Cam Cope goes where other photographers won't

"In a lot of countries, if your camera is big enough, people assume you’re meant to be there."
Wrestlers, Senegal © Cam Cope
By Jo Stewart

From talking his way into a Senagalese wrestling competition to winning Travel Photographer of the Year and teaching aspiring photographers how to use their tools, Cam Cope has carved a killer career out of knowing his way around a camera.

Here, the Melbourne native lets us in on his techniques for getting the best out of the people and places he's been lucky enough to encounter.

Where has your photography career taken you Cam?
I’ve been sailing in Patagonia, hiking in Mongolia, road tripping through West Africa and sailing on a vaka (a traditional Polynesian canoe) in the Cook Islands. I’ve taken photos at festivals around the world, including Carnaval in the Seychelles, the Creole Festival in Mauritius, and the New Year Festival in Bhaktapur, Nepal. That was freaking wild.

Where have your images ended up?
My images have been published in travel magazines and books, and featured in exhibitions. A lot of them are just on my hard drive though. I see travel photography as a bit of a pretend genre. I prefer to see myself as a documentary photographer. I explore narrative with my photos because I want to show what’s happening. I am of course interested in the history, food and culture of the places I visit, but I really want to tell a story with the images I take.

Many of your images capture people in developing nations. How do you go about photographing people who may be vulnerable, living in poverty or experiencing hardship?
You constantly have to grapple with ethical and moral decisions, but really there is no right or wrong. That’s something I teach in my travel photography class. You have to follow your own moral compass, and that may not necessarily align with legal frameworks. Yes, you may have the legal right to photograph someone and use that photo without their permission, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

What I’m interested in doing is establishing relationships. I call it ‘social license’. It’s when you take the time to get to know another person or a community. To establish trust and establish boundaries you have to have clear conversations about what you’re doing and what your intentions are. From those conversations you then might go and do something together.

Local portrait, Gobi Desert © Cam Cope

Do you have any examples of how that idea works in the real world?
Well, one time I got stuck in Mauritania waiting for a visa to come through to travel onwards to Senegal. I had a lot of time on my hands so I made friends with some fisherman. I met them on the beach and negotiated a way for me to go fishing with them 25km off shore. I ended up hanging out with them and becoming friends with them. We watched football games together and I had dinner with their families.

So if you just hang out and get to know each other, in that context the permission to photograph and the ethical boundaries of what you should and shouldn’t photograph becomes natural and obvious, and the whole issue of permission is long dealt with. Then all I have to worry about is capturing the moment.

It seems you’re prepared to invest a lot of time in order to get the best shots.

I believe there is no substitute for spending time with people. It’s all about quality over quantity. You’ll learn so much more if you spend time getting to know people. It’s just a richer experience. Also, it will lead to so many other crazy connections that you’d never envisaged.

From meeting those fisherman I just mentioned, I was introduced to the world of Senegalese wresting – the only wrestling code in the world that allows for bare knuckle punching and sorcery.

Sign me up!
I know! I’d never heard of it, but my new friends in Mauritania were huge fans so when I ended up in Senegal I went to a match. I would have totally missed that if I hadn’t spent time with them. Spending time with those guys and learning local expressions totally paid off in unexpected ways because when I went to Senegal I formed a relationship with a guy who was a teen, working in a local café as a kitchenhand. I had been told to not go to a wrestling match because it was too dangerous. So I got him to come along with me. It’s a pretty macho culture and fights often break out in the crowd.

Plus, there’s the sorcery.

Well yes there is! When I arrived at the wrestling match it was totally crazy. Like wild football fanatic stuff. There’s loud music, drumming, singing, dancing and people surfing on top of minibuses. I negotiated my way through levels of security with the help of the teenager I befriended and asked to help me. I didn’t have a press pass but I’ve learned that in a lot of countries, if your camera is big enough, people assume you’re meant to be there.

The Senegalese wrestlers are huge. They’ve been bench-pressing concrete slabs for ten years. They’re all posturing and flexing and trying to mess each other up with magic. They are throwing feathers and casting spells on each other.

The Senegalese wrestlers are huge. They’ve been bench-pressing concrete slabs for ten years. They’re all posturing and flexing and trying to mess each other up with magic. They are throwing feathers and casting spells on each other.

While I was in there, I ended up taking a shot that won me the Travel Photographer of the Year Award. I didn’t plan that, but that’s how it happened.

It sounds to me like the human taking the photo is far more important than the equipment?

There are a lot of people in photography who focus on the gear. That’s like focusing on the tools, rather than the trade. The craft is so much more than the equipment. There’s that clichéd comparison with chefs, but it rings true.

You wouldn’t eat at a restaurant and then ask the chef what pots and pans they use. Same with photography. The camera is just a piece of technology. The craft is way more important.

Follow Cam on Instagram: @camcope

Explore more of Cam's stunning photographs on his website.

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