If only there was a job out there that paid you to travel around the world and snap some pics while you’re at it. It would be the dream, right? Well, Brisbane’s own, Karmen Harley, is living this exact dream.
With her images capturing the essence of natural beauty and stirring even the most resilient travel bugs, she has managed to explore some of the world’s exquisite places all the while being paid for it. From studying medicine to snapping memories through a lens, this is how Karmen is living the dream. Plus, she’s provided a little insight into what really happens behind the scenes – is it really all fun and games? Sometimes yes, sometimes it’s lions, tigers and bears – literally.
Were you a traveller first, photographer second? How did it all play out?
I was a photographer well before I started travelling. In fact, I was studying Biomedical Science but by the end of my first year at Uni, I realised that becoming a doctor or a researcher just wasn’t going to be my path, I needed more creativity in my life. So, I left and started working in a commercial photographic lab in Brisbane and that kicked off what has so far been a 20 year career in photography.
How did you get started as a travel photographer?
Well I had my own wedding and portrait photography business but my brother had moved overseas and sent me a CD of photos from the places he had been and that was it – I didn’t think twice I had to see these places for myself. I sold everything I owned, except my camera and bought a backpack.
Initially I got a position working as a Photography Manager on cruise ships in Barbados. My intention was to stay for six months and then come home but I ended up travelling throughout the Caribbean, South America, Europe and the Baltics for six years. After that, it got to the point where I felt it was time to come home to Australia to be closer to my family but I wasn’t quite ready to give up the travel side of things. So now I base myself from here while I still continue work in travel photography.
What’s been the wildest destination you’ve been to?
Without a doubt it was Kenya, for so many reasons. The wildlife obviously is a pretty big one. We (my husband and I) rented a beat up old Landrover with a rooftop tent and drove through some pretty remote areas in Kenya and Tanzania (we broke down in quite a few of them, too).
The sense of awe we would get when we were driving around and look across to see giraffes running alongside us in the wild, no other cars or people about, just us and them, it was thrilling. There were so many wow moments where we couldn’t believe we were actually witnessing wildlife like that outside of a zoo. We had elephants brushing past our tent while we were trying to sleep (FYI, it’s not easy to sleep when there are elephants outside your tent), baboons sneaking up on us, zebra’s using our car as a scratching post and watching lionesses hunt and feed their cubs. I absolutely love camping and spending time in nature but camping in Africa really takes it to the next level. It’s raw, it’s wild and it’s unforgettable.
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What about your all-time favourite?
I get asked this question a lot and it is THE hardest question I’ve ever tried to answer. So far, it’s probably been either Myanmar or Patagonia but they’re both so different. If I absolutely had to pick one, I think I would say Myanmar. It’s like stepping back in time to an ancient world. Everything from crumbling pagodas and vine-covered temples to glittering stupas covered in gold leaf. The people are kind and humble, the food is full of flavour and the sunrises are magnificent. It’s soul-enriching.
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Has there been a particular moment during your work and travels that stays with you now?
Drifting over Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and the Nile River in a hot air balloon is something I will never forget. It’s a breathtaking experience; silently floating above the landscape as the sun lights up the burial grounds of the great pharaohs of Ancient Egypt below. Since that moment, I have become fascinated with hot air balloons.
What’s your favourite moment you’ve caught through your camera lens?
It’s actually one close to home. We were out in my brother’s boat in Moreton Bay when a humpback whale approached us and followed us for most of the afternoon. It would swim under our boat or alongside to watch us. I hadn’t managed to take any great photos at that point and the sun was getting lower so we had think about heading back home. We started up the motor to leave and as we did, the whale gave one final dive before it disappeared out of sight and this is the moment I captured. We are so lucky to have this in our own backyard.
Describe to us your usual work-trips – how is work and play balanced?
Every trip is varied. It could mean travelling interstate for a commercial shoot, heading overseas to document a new tour or photographing hotels and resorts. I also sell limited edition, fine art prints so I’m always travelling to new locations to add to my online shop.
When I’m shooting for others, it tends to be more mentally challenging because I need to stick to a brief and bring someone else’s vision to life, whereas the shoots that I do for myself are usually more physically challenging because I love a little bit of adventure but I think I often underestimate what I’m getting myself into!
Either way, I’m always trying to capture that elusive ‘perfect shot’ but I guess I balance it out by taking the time to immerse myself in the local culture and learn about the people even if I’m only there for a short period of time.
In your words, what makes a captivating image?
For me personally, it’s all about capturing and harnessing natural light. Every place I have ever visited has its own special energy, its own little bit of magic and if you can capture that, you can use it to tell the story of that place and share its magic.
Generally speaking, what do you prefer: portrait imagery or landscape?
Initially I started out shooting weddings and portraits and I loved it. I was young and I was a bit introverted so I really loved that photography gave me a way to connect with the people I was photographing. Over time though, I have shifted towards landscape photography. When I’m shooting landscapes, it’s about two things; the first is about me creating a relationship with nature by connecting with the environment around me, the second is about me sharing the beauty of that place and telling its story to a greater audience. I want everyone to be able to fall in love with and experience these beautiful places through my imagery.
So although I still have a great love for portraiture, my preference would have to be landscape photography because it gives me the opportunity to connect with nature and to a much wider world around me.
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How do you ease human subjects into photographing so naturally and capturing candidacy?
Body language. I have a large camera and it can be quite daunting having it pointed at you so I always try to spend a little time connecting with the person first. Quite often my subjects don’t speak English or it’s not their first language so body language is hugely important. Simple gestures like making eye contact and smiling can go a long way to putting someone at ease within seconds. Whenever I can, I put aside my camera and try to learn a little bit about them before I start shooting. I try to make my presence as diminutive as possible, if that makes any sense? When I’m in someone else’s space, I try to be very respectful of that and the focus should never be on me, or my camera.
Have you had any dicey moments while on the road?
We had a few dicey moments on our camping trip through Kenya and Tanzania. The worst one would have been when we hit a rut, lost control and crashed our car into a tree in Tanzania. Luckily we weren’t seriously injured (the car was less fortunate). It delayed our trip a little and cost us a lot of money but at the end of the day, we were ok. You need to be able to take the good with the bad when you’re travelling. Not everything goes to plan and that’s ok.
Have you ever said no to a destination/offer?
Haha! No, never.
What would you say are must-visit destinations?
Oh so many! Uluru, Paris, Budapest, the Norwegian Fjords, Iceland, literally anywhere in the Italian countryside and of course Patagonia and Myanmar, two favourites of mine.
Which has been your most photogenic destination?
Ooooh! That’s a tough one but I think maybe Iceland. Wherever you go, there are grand, majestic waterfalls, imposing cliffs, huge glaciers or sprawling vistas of an ancient, untouched landscape. It’s so hard to put into words but the raw beauty of it leaves you feeling quite humbled.
And the light! I was there in summer so it was effectively light 24 hours a day. Sunset to sunrise would meld into one and last for about five to six hours so I would be out shooting waterfalls at midnight, which meant I got very little sleep. But it was worth it to capture such a spectacular landscape.
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Any places you wouldn’t bother returning to, or can’t wait to go back to?
I probably wouldn’t go back to Mount Everest Base Camp again, not because I couldn’t be bothered but I did it solo (with a guide) and it really pushed my body to its absolute limits both physically and mentally. In saying that though, if someone said “Hey Karmen, want to go to Mount Everest Base Camp with me?” I’d probably still say yes.
Somewhere I would really like to go back to are the Ionian Islands in Greece. I spent a week there learning how to sail on a 35-foot yacht and it was glorious. During the day we would swim, sail and snorkel around the islands or visit deserted beaches. Then, at night we would stop in to eat and drink at a local taverna or a small family restaurant. Seriously, what more could you want in life?
What’s next on your bucketlist?
Morocco, it’s a photographer’s paradise. In fact, that’s where I’m running my first ever Photography Retreat later this year and I’m so excited about it! We’re going to be visiting markets, learning new culinary skills, camping in the desert and practising yoga as well as creating beautiful, bold photography and art all while hanging out with a pretty cool bunch of women.
With all that travelling, you’re a pro! Any travel hacks to share?
I always keep a shower cap from a hotel room in my camera bag. I use it to keep my camera dry in case it rains and it takes up no space at all.I pack a lightweight fold up duffel bag so I don’t have to worry about running out of room when I buy souvenirs (just excess baggage if it’s heavy, oops!). I have a great travel power adapter that has two USB ports and will plug into any country’s power outlet as well as take type of plug. This is actually my most valued travel item.
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