FOR OVER 30 YEARS, Gail Mooney-Kelly has been shooting photos for National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, Time/Life, Smithsonian, as well as the Mexico and Hong Kong tourism boards. She’s currently gearing up for a round-the-world trip which will become a full-length documentary.
How long have you been a professional photographer?
I’ve been a professional photographer since 1977 – 33 years. It’s been my sole job as well as my sole income source.
What – or who – got your initial interest going in terms of photography?
I wasn’t one of those kids that “took the family pictures”. I actually didn’t get interested in photography until after a year long backpacking trip. I had been studying architecture at Syracuse University and decided to leave after my sophomore year to do some traveling. What was intended as a 2 month trip, turned into a year long backpacking odyssey.
I realized then that I wanted to pursue a career that would give me access to cultures and opportunities to travel – pursuing the career of still photographer seemed like the perfect choice.
When I returned to the US, I enrolled in Brooks Institute to learn the craft and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. More important than the degree was learning the technical aspects of photography which was essential at that time before advances in technology gave us cameras that were “automatic”.
What were your first photographic experiments or experiences?
I assisted a studio photographer in NYC the first year after graduating from Brooks Institute but my heart was in the “editorial” world. I wanted to work for magazines. I also started doing little jobs that my boss wasn’t interested in.
There’s a story I like to tell that was one of the turning points in my life. I went to see Jay Maisel, a legendary commercial photographer who was also known for his bluntness. I showed Jay, my technically perfect photos from school assignments and he looked me straight in the face and said “this is crap” – “this isn’t where your heart is”.
I was stunned by his direct manner and told him that I really wanted pursue a career as a photojournalist but that everyone told me those days were gone and that to make any money I had to shoot commercially. He then asked me how old I was and I replied, 25 years old.
Then he said something that I will always remember – he said, “you’re 25 years old and you’re already making compromises?”
How would you describe the work you do now…obviously there’s a strong travel editorial element, but are you involved in the photojournalism/documentary reporting world also? Any stock photography?
I have always worked in both the editorial world as well as the commercial world of photography to make ends meet – but my heart is in publishing and telling the story.
I do have many of my images licensed through various stock photography outlets and I am able to be in that position to continue to make money from my images because I have maintained ownership and copyright to my work.
These days I shoot a lot of video in addition to my still photography and continue to pursue photojournalistic/documentary work. I have also become my own publisher because distribution these days is in everyone’s hands through the internet and iTunes.
One doesn’t need validation these days from large publishing houses to be able to create meaningful bodies of work and documentaries and get them out to the public to be seen and to create awareness and to also create a direct revenue stream. It’s an amazing time.
What 3 tips would you share for amateur photographers who are interested in pursuing your style of travel photography?
1.You have to “just do it”. The more you shoot on your own – the better you’ll get.
2. Be fearless. If you want to shoot travel – you need to absorb yourself in the culture.
3. Register your work with the copyright office and maintain your copyright.
You’ve photographed for the holy grail of magazines, National Geographic. Can you share some practical insights into working with the magazine?
I got my start with the Geographic through timing and pure tenacity. I also took the time to do my homework which I would recommend anybody doing in regards to working for whatever magazines they set their sights on.
Know the magazine.
Know the kind of stories they do and the approach they take.
Shoot stories on your own and propose them to the magazine.
It’s a long shot but if the story is good and unique – you’ll be in a good position. The idea is to get in the door. To do that you have to stand out. There is a lot of great work out there and you need to sell yourself and your ideas.
But mostly you have to want it bad enough to make them want you. Here’s one of my encounters with legendary Director of Photography for the National Geographic, Bob Gilka.
Which other photographers – old or contemporary – inspire you most?
Cartier-Bresson, Margaret Bourke White, Robert Frank, Eugene Smith, Jay Maisel, Walker Evans – I could go on and on. I’m also inspired by painters, writers, poets, and musicians.
When you are approaching subjects to shoot, how do you set about it? Do you chat and explain what you’re doing? Or shoot first, ask questions later?
Great question and it all depends on the situation and culture. For me, I need to be sensitive to the situation – like I said, to absorb the culture. Many times, I just wait and observe so that I almost become a fixture in the scene and not noticed anymore.
Then I shoot. But sometimes, you know the moment is not going to wait so you just shoot. If I approach someone, I almost after do it after getting my candid shot.
What’s the craziest or most inspiring encounter you’ve had in general?
I’ve had a lot of crazy encounters because I put myself out there and have ended up in some pretty crazy environments and situations.
The inspiring encounters are more etched in my mind. I did a story about for Smithsonian about the smallest county in the United States – small in terms of population. I almost turned the story down because I was kind of a city shooter – a street shooter if you will.
But I took a chance and it ended up being one of the most memorable and gratifying assignments I ever had – mostly because of the people I met.
Here’s a blog post I wrote about one day I spent on this assignment.
What kit do you use / carry with you / can’t do without (camera make, lenses, flashguns etc.)?
Normally I take two cameras – Canon EOS Mark II and Canon 5D – although I just bought a Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 7D that have video capabilities.
Lenses: Canon 16-35mm f 2.8, Canon 24-70mm f2.8, Canon 70-200mm f.28, Canon 70-300 f.4.35, Canon flash, Bogen tripod, Epson P6000 digital wallet.
Here is what I’m taking on my next journey.
Finally, what else are you working on right now and what are your ambitions for the future in terms of your photography work or anything else?
I am departing on Tuesday, May 25th with my daughter to embark on a round the world trip, creating a documentary about people who are making a positive difference in the world – 6 people on 6 continents. You can follow our journey at Opening Our Eyes.
Please read our other recent interviews with Travel Photographers.
MatadorU Travel Photography Program
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Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström
Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström is a MatadorU faculty member and Network contributor. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Vogue, BBC, Fodors.com, and many more. Follow her photoblog at Sweden.se.
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