Holly Wilmeth is a 37-year-old travel and documentary photographer born in Guatemala and currently living in the US. She’s shot extensively in more than 50 countries and her work on ethnic cultures has brought her recognition as a famed photojournalist and documentary photographer. She’s been widely published in National Geographic Adventure, TIME Magazine, The New York Times, etc. Her project titled ‘Divine Nature’ (see the photos at the bottom of the post) represents the meeting of the divine spirit of femininity and nature in the form of animals and it deeply symbolic. Her images of tribes reveal an interconnectedness with nature where “eating a part of the animal, or wearing a part of the animal, or using the animal as a totem deeply permeates us with their special powers. We want to come back to that state of grace where we are aligned with nature as animals are in the right relationship with their environment.” This interview with Holly gives her a lot info and insight into her very diverse portfolio:
I was born in Guatemala City in 1977. It was an interesting time to be growing up in Guatemala. There was a civil war going on at the time, curfews, military controlling and patrolling the country and city. Although I was shielded from all that was going on, I knew that many people were not safe in my own country. It was only years later that I understood the magnitude of it all. I went to a private Austrian school in the city, was brought up trilingual, and lived very comfortably, learning to play the piano and taking horse riding lessons. When I was in University I became very interested in learning about Guatemala and the indigenous population I had grown up surrounded by. It was then that I also became aware at all the injustices within the system of my own country. I wanted to return to Guatemala and be part of a system that would encourage equality among its citizens, but that dream was quickly shattered as I realized how unsafe it was to return. Kidnappings were engulfing the country, from those with wealth, to even the poor that could barely put bread on their table.
I studied Political Science, German and Latin American Studies at University in the US. I also spent a year in Vienna studying at their Economics University and in Spain studying the influence of the European Politics on the America’s at the time of all the discoveries. I took a photo class my last year at college and I was hooked. I knew that this was what I was born to do. I had no idea how I would manage it, but when I got the chance I would figure it out. After University I went to Japan to teach for a couple of years. My focus had for such a long time been the America’s and those countries that had influences them, I felt this job in Japan would be a great opportunity for me to learn about the other side of the world, travel, and use this time as a sabbatical until I figured out what I really wanted to do. I did this for two years before returning to the US and finding a fabulous 3-month course in Portland, Maine that I had heard great things about. It is called SALT. This would be a program that would allow me to study photography, working together with those interested in radio pieces and writing. And so I slowly entered the world of photography. A world I had always wanted to belong to, ever since I was a child and I would sit down at my grandmothers and stare at National Geographic’s and dream of far away lands where women wore exotic pieces of jewelry and men hunted with spears and arrows.
It was in 2003 that I took my first documentary course at SALT. I walked into Aurora Photo Agency one afternoon to drop off something for SALT and discovered that there was something called a Photographers Agency (I was clueless at the time)… I asked for an internship there and that summer I spent hours staring at slides and learning to edit images, while still shooting my own stories. I then went on to intern for Robb Kendrick and learn more about the business of photography. I enjoyed every moment, everything was new to me, to learning to photograph and read light, then learning to shoot in color (I had started off in B&W), to learning what photographers were getting paid to what kind of jobs were available. After I had spent a year as an intern I lived in upstate NY where I started working as a photographer for local newspapers, and trying to get my foot in with different editors in NY. In January 2004 I went to Haiti and it was from then on that I really started to work and have never stopped. I tried being a journalist for a few years, going off to where the news was hot, where things were happening. But my heart was not in it the way I had loved spending time on my documentary stories I’d worked on in Maine. So I started shooting stories in Guatemala that I loved and spending a lot of time back home and getting to know my people through a lens. These stories I then would sell to different magazines that were interested in the pieces. Pieces that I really had enjoyed working on and spent time working on.
and what equipment Photography has meant telling stories I wanted others to be aware of and found interesting or important to tell. Putting myself in the shoes of those I was photographing and understanding their world, how they saw it. Through either the work they were doing, what they were going through, I was completely dedicated to the honesty of true story telling through the tool of a camera. My subjects tended to be the indigenous communities in Guatemala, and later on as I travelled stories I found to be incredibly interesting, like in Bhutan, the concept of their gross national product being measured by happiness and what this meant. My photography career started off by working editorial pieces for magazines all over the world and for newspapers, to then moving on to more commercial work and at this stage in my life also shooting weddings and doing my own personal projects, which are more fine art photography.
I shoot most everything with a digital camera Canon 5D Mark III and use an assortment of lenses but my favorite being my 35mm. I use film camera’s like my Hasselblad or other camera’s for personal projects where I have more time and enjoy the slowness that film brings to the scene. I’m not as in a hurry as I might be if I’m shooting a piece for a client. With film I get to play again. I play with film photography later on in the printing, for example learning to gold leaf prints, etc. In my digital workflow though I am pretty simple in that I use Photoshop, as I would work on a print in the darkroom. I use curves for contrast and might de-saturate images a little. I don’t actually know how to do anything else and have never been interested in that aspect of Photoshop except for its basic tools of contrast and brightening or darkening an image.
I love early morning light and afternoon light. You can’t beat that for perfect light. Lately though now that I am a mother, morning light is not something I see very often. I actually have learned that light can be at any time of day. But most of my images are shot late in the afternoon, at that magical hour and when the light in the sky is that perfect blue before it gets black. I also love the shade for portraiture. I don’t use flash or lighting, everything I shoot is done with available light. Learning to work with the light we are faced with is such an important tool. I have to say that world cultures, natives, indigenous populations, I love photographing these people. I should have studied anthropology as a student, because I love learning about rituals, traditional, differences between different cultures.
Well, as a photographer every single job I got was such a glorious moment, I was so happy to have someone want to hire me to take photos. I was always so excited, giddy, and took every opportunity very seriously. I was lucky that I always had editors that welcomed my images, they were sometimes not what they were expecting for a newspaper, but they liked the image so much they would publish them. Recently I had a personal series of images I have been working on be featured in PROOF, National Geographic’s on-line blog. It’s work that is very different to what they normally publish; it’s more artistic and plays with symbolism. I was so very honored to have my work featured there. I also did a recent commercial job for Pfizer. They hired me to shoot along with their video crew, and it was a fabulous experience to work with a team that aimed for absolute perfection in their work and were creative and innovative.
I’m not sure exactly what my future plans are at this particular moment. I’m still presently working on my ‘Divine Nature’ series of images and I hope to be able to work with some more animal conservation and rehabilitation centers. I just became a mother for the first time six months ago, so I am excited to see where my photography will take me as a new chapter of my life unfolds. What keeps me motivated is the excitement of a new challenge, will it work, how can I work on this story, is it interesting, how can I be creative and shoot differently?
My advice for anyone setting out to be a photographer is to have high expectations of one self. To make a list of the places you would love your work one day to be featured in, or what you would like your work to do for others that see it. If you get it published or not is not the point, the point is maintaining your goal and reminding yourself and having a path that allows you to follow your journey. I have several photographers whose work I absolutely love and respect some that immediately come to mind are Luis Gonzales Palma and Graciela Iturbide.