Serena Ho - Australia
1. Serena, currently you`re travelling all around the world and see several places that usually could be enough for a whole life. Was there any initial impulse for living that kind of life? When did you decide that this would be the right way for you?
Travel is my way of life and it is also a big portion of my work. When people think about travel, they generally think of it as a holiday. For me, it’s not. It’s actually a part of what I do to earn a living and although I enjoy it for the most part, it’s not always fun and games.
As for choosing this way of life… the world is large and there is so much more than the small radius that makes up our comfort zone. I have an instinct to be out in the world. There is nothing more claustrophobic to me than the monotony of day to day life and being stuck in one place. I know that it’s largely due to having a different mindset as a result of the things that I have experienced. So I guess the outcome is that I don’t want the things that might be normal to have. I have no desire to be boxed in and to live my life the way that societal norms dictate. I live like I am running out of time. I do things this way because I’ll only have the chance to live once, so it is important to me that I make the most of my time on Earth. I believe in doing what you want to do and being who you want to be. There is no right or wrong way. I just move forward because that’s the only place to go. It suits me at this point in time.
We each have a story to tell that is different. Mine is a story that allows me now to be free and to search for something that is by no means tangible. Travel is just a tool that I use to tell this story. The story itself is about independence, confronting fear, finding strength from within, embracing challenges, making my own future and turning my own dreams into reality. Nobody is in control of me but me. I take every opportunity that comes to improve upon myself and to live my life to the fullest.
2. On your posts you show us much fun and joie de vivre. What are you missing most when you’re travelling? Are there also sad times, doubts or anxieties about the future?
When I travel, the thing that I miss most is having a place that I can call mine; a place where I can just drop everything and flop onto the couch, perhaps not re-emerging for several days. Fun and joy is an outward expression of how I feel within, but there is also much enjoyment to be had in sitting alone in quietude with a good book and a mug of tea. When I am overseas, I also tend to miss my friends and my family, as well as familiar foods and the culture that I am used to. Australian culture is very unique. It is laid-back and comfortable. There is nothing quite like it in the world. It definitely makes up a large part of my homesickness when I am out and about.
In relation to the future.. I make it a point to have as much fun as I can but there is also a lot of melancholy, as there always has been, which is personal and doesn’t require any further explanation here. When you are out there in the world, it is natural to doubt yourself and to have anxieties. Where will your next job come from? How will you survive? Where is the path, actually? Are you doing the right thing?
3. How did you find your way into photography? What does photography mean for you?
Photography has always been a part of my life. I first picked up a camera when I was 6 years old. I then saved up and bought my first digital SLR when I was 15. At the age of 20, I began working as a music photographer, while I went to university and eventually juggled a career as a Mental Health professional. So during the day, I worked on a Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team, then at night I would tour with bands and photograph both front and backstage.
After a decade, I felt that I had gotten everything I could from music photography (I had always said that I would quit once I’d photographed my childhood idol, Shirley Manson), so I left the profession, turning to landscape photography and food journalism instead. This coincided with feeling frustrated by nepotism within my clinical workplace, as well as the bureaucratic and self-imploding nature of the psychiatric system in Australia. So after 12 years, I eventually left Mental Health to concentrate solely on photography instead.
Having said that, I have worked in many different roles during my lifetime, from waitressing and acting to photojournalism and being a food critic. I have been a nurse, I have seen people at their most intimate and worst, I have assessed and treated people with psychiatric problems within the criminal justice system – some whose crimes are so shocking that you wonder how you can even provide any empathy – and I regret none of the opportunities that have arisen during my walk on this path. It just got to the point where I couldn’t continue doing all of the things that I had done up until then. I saw how it had affected some of my older colleagues and I didn’t want to turn out like them. Some of these people didn’t even realise that they were traumatised or desensitised. The way that they spoke, I felt like some of them had no empathy left and even less of a clue of what else was out there besides this humdrum routine they had undertaken for the past 30 or 40 years.
When I really allowed myself to think deeply about all of this, I realised that I didn’t want any of it. I wasn’t able to find what I was looking for within it. I was just doing things, day to day, like a cogwheel in life, making this society tick around and around. Who dictated that this is how we should live? Have you ever stopped to think about why we even do things this way? Standing in the middle of a maximum security prison at midnight, surrounded by a team of prison guards as they escorted me from cell to cell to assess inmates who had threatened to self-harm or end their lives, I realised that as humans, we have created a society that makes very little sense. I felt like I was the one who had been imprisoned, sentenced to look after these broken souls – a strange world within a world – keeping them alive but away from everyone else, until some moment in the future when they’re able to be released because someone else out there decided that a certain amount of time might change things.
Who are we to decide any of this? None of it makes sense to me. So for me, photography is how I tell my story of how I feel about this world and what I am looking for within it. It is how I connect with the world around me in a meaningful way, without having to speak. This also reflects within the things that I enjoy. For example, when I look at other people’s art and other people’s photography, or when I pick up a piece of literary work, I am actively on the search for absurdity. I enjoy conceptualism, surrealism, and everything that doesn’t quite make sense or which moves me out of my comfort zone into a topsy turvy state of mind.
4. What do you enjoy more: To bring stunning pictures from your trips or to make an outstanding experience?
My travels are not about bringing home stunning pictures or having an outstanding experience. They’re also not about collecting memories of what I did in places. I am not a butterfly collector and I do not photograph for the sake of photography. When I travel, I don’t necessarily look for things to photograph. I am just there, in the moment, living and breathing, looking for something. The thing that I enjoy about the process of looking for this thing is being alive. So when I finally do take a photo, it is about my progress in my search, or a storyline that I am telling about the search itself, and there is so much meaning behind it that I am actually dumbfounded that someone might try to take that away from me by going to the same place and replicating it. For them, it’s just a location and a photo. For me, it’s like they are seeing something inside me and taking it without understanding what that means… almost like stealing somebody’s handwritten manuscript halfway through and bastardising it by turning a beautiful story into a blockbuster film that flops at the box office. Nobody can understand what you are searching for. I don’t even know what I’m searching for. I sometimes wonder whether I will recognise it when I find it.
5. Social networking seems to be an important part of your life. Please describe the significance of the social network for you and your work.
Well, my work consists of photography, tour guiding, editing, writing and being a social media manager, so yes it is very important in that aspect.
In my own life, social media is not important at all. It is just another means of getting my work out there. If anything, I use social media as a form of networking, to keep connected with other photographers within the online community. What people tend to forget is that there are artists who aren’t online, communities that don’t involve the use of a computer, as well as a multitude of “alternative” ways to get your work seen. I say alternative, but really, it is social media that should be the flipside. Social media is hardly the way of the future. I actually think that it will collapse in time.
6. You love wild places all around the world with a tendency to colder regions. Is there any place that you love most? Why does all the traveling works better for you than focusing on just one place?
Yes, I do love the winter most! My favourite winter location is in the deep north of the Arctic. It could be anywhere – Greenland, Norway, Finnish Lapland – I am happy as long as there are incredible mounds of snow, mountains, heavy snow-laden trees and harsh freezing temperatures. I love the soft light that you will find in these regions, as it is poetic and befitting of the story that I have told so far and which I will continue to expand upon as my life progresses.
As for the latter part of your question – I actually travel so that I can focus on a particular place for a story. For example, my ‘Second World : Zweite Welt’ series involved 3 months spent in Bavaria, entirely for the purpose of documenting winter in this area. This is the same for both of my Lapland series. In fact, it’s the same for each of my series, in every place that I have visited in the world. It may seem as though I am constantly on the move but I’m really not. There is just no logicality to where I will travel to next. I will go wherever my heart and my path take me.
7. Where do you find inspiration? Which artists have been the greatest source of inspiration for you?
I find inspiration within the world around us and my inner experiences within myself. I am also influenced by interpersonal relationships and the emotions that arise from these.
As for my photography and art – I’m not really influenced by any artists as such. I have artists whom I admire and whose work I like to look at, but they don’t influence my own artwork in any way. I just enjoy what they do.
I also enjoy the writing of Margaret Atwood, the poetic lyricism of The Lucksmiths, and the heart-felt ballads of yesteryear. They don’t make music like that these days.
8. In which situation are you able to find your most inner peace? Do you have any golden key for this state of mind?
My story is about standing on the land's edge with no one else around, windblown with the sweet relief of a life and a place in this vast expanse. These are the moments when I am able to feel somewhat meaningful. As for inner peace – that’s quite subjective. What is your definition of it? I don’t have inner peace. I am restless. I won’t rest until I have done everything that I’ve set out to do and found that intangible thing that I’m looking for. We are all on our own paths, experiencing our own stories. There is no key for anyone’s state of mind. You need to find your own peace, however that’s defined.
9. Have you ever been scared when you spent time in the wild places that you love so much?
Yes, definitely… but why are people always wanting to hear the disaster stories? There was one time that I was trekking in extremely deep snow, when I stumbled into a tree well. A tree well is an area of loose snow around the trunk of a tree which has been enveloped in deep snow. These can be very dangerous when you fall in, as you can become trapped and unable to free yourself, leading to death by immersion in snow… particularly if you fall in head first. I fell in sideways and the more I moved, the deeper I sank. I was not able to free myself for quite some time. Luckily for me, there was another hiker following in my tracks, who was able to give me a hand and lift me out. Prior to that, I had actually thought that there was a possibility I might die. But the scariest moments aren’t always in the wilderness. The scariest moments are when you feel like you’re alone and you haven’t connected with anyone or anything. They’re the moments when you think you haven’t done anything with your life and that everything has amounted to nothing.
10. Final Question: This project is called "Vision and life". What do the terms "vision" and "life" mean for you, Serena?
For me, vision and life is about knowing vaguely what you want in your short time on Earth and working towards it. Even if you have no idea what you’re doing or what the bigger picture is. You get one chance, so don’t waste it wondering what you could possibly do or how you’re going to get there. Just go for it. Every experience enriches us, so take it all as it comes. You might not have the chance to do it again.