really have to think about. I began asking a lot of the big questions – What happens when we die? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? My sister’s death served as the opening of a door into spirituality for me, and since then I haven’t really ever stopped seeking. I’ve spent the past ten years studying and documenting a diversity of spiritual traditions and practices across our world. All have something beautiful and profound to say and all have taught me something. The more that I learn, the more that I see that there is far more that unites us than separates us.

How do you feel photography helps, aids or hinders the spiritual path? Do you always shoot when on pilgrimage-type adventures and do you find any conflict in documenting vs. living in the moment?

One of my biggest struggles with being a photographer has been feeling like photography is at odds with my practice of presence. In the early years of my career, I really battled with the feeling that my photography was taking me out of the moments that I was trying to be fully present for. Through that, I learned to be more discerning about the moments I chose to photograph and which ones I did not. There still are some adventures that I choose to go on where I purposely leave my camera at home.

More recently, though, I’ve been meditating on the power of storytelling and the capacity it carries to heal and open hearts and minds. I believe that I came here to be a storyteller and if I serve as an instrument through which people can experience places and moments that touch them – well, that is well worth my not being “fully present”.

What advice can you give for any creatives looking to live a more balanced or spiritual life?

For me, my spiritual life and creative life are inseparable. I always say that my art, along with everything else in my life, comes from Spirit and goes back to Spirit. As creatives, I believe that we’re here to be the purest and authentic instruments that we can be. Our spiritual practices are tools through which we can refine our instrument and, as a result, put more impactful and meaningful work out into the world. If we are in a creative flow, that is also a spiritual flow. The moment our creativity stops is the moment we stop living our Dharma.

What inspires the photos you take? What do you look for in an image before you shoot it?

I can’t really say that I’m looking for anything in particular before I take a photograph. My photographs often come from spontaneous moments when I feel touched by what I’m seeing or feeling. I photograph a lot of people because my connections with people are often the most powerful for me when I travel. I generally always develop a relationship with people before I ever photograph them. When I do finally take out my camera, a beautiful moment of exchange happens between me and the person. It just flows.

Do you have an all-time favourite travel photograph of yours? Can you tell us the story behind this shot? 

One of my all-time favourite photographs is one entitled “Lama’, which I took on a pilgrimage in 2018. This is the story behind the image:

In August of 2018, we followed narrow pathways through fields and forests to the tiny village of Sorshu. Hours from any road, we carried bags full of medical supplies and bundles of reading glasses on our backs. For one day, we watched as two Nepali Optometrists transformed the remote village into a free eye health camp where over 600 villagers from near and far came to be seen. We witnessed sons who carried their mothers on their backs for hours, wives who lead their blind husbands from distant villages, children and the elderly who came to be seen by their first doctor ever, and so many other remarkable journeys.

At one point during the day, an elderly woman, barefoot and with a toothless smile, walked into the camp and asked us when the doctors were leaving. She explained that her husband had been suffering from vision problems, however, because he was a lama (Buddhist priest) and had duties in the monastery, he wasn’t able to make it to the camp before night. We told her that we planned to leave early the next morning and encouraged her to bring him back as soon as possible. With a smile and a nod of her head, we watched as she turned away and walked off into the distance, eventually disappearing into the cornfields. I had no idea if she would return, though I prayed she would. Hours passed and night descended upon the camp. We shut the doors to the health post and sat to rest our tired bodies.

Suddenly, I watched as two small figures emerged from the dark into the light of our flashlights. It was the woman, with her husband in tow. We learned that because the lama had spent so many years reading scriptures in his poorly lit monastery he had developed near-sightedness and was in need of reading glasses. Under the cloak of night and with small flashlights, the doctors reopened their supply cases and examined the man’s eyes. They handed him a brand new pair of glasses to try, and immediately upon wearing them, his face broke open into a smile. In return for his clear sight, the lama insisted that we visit his monastery the following day. This is the photo that I took of him that day, standing in the little light that shone through the one monastery window. Both houses on either side of the small monastery had burned down in a fire, however, the monastery still stood, and the prayers still continued daily, thanks to this man. I think of him and the power of that space often. I pray that he is enjoying reading scriptures through the lens of his new glasses.

What’s next for you? What countries are you dying to visit and what stories would you love to document?

I’ve been collaborating a bunch recently with other creatives, artists and teachers. It’s been a beautiful process to assist in bringing other people’s visions and artistry out into the world. In addition to that, I just launched two cultural immersion trips to Nepal, which are happening this coming October. They sold out in two days (!), so we are hoping to launch two more for Spring 2020. It has been a privilege and blessing to be able to transport people through imagery and words to a place that I love so much but to bring people there and have them experience it first-hand has been a long-time dream of mine.

Top 3 countries that I’m dying to see + photograph are Japan, New Zealand and Iceland.

You can follow the work of Emory Hall on Instagram @emoryhall or at her website emoryhall.com.

Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.

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