Jody MacDonald: Exploring the Possibilities of the World

An Interview with Adventure Sports & Documentary Photographer

Bare Trees, Photography by Jody MacDonald

Jody MacDonald learned to appreciate remote landscapes and foreign cultures early in her life. A childhood spent in Saudi Arabia has been a big help. So, now when she paraglides over a forgotten piece of land or holds a tête–à–tête with a little-known soul in some remote corner of the globe, she feels completely at home.

The photographer traverses the land, delves deep into the water and darts into the cool gale for locating and capturing that elusive photographic moment that seems wonderfully ‘perfect’. But being the purist that she is, it is extremely difficult for her to be satisfied with her craft.

Jody, in order to satisfy her thirst for art and adventure, conceived The Best Odyssey in 2006. She and her partner, Gavin McClurg, travelled across the world. Together they have sailed, surfed or gone spearfishing on the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Needless to say, these wild expeditions make Jody blissfully happy. For Jody, it could aptly be said that, ‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature.’

You spent few years of your early childhood in Saudi Arabia before moving to US. How did the changing patterns of geography and culture affect your impressionable mind at such a young age? How did the environment at home help nurturing your talent and the free spirit that you grew up to be?

Growing up in Saudi Arabia was a powerfully positive experience. Without knowing it at the time it made me much more compassionate and curious about different cultures. It definitely made an impression on me. The exotic geography and culture (which at the time didn’t seem ‘odd’ in any way – it was just what it was) opened my mind and imagination to what might be possible in the world. It gave me the desire to explore and experience other destinations and cultures, to realize how amazing this planet is and to see and do as much as I can.

When did you first feel inclined to explore the world of photography? Did your degree in Outdoor Recreations come in handy for your professional pursuits?

For as long as I can remember I have been interested in art and the outdoors. I always gravitated towards art and physical education classes in school. In University I started taking photography classes and fell in love with it immediately. I started by taking photos on my climbing trips and it became a perfect marriage of my passions.

How does the adventurous self of yours complement the visual artist in you?

My drive for adventure and exploration complements my art in so many ways. I feel an overwhelming urge to have as many adventures as I can and try to capture them photographically. To not only share these experiences with others but to hopefully inspire them to get out there – dream big and experience life, whatever the dream may be.

Paragliding, Photography by Jody MacDonlad

Flight has always been a human fascination and you taste the joys of flight over and over again. As you soar above like a bird what new perspective do you gain of the landscape beneath? How as a photographer do you cherish those spontaneous moments when you freeze on a frame of great intensity and view nature in its pristine form?

I think you’ve stated it beautifully; flying is getting a bird’s eye perspective, and doing it without a motor is as close as we can get to being a bird. It’s a view that very few get to see – the awe and wonder of the landscape – it is not possible for you to feel from the ground. It’s a perspective that you can only achieve by doing it. A powerful and unique way to see the world and I’ve yet to find a more challenging environment to shoot. Both you and your subjects are moving around, sometimes violently, at high altitudes, in very cold temperature. It’s hard enough to fly a paraglider. But trying to fly one with both hands off the brakes and an expensive camera in the hand is a completely different level of challenge.

Baobab Trees, Photography by Jody MacDonlad
Baobab Trees

How did Africa reveal itself to you as you have observed its many colours in Madagascar, Mozambique or Morocco camera in hand?

For me, Africa is a dream place to photograph. It’s both austere and authentic… like travelling back in time. I love that because I feel like I can get a glimpse into a different time and place. There is a certain magic in that, one which I don’t see or feel very often. To blend that with the colours and light, which you can only experience in the desert, creates an incredible combination. Everywhere you look a story waits for you; special moments always in the happening. You get the sense when you are photographing something in Africa that you’re freezing a time and place that will never be seen like that again.

Even while you are engaged in adventure sports photography how do you manage to weave a narrative for the sake of visual storytelling? How remarkable an experience is it when you work with people like Jamie Mitchell?

Jamie Mitchell surfing, Photography by Jody MacDonlad
Jamie Mitchell

I think it’s the story that makes the photographs compelling and it’s something that’s not often found in adventure sports photography. Like any photojournalist, I try to get a background on the athlete or sport and spend time with him or her to get a feel for the likes and dislikes. It is about capturing the essence of the adventure that we are having together. When you work with someone like Jamie Mitchell they inspire you to do them justice, to capture how incredible their talent is. I love it because their talent forces me to raise my own bar. Professionals like Jamie never stop; their passion is so complete, so all-consuming that they make you better just by being around because it emanates from them. You become a team and when it works it is very special.

Do you consider the many hues of India to be a sumptuous delight for your photographic senses? Tell us of the relationship between human being and wildlife as you have closely observed through your project ‘Last of His Kind’.

India holds a very special place in my heart. There is no place elsewhere in the world that may boast of such diversity. What stands out for me as a photographer are the colours and the INTENSITY of the place. From the lonely majestic Himalayas to the overwhelming cities, there is beauty everywhere; at times so powerful it is hard to breathe.

Spending time with Rajan (the elephant) and his mahout (caretaker) was a defining moment in my career. It was incredible to witness this bond between such an intelligent animal and his caretaker, much like a mother and child. Because elephants are so smart, their interactions with human being involve much emotion and thought. You could feel how powerful their relationship is to one another and unlike anything I have ever experienced between an animal and a human being. Of course, Rajan’s history makes this camaraderie even deeper. This beautiful creature was forced into hard manual labour for so many years and now has a simple, loving relationship with his mahout. It is a beautiful ending to a sad story.

Rajan, the elephant swiming, Photography by Jody MacDonlad

Ocean has been a recurrent feature in many of your projects. How the ebb and flow of waves taught you to embrace the marvels of life that otherwise may have eluded you?

I lived at sea for almost 10 years. Sailing and the ocean has become a vehicle of exploration for me. It allows me to discover places in such a way that very few can. The ocean is such a wonder, there are marvels in the calmness and in the storm and above and below the water that is like the horizon – they never stop. There are so many mysteries and using a sailboat to explore not only the ocean but other landscapes perpetually keeps me in awe… like a child discovering something for the first time. It encourages me to dream big and inspires me to keep exploring. That there is so much out there to see, experience, photograph and share.

A Boat, Photography by Jody MacDonlad

How interesting is the unveiling of the nature that dwells within human heart through your portrait / figurative photography?

Faces are sometimes a window into someone’s soul. They can be so revealing, but of course, it takes time. It is really an art and like all photography, you can never really have it mastered. But I love how the passage of time shows on a face, or through a small smile and twinkle of an eye, a flow of information passes. If I can capture a tiny bit of this communication it is very rewarding.

You are a globetrotter. How learning about people and places help enrich yourself? What do you cherish exploring most as you plan your next trip?

Travel changes you. It opens your eyes in so many ways. When you see a man walking 20 km a day to feed his family or how climate change is sinking islands and relocating villages that have been there for thousands of years… it gives you perspective – perspective on my own life and the life of others’. It humbles you in the best and most profound ways. But while you see the hardship you also see the beauty and it is this juxtaposition that I cherish and look forward to when I plan my next adventure because it is when I get the most out of it… personally and photographically. It is what feeds my soul.

A man walking past a door, Photography by Jody MacDonlad
Portrait of Jody MacDonald

Don’t be surprised

To learn that Jody’s favourite colour is turquoise. For that is the colour that often soothes her eyes when seen from up above while paragliding or playfully splashing the ocean water over her face while sailing. The varied contours of Indonesia pique her interest and she considers it to be her favourite most travelling destination. Jody finds the delicious cuisine of India irresistible. Gregory David Roberts’s 2003 bestseller, Shantaram, intrigues her every time she turns over the pages of the book.

Find more of her work at her website.

Image Courtesy: Jody MacDonald