Behind the Lens with Vanessa K

Really good photography comes from an inner zeal

Photographer Vanessa Kauffmann was born in Durban, but for over 20 years has lived in Charleston, South Carolina. Her travels have taken her many places including back home to Africa, where her keen eye and experience always seem to capture the essence of an image.

What initiated your passion for your chosen career path of photography?

I have always been drawn to creative pursuits.  My first Olympus two megapixel camera was nothing less than a miracle - I had found my "thing".  I am also often personally overwhelmed by the beauty and diversity out there and it’s a way of saluting the creative genius that shaped our world.  For me that is God

“Triumphs are images that tell a story or communicate emotion. This is the photographer's goal no matter what the subject matter.”

What are some of the challenges and triumphs of your job as a photographer?

Firstly, you need the challenges in order to fully appreciate the triumphs.  Challenges usually take the form of circumstances outside your control, such as weather conditions.  You grow from challenges and learn to become innovative and more creative.  I usually have a vision for the image I want to capture, a predetermined mind picture if you will.  Inevitably this doesn't materialize, but sometimes what does emerge is something even better.  A successful image becomes more valuable to me personally if it was birthed from a challenging situation, and I often remind myself that "there's more than one way to skin a cat".

Triumphs are images that tell a story or communicate emotion.  This is the photographer's goal no matter what the subject matter.  If I'm photographing a person, the goal is to capture a part of the soul, through an expression, or gesture.   If it's a landscape, you want to feel the warmth of the sun or the foreboding threat of an approaching storm.  A photograph of a hotel room should communicate tranquility, comfort and rest.  You get the idea...

What personal attributes and skills do you think one needs to capture good photographs?

I think a good sense of timing and an ability to empathize.  You need to be able to think on your feet.  I love people, and I find that compassion and other emotions well up easily when photographing life as it happens.  Of course you also have to learn your craft and be proficient technically.  It also helps to be physically fit because sometimes the best and more unusual images are only found off the beaten track.

I also do quite a bit of aerial photography from a helicopter which I absolutely LOVE.  Nothing gets the adrenalin flowing quite like hanging out of a chopper with no doors while trying to compose a shot!  For that you need a very steady hand, good balance and common sense.

Your thoughts on social media and its effect on the travel industry? 

Technology has evolved to the point where electronic media has become the primary resource for information gathering of any kind.  I know I am always stirred when I read online travel blogs and I salivate over the accompanying images.  My bucket list gets longer all the time because even though I get to check off destinations, I am adding to them at a brisk pace. 

Why did you leave your South African home and what do you miss most about it?

My family and I left because of a business opportunity that came up in South Carolina. It was a difficult and very emotional decision, but we try to return every year to reconnect with family.  In addition to family, I just miss the beauty and diversity of Africa.  There's something inside me that resonates and says "Yes!" every time the plane touches down on African soil.  Sometimes I feel as though I am straddling two lives.

What has been your biggest lesson learned through travel? 

To appreciate and respect the different cultures and traditions of the people you encounter, and to realize that just because you are used to doing things a certain way doesn't mean to say that your way is any better than other ways of doing things.  That's the fun of traveling - expect things to be different.

What should a seasoned traveler never travel without?

A sense of humor, and a resolve not to take yourself too seriously.  A willingness to learn from everyone and from all situations - even missed flights!

What do you look for when choosing a new travel location to experience/photograph? 

Natural beauty (of course), perhaps special events that are very photo friendly, such as the annual hot air balloon festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Unusual phenomena such as the Northern Lights, huge waves, glaciers, volcanoes erupting.  Also, it’s fun to travel with other photographers, so I’ll sometimes join a random photography trip just for the experience.  Aside from the camaraderie, I find I learn most from watching other photographers.

When it comes to travel, what still remains on your personal bucket list?

Active volcanoes, Iceland, the wilder and more remote parts of the United Kingdom.  The Serengeti, and more of South Africa of course. I also want to go back to Israel and spend some time soaking in the land and the people.  That is a fascinating and quite unique part of the world.

What is your advice to aspiring photographers? 

First and foremost you need to be passionate about the creative process.  Really good photography comes from an inner zeal.  Get some help learning the basics, and then just go do it, and do it, and keep doing it.  I look back at some of my work and I'm surprised by what I've learned just by spending more time photographing, studying other photographers' work and investing in better equipment.  “Artistic license” also gives you the liberty to freely interpret your captured material.  Have fun!