Meet Holly, a freelance photographer from London. We talked to her about what she’s learned through photography, how she thinks of success, and how her faith impacts her work. Read the interview below:
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?
Born and bred in London, I come from a close-knit family who love to gather together and make a lot of noise. Growing up, I thought having 50 first cousins was the norm. Christmas lasted a full two weeks, with food, board games, PlayStation tournaments and banter throughout the entire Christmas break. Now that I’m older, I realise just how special that all was. Family is everything, and we try to make sure that togetherness carries on for the next generation.
How did you get started in photography?
My first real taste of photography happened in 2011. I stumbled on a small gathering of people protesting outside Tottenham Police Station. I knew very little about what was going on, and I didn’t know how to properly use the camera I owned, except as a point and shoot in auto settings. But I felt compelled to photograph what was happening.
Little did I know, that peaceful protest would spiral into the Tottenham riots and a series of riots and looting that spread across the country. But even as the crowd grew violent, and houses, cars, and shop fronts were being burnt down, I did the only think I felt I could do: document what was happening—with shaky hands. Those photos ended up being used by the BBC, The Guardian, Channel 4 and news groups across Europe. At the end of that summer, I went back to university to continue my degree in architecture, but the seed was planted. Photography slowly became my biggest distraction.
How would you describe your style?
Some days, it’s street photography, other days it doesn’t feel like that at all. I’m still finding the title, but, in essence, I’m a storyteller. I tell stories of places from a human perspective—in whatever style that ends up being.
Everyone has a story to tell—stories that can enlighten you, teach you something about that person, the world, and their culture, or just add a smile to your face.
What are your favourite environments to shoot in?
I like to photograph places that have not been too sanitised by the hands of gentrification. Nice light will draw me almost anywhere, but places where there’s real culture—old market stalls, and melting pots of diversity, bustling with people—are my favorite places to photograph. I like showing a London that isn’t shown on postcards or in movies. Talking to locals from all different areas of the city and learning about them, their trade, their struggles and quirks.
It’s as much about the social interaction as it is about capturing a portrait. I get to meet new people all the time, and most people aren’t boring. Everyone has a story to tell—stories that can enlighten you, teach you something about that person, the world, and their culture, or just add a smile to your face. That’s what I love the most about what I do: Building connections with people, whether those connections last as long as the conversation or remain a long while after. I like to tell stories of the places I’ve been through the people I meet.
Last year, you were involved in a project called ‘The Passport Express’, where you got to travel by train across America with a group of super talented people. How did that happen, and what was the experience like?
Working with Amtrak, Passion Passport took myself and 30 creatives on a cross-country rail trip from Washington DC all the way to San Francisco in two weeks. The trip was intense, fast-paced and, at times, disorientating. But, to date, it’s been my favourite travel experience. We made six stops in different states, where we met with local artist and hosted photo walks. But even on the train, we met amazing people, like professional disc golf players (who knew frisbee had its own sport?), Mennonites (not to be confused with Amish people) train conductors, grandparents, musicians, a scientist, and many other passengers, each with their own story to tell.
I walked on a glacier, swam in a creek, drank cocktails on private rooftops, roasted my first s’mores, danced in a honky-tonk bar, tasted real Southern food, and was the first black woman some locals had ever talked to. I met the loveliest Native Americans, stayed in real log cabins, and saw the most amazing things. All of those experiences will stay with me for life, but the greatest were the friendships I formed with The Passport Express group. Those friendships have changed my life and have been more encouraging than I could have ever imagined. We plan to meet up again this year, hopefully for ‘friendsgiving’ in November.
What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on? And what would be your dream project?
So far, my favourite project has been photographing for Vision Rescue, a grassroots charity based in Mumbai, India. I can’t divulge my dream project just yet, but my dream client is to work for Compassion International, an organisation I believe in and support.
Ministry doesn’t begin and end in the church. I don’t need to be a pastor or work in church to be the light and salt in my world.
Does your faith play a big part in what you do?
I have a friend who recently retired from professional boxing. Christians used to ask him why, as a Christian, he pursued boxing. His reply was that God called us to go into all the world and preach the gospel, and for him, his world was boxing. It took me this last two three years to realise that ministry doesn’t begin and end in the church. I don’t need to be a pastor or work in church to be the light and salt in my world.
To answer your question, faith plays a role in what I do because I try to include Jesus in every aspect of my life. Every time I have the opportunity to engage with someone, even if I don’t use the word ‘God’, I want people to leave encouraged and feel that they are important and worth loving. Through street photography, I often meet people who very quickly share stories of their past and present struggles. I get to offer prayer, a meal, or just a listening ear.
My faith also gives me boundaries on the type of work I involve myself with. Even if the project doesn’t compromise my faith or morals, I’m led by peace. Whenever I’ve not had peace about a job, it hasn’t happened, even if I’ve really wanted it to. That’s some Philippians 4:7 and Isaiah 48:17.
How would you define success?
My idea of success has changed rapidly since pursuing photography. There were big-name brands and companies I could only dream of working for, and very early on, those names were scratched off my list. Some jobs were exciting and others didn’t move me as much as I thought they would.
The way I discuss success now is like this: If you asked me who I aspire to be like, I would answer without hesitation, my grandmother, Esmie Cato. She didn’t have 10 mill in the bank, owned no Lamborghini, didn’t live in a mansion, and didn’t go on holiday every year. Yet I couldn’t describe her life as anything but successful. She was the strongest, most prayerful, wise woman I know. Her door was always open to everyone and there was always a big pot of food cooking that never seemed to run out whether she was cooking for six or 16. I witnessed a thousand people turn up to my grandmother’s funeral, till the church was beyond capacity. She touched many, many lives, and even now, people I’m unfamiliar with will stop and tell me how great a woman my grandmother was and how our family is a testament to the prayers and blessing she laid up for us.
My success won’t be based on how much is in my bank account when I’m gone, or how loudly people clapped for me while I am living and taking photos. It’s going to be found in how well I loved those around me, how much I allow compassion for people—not apathy—to move me. And how boldly I live for Jesus, not allowing myself to sleep on the gifts He’s given me, but using what He placed inside of me. In many ways, I believe we all start from a place of success, once you realise success isn’t the material stuff and accolades you collect on earth.
What advice would you give someone who is just starting out in photography?
Do it because you love it, because you’re curious, because it’s fun. Don’t do it as a fast-track to social media fame. That’s empty. Don’t worry about the gear—your eye is your biggest tool. And don’t talk yourself down. Photograph what ever makes you happy and piques your interests.