Hello Runa. Great to have an interview with you about your fabulous work! Incredible photos from Asia. Let’s start with your last album «Gokarna».
Could you please tell us a little bit about this experience and what is your fave photo from this trip?
«Gokarna» is the name of a small fishing village on the southwest coast of India. The small sleepy village has many beautiful photo motives. Beautiful sunsets, small temples, old ladies selling colorful flowers in front of the temple, the holy pond around which the village life is all day long and of course endless, wide sandy beaches.
Basically I have 2 favourite pictures from Gokarna. One shows my friend Steffi at the evening yoga on the beach, this was exhibited last year in Vienna. My second favourite picture from Gokarna shows a little bird that sat very close in front of my camera and was surprisingly trusting. This picture has also been selected 2 times to be exhibited in the Netherlands.
I travelled to Gokarna for the first time in 2013. At that time there wasn’t much going on there, it was beautiful, secluded and quiet. Especially in the last two years the tourism there has increased extremely, unfortunately with dramatic consequences for nature and environment, the river leading through the village is completely polluted, plastic is everywhere, the forests are being cleared and hotels built. Personally, this makes me very sad. I will not return to Gokarna, and I was also unsure if I should publish the photos I took there further, because I don’t want to contribute to make the small village even better known and to worsen the problems with tourism there.
What has been the most memorable or challenging series so far? I believe there were lots of difficult ones because you can’t see the weather, for example, in the picture.
Basically, every series has been a challenge so far. What you don’t see on the pictures is the long preparation time of each expedition. Getting beautiful photo motifs in front of your lens at the right time has less to do with luck and more to do with a lot of research work and good contacts.
But I struggled the most when I wanted to photograph Holi — the festival of colours in Mathura (UP).
The celebration takes place on several consecutive days in different, sometimes very small and remote places.
I was almost too late for the first celebration in the temple of Barsana. I arrived late in the night at my hotel in Matura, which was about an hour away from Barsana. I had no chance to get a driver anymore. Fortunately a good friend of mine, who works for the Indian police, sent one of his local colleagues to me, who not only drove me to the temple, but also helped me to get a permit to photograph from the temple roof.
How did you approach the first shoot? And did you approach it different than the way you would approach it now?
When I started street-photography, the biggest challenge for me was to overcome my shyness to photograph strangers.
I was totally insecure and afraid to violate someone’s privacy. I also didn’t really know how to best communicate with people who speak poorly or broken English.
Fortunately, I am open-minded by nature and it is easy for me to make new friends. This has proven to be very helpful. I have learned to communicate without words and to intuitively feel if someone wants to be photographed or not.
I also now know which local authorities to contact to get permission or invitation to photograph in holy or forbidden places.
I also speak a little Hindi by now, which always helps a lot to break the ice.
The pictures are not as spontaneous as they seem, right?
No, not all of them. Sometimes it is better to visit a place or a community several times to get familiar with the people and their rules, before taking pictures of them.
To give two examples. In Cambodia I photographed daily life in very remote villages. This was my first project in Asia and benefited a development aid organization that needed these pictures for their articles and art calendars.
The villagers knew that they would be photographed and also which scenes would be photographed. The pictures show the authentic life of these people, but they are not spontaneous.
Another series which I have not yet published was created in a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. Here I talked to the priests before and asked them to simulate a typical ceremony, then I took pictures. This has the background that I never want to disturb anyone with my camera during a religious event. To show respect is my first priority.
What is one of your favourite pictures from all your trips?
That changes all the time. Whenever I have shot a new series there is at least one new favorite picture.
Is there anything unexpected that has happened since the project went up and now you have almost 10K Instagram followers, also you have a very cool site with blog and people can travel with you?
Actually, everything happened pretty unexpectedly if I’m honest.
I’ve been travelling India for over 10 years, but I didn’t start street photography until 2016. One of my first series (from Varanasi) won an international competition and was exhibited in Essen (Germany).
Of course this motivated me to go on and become better. At the beginning of 2018 I got to know Tejas Soni in Barsana whose work had been a role model for me for a long time. I learned a lot from him and I think that he played a big part in the fact that everything developed so positively for me.
Since this year I offer others to travel with me and benefit from my experiences in India. This year I already gave a workshop together with Tejas in Jodhpur and visited Rajasthan’s most beautiful places with a small travel group. This year there will be another organized expedition at the end of the year and several individual trips.
Runa’s instagram account — https://www.instagram.com/runa_nightsongwoods/
Could you please tell us about jorney with you? Is this difficult to organize it from your side? How did you handle with it? How many people can be in the group?
Organizing the trips is a challenge. Meanwhile I got very good local contacts who take a lot of the organization off my hands.
I offer groups and individual expeditions. The group trips take place on a special theme, such as the trip planned for November 2019.
In November I will show my guests the venerable glory of Rajasthan, with all its traditions and mansions.
We will also visit the Thar Desert and its inhabitants, whose lifes have remained almost the same for many centuries. We will take part in festivals and rieten.
We will visit the Bundi-Fair which can be compared to the famous Pushkar Mela, but is hardly known by foreign tourists and therefore will offer a much more authentic experience of Indian culture.
We will travel back in time to the splendid days of the Rajputs and also get to know the noble Marwari horses — pride of the Indian warrior caste, and take pictures of them in front of a historical scenery.
An overnight stay in a Bishnoi Community is also planned. The Bishnoi have lived for over 500 years in the desert that in harmony with nature. Wild antelopes and herons live in their villages and baby-antelopes are breastfed by the women of the village even like human babies.
Another focus will be street-photography in the blue city of Jodhpur. I have already successfully organized a workshop there and my participants were able to take an incredible number of great pictures.
I further arrange individual journeys according to the wishes of my guests, depending on the budged, time and adventurous spirit. I take them on the journey to show them my India, far away from the tourist routes. Almost every travel wish is feasible, from visiting the last headhunters in the northeast or participating in one of the many colourful and crazy festivals in southern India, such as the water buffalo race Karnataka and the banana battle on the occasion of the Maha Shivratri festival on the beaches of the south. I made it my mission to make every everything possible for my guests.
Here you can find all information about journey with Runa — https://www.runa-travel-photography.com/
Tell us more about your background. Where are you from? Where do you live now? How old are you? What inspired you to become a photographer? Your name is Runa — what does it mean? Is it real or you just found your perfect nickname?
I have several first names, in my passport, 5 to be exact, Runa is one of them.
I was born in Germany and discovered my passion for travelling very early on. I have travelled Asia, Africa, Arabia, America and of course large parts of Europe so far and lived there in part a time country. However, I lost my heart to India, more precisely to South India, where I lived for 1 year. At the moment I live again in Germany, but will move to Malta again soon.
Actually I didn’t want to become a photographer consciously. I have always been very interested in art, attended an art school and later studied in this direction. But never consciously with the goal of becoming a travel photographer. That actually developed out of my passion, travelling and the desire to capture what I saw as beautifully as possible. Then one thing came to the other.
Your first country was India, yes? What do you remember from your first photos? Why India? What do you love and what you can not understand or accept till now. Do you remember your first trip to India, how it was?
The first country I travelled to photograph was not India but Cambodia. A good friend of mine was the director of a development aid company there and asked me to create meaningful photos for his project.
My first photos in India were taken in West Bengal and Sikkim. I still remember well the morning in the Rum-Tek monastery. I photographed the monks there during their morning prayer, one of the street dogs had joined them and listened attentively. I am still very touched when I see these pictures.
Why India of all places? Well my answer may be a bit unusual but it is the only country in the world where I really feel at home. I always felt a bit strange in the world until I came to India in 2008. This country is so colorful, so warm, so crazy, so ambivalent — I liked it from the first day on and that will probably never change.
What do you enjoy most about being a travel photographer?
Other people who can’t travel as much as I can to show the world through my pictures and let them participate in my adventures until they have the opportunity to travel themselves.
What camera(s) do you use on your travels? Do you have a favorite travel camera bag?
I’ve had a Nikon D3, old but gold, for about 8 years. My new camera will be the Nikon D850, I’m looking forward to picking it up at my good friend Kawal’s Omax camera shop in Delhi in July. By the way, also my top tip if something breaks on the equipment. The guys from Omax repair everything and that very fast. They always have time for a Chai and a little chat in their store.
My favorite travel camera bag is from the brand Mantona, I got that as a Christmas present last year (thank you Mum) and I used it so far in 2 different expeditions.
The Mantona «Luis Retro» photo backpack is not as big and heavy as many other photo backpacks. This has the advantage that I, as a smaller woman, can carry it very well.
Even though the backpack is not so big, all my equipment fits very well. There is room for a camera, 3 lenses, laptop, hard drives and also for personal things.
In your opinion, what makes a good travel photograph?
Always respect the country and the people, be open, be patient and love what you do. Beauty lies in the detail and even in a seemingly unspectacular place you can take beautiful pictures if you really get involved with it.
Many people think one has to search long till one really find something extraordinary that is worth taking pictures of and completely overlook the fact that the great thing are everywhere — you just have to change your perspective on it.
What have been your top 3 places to photograph so far and why?
Thar Desert, Blue City of Jodhpur and Holi in Vrindvan.
You have a lot of really great portrait photography on your site. Do language barriers ever affect your work when you are photographing people?
No, not anymore. On the one hand I now speak a little Hindi, which of course helps a lot. On the other hand, I have developed a fine feeling for how to communicate with people non-verbally.
The most important thing in portrait photography is to work with respect and love for people. To make a portrait of a stranger is something very personal and should never happen against the obvious will of the other or put him in a degrading position.
It always makes me very sad when I see my colleagues photographing poverty and suffering and publishing these pictures through the social media. Old, sick, handicapped or orphans children who have to live on the streets are abused to generate publicity. That makes me angry. Especially when I see the pictures of children who obviously need help and not a photographer from a foreign country photographing them.
I never photograph children in humiliating situations and never without first asking their parents or themselves for permission. In my culture it is forbidden to photograph a child without the explicit permission of the parents. Here in Germany no photographer would dare to photograph a child just like that. Therefore I see it as a matter of course not to do this in other countries.
Another thing is, of course, when poverty or social problems are photographed for journalistic reasons and thus have an official task. Namely to uncover injustice or to make aid projects possible. It is of course right and important to uncover grievances in order to achieve improvements.
What are a few tips you would give someone who wants to pursue travel photography?
Practice, practice, practice. I would recommend everyone to look for a good and experienced mentor and always have a lively exchange with other travel photographers. You still get the best suggestions and tips personally and not from the internet. If you really want to get to know exciting places, you come furthest by keeping your eyes and ears open on the street and spending less time asking google.
What is your dream now? Do you have a dream?
Yes, absolutely. My dream is to be able to contribute in the long run with my work to break down the prejudices against such a beautiful country as India. I hope that more people will realize how important and worthy of protection old cultures, rites and festivals are and that they will not be displaced by modernity.
My personal goal, however, is to travel the world with an old VW bus at some point in the future. True to the motto: the world is my home.
Are you planning to have an album or book with your fave photos so people will be able to buy these albums and collect them?
I’d like to do that, but it’s quite time-consuming and requires a lot of financial effort — I couldn’t realize such a project on my own.
Which countries you choose for your vacation. Or you can’t stop and even there prefer to have your camera?
Recently I asked myself the question where exactly my holiday ends and work starts. When I’m travelling around the world with my camera, it’s always like a holiday. I never had the feeling that one generally associate with the word «work“.
I simply like it to take pictures. Even when I am travelling with my travel groups to show and teach others something, every second feels great, like a holiday actually.
If you love what you do, it never feels like work.
Nevertheless, I often leave my camera in the hotel to pursue my other hobbies like riding, surfing, climbing and diving.
I often go on city trips to European metropolises like Prague, Vienna or Paris. I never take my camera with me on these trips, but spend more time exploring the coolest places in the city with my friends.
interviewer Olga Shevtsova