Student Spotlight: Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson

Student spotlight chats with former Mango Lab students. This month we have a delightfully long talk with one-to-one student Nicky Dunnington-Jefferson. Her sprightly character has allowed Nicky to travel to and photograph some unusual locations including: the famed Galapagos Islands, old ruins in India and leopards in Tanzania. Not one for accepting defeat Nicky explains why photography is important for the memory, converting to digital and the joys of travel writing.

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What initiated your interest in photography?
I like to write about my travels — I always keep a diary — photography seems to be the necessary thing to back up one’s experiences. When I began to travel I had a very old-fashioned camera, but I always had a camera of a sort, and that’s how I began. It progressed from there until the stage I’m at presently. I believe travel, photography and writing all complement each other.

Was there ever a point where you were only writing when traveling?
As soon as I was able to get a piece published I wanted to use my own photographs, and a disaster happened on that particular occasion. I was in Nepal white water rafting and the camera equipment and my binoculars were in a ‘so-called’ watertight container. The camera and binoculars got wet. It was my first travel article when I was based in Hong Kong, so I had to borrow photographs to illustrate it.

What were you doing before photography?
I started off as a secretary. When I went overseas, I emigrated to Canada to work for Alcan — the aluminium company — my job was on two magazines. I was doing the secretarial part of it; then I thought maybe there is an opportunity to write something. I wrote a small article about indoor rifle shooting. Then I went to South Africa where I worked for a package designer and ran her office. From there I moved into a little bit of magazine work, and then I went into advertising. Not as a copywriter, but as a media buyer, which is buying space on television, magazine/newspaper and radio. I loved advertising. After that I landed up doing PR.

How did you come across The Mango Lab?
In 2010 I realised I needed to switch to digital photography. It was getting to the stage where magazines weren’t accepting anything other than digital images. I thought to myself I’ve got to take the plunge. I went into Chiswick Camera Centre, where I spoke to an associate Andy. I asked, ‘Andy, do you know anybody who could help?’ He said, ‘have a look at this flyer.’ I looked at the flyer and there was The Mango Lab and there was Julia. I made a telephone call and explained what I was about. She came over to me and we haven’t looked back since! Without her I couldn’t have coped with digital photography. It was completely alien to any way of my thinking until we sat down together. I was about to go on a trip to India in 2010, and it was the first time I took a digital camera with me. There wasn’t long for me to learn the basics. Six years later here we are.

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Over those six years what courses did you do with The Mango Lab?
One-to-one. Julia has come to me, and sometimes she’s been with me through all hours of the night and early morning. There was one time where she was with me until one o’clock in the morning before I went back to India or somewhere.

You also submit work to publications – what does that entail?
I am a freelance travel writer. It isn’t easy to get published, because major newspapers have their own contributors. To break in is difficult. I do quite a lot of stuff unpaid for a lot of publications I know. I take the pictures and write the articles. It’s just a question of trying. Whenever I travel I’m always thinking that there’s an article there. I don’t just go and look. I go with a notebook and a camera and a diary. I do my research beforehand. If there’s a path I want to go down it, and see what’s at the end, or who’s at the end.

What were the most enjoyable elements of the one-to-ones?
I think your tutor’s individual attention the whole time. I’m not the sort of person who enjoys being in a group. I travel usually by myself, unless I have to go in a group. The thought of being with a whole group of other people in a photographic situation trying to learn.— I have no self-confidence, and I think I will be way behind everybody. The benefit of one-to-one is having the undivided attention and patience. Julia’s confidence in me has been incredibly stimulating and confidence-boosting. I wouldn’t be where I’m at now without one-to-ones frankly. I can understand it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it was my answer.

How do you go about your photography and taking a picture?
If it’s a landscape or something stationary then I’ll give it quite a lot of thought. I try to position myself in the best position. However, a lot of the time, when I go on expeditions I have to make a quick decision. I think to myself, ‘should I be on aperture or should I be on shutter speed?’ If I’m shooting animals I will usually go to shutter speed. I have to quickly whizz it up if the animal is moving. It’s not the easiest. Each situation requires a different approach; sometimes you have to get a portrait of someone who doesn’t want their picture taken. I don’t like being defeated, which is a very selfish attitude, but it’s stood in me good stead.

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How often are you using your camera?
I probably don’t use it enough. Therefore when I go back to it I have to begin again. Once I’ve got going my camera almost becomes part of me. Once I’m on a trip or expedition, after a little bit of time the camera becomes familiar. Then I feel it’s my friend and not my enemy.

Is there anywhere in the world you would like to photograph?
There are a lot of places I would love to photograph, but I wouldn’t be able to because they’d be too cold or too high. One is the Antarctic, but I can’t do cold. People say you can buy all the gear, but I don’t want to be flunked up in all the stuff. I’d like to go to Bhutan, but it’s too high and I’m not terribly good at altitude these days.

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Can you name some places you’re quite proud to have photographed?
Fairly recently I went to the Galapagos. The boat had 16 people and I went with a mate. And I thought, ‘everybody takes pictures in the Galapagos’. I’m quite pleased with some of the photographs I got — there’s blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, frigate birds etc. Over the last couple of days I’ve been looking through my photo albums and found myself thinking I’m quite satisfied with one or two faces I got in India. In Tanzania I took some pictures of leopards, which aren’t too bad. Looking way back to when I used to take prints and slides – I went to Burma for the first time, when you could only go for seven days; some of the pictures I took then were not too bad.

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Are you a digital convert now?
I have to be. You have got to be able to send images quickly to publications. Julia has helped me a lot with editing, and without her I wouldn’t have had a clue. I’m quite excited about it. I can’t believe the things you can do with a photograph that looks absolutely appalling.

What’s going through your mind when you’re about to take a picture?
Is the camera steady? [laughs] Have I got the image I want in the frame properly? Is it looking like a proper photograph? Sometimes you haven’t got time to do that. It’s difficult with animals, especially if they’re moving. With scenery I try to do something a little bit different, but I’m not the most imaginative and I don’t have the creative ability of a lot of photographers.

Other than the technical skills you gained from photography, what else have you gained?
If I hadn’t taken photographs all my life, and with the traveling I’ve been lucky enough to do, where is your memory? Your memory is not going to store everything. Photographs bring back your experiences and they bring back people. It helps with the memory bank, and it pulls out what’s in the head, which sometimes doesn’t come out if you’re trying to remember. I don’t understand people who don’t take care of the pictures they take. My pictures go into photo albums — I have maybe 50! I find it very therapeutic to assemble the photo albums.

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Do you call yourself a photographer?
I call myself a travel writer. Do I call myself a photojournalist? I don’t know if my photography skills are good enough to call myself a photojournalist. But, that said, I like an editor to use my photographs with my text. So, I suppose yes I do. Most of the articles that have been published have got my pictures with them.

Are there any photographers whose style you particularly like?
The ones I am thinking of are wildlife photographers. There’s a chap called Paul Goldstein who works for Exodus. He leads photographic expeditions. He’s completely mad. He has a very good eye for wildlife photography. There’s another chap who I know who takes very good pictures called Andy Rouse – I’ve listened to him and have a book of his gorilla photographs — they are absolutely superb. Another one is Hugo van Lawick. He is a wildlife photographer who used to be married to Jane Goodall, of chimpanzee fame, and his photography skills are legendary.

Where do you see your photography going now?
I want more articles backed up with my photographers. It’s a hobby that gives me an opportunity to try to get into print, and I want to get into print because it gives me a huge amount of satisfaction.

What does photography give you that nothing else does?
I suppose it’s proof of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I’ve been very fortunate — I’ve travelled a lot and I’ve travelled to some quite different places. I’ve been to some very strange places, and if I haven’t taken pictures I wouldn’t be able to make my photo albums; and look and prove to myself that I did stand on top of that mountain, or I was looking at some old ruin, or I was in the heat of the jungle dripping with sweat, or there’s a picture of an anaconda. I never thought I’d see an anaconda in my life, so I picked up my camera. I think photography brings ones life into focus. It’s a reflection of the past that speaks to me from the pages of a photo album.

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