Member Spotlight: Jaime Kowal

Jaime Kowal is a documentary, travel and lifestyle photographer based in Palm Springs and Los Angeles. She recently returned from an assignment in Botswana, Zambia and South Africa. ASMP-LA interviewed Jaime about the project. 

What was the assignment?

The assignment was a safari story for the travel section in Delicious Magazine, Australia’s largest food and wine publication.They wanted to do a high end, super luxe safari story in Botswana and Zambia which are traditionally known as must-see wildlife destinations. When we landed in Cape Town, we naturally shifted away from the wildlife and focused on an urban safari from the revived Victoria & Albert waterfront where the Zeitz MOCCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) has recently opened, to Woodstock’s hipster strip with its craft coffee roasters and artisan gin distilleries shoulder to shoulder with design boutiques, the colorful streets of the Malaysian Quarter Bo-Kaap, and the sandy beaches and picturesque wine-country beyond.

This is a great mix of travel, people, food and architecture. Tell us a little about your background that helped you land this job. 

One of the most important foundation pieces of my career was the time I spent working at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, back in 2000-2001. It was the very beginning of my career. I had just graduated from university and I got a job assisting at the workshops and that exposed me to a number of different photographers and a number of different styles and modalities. I was definitely most struck by the National Geographic and war photographers who shot in a documentary style.

I’ve been shooting for 18 years now. I went through many phases of exploration and specialization. I spent a lot of time in Vancouver photographing portraits. I also produced a lot of work for foundations and non-profits which helped me build my experience in storytelling.

 I think having had this long of a career and having had so many different experiences for so many different clients in different locations, I think it naturally brought me to this point where my eye can handle all of the different details for the story. My documentary approach drives my style, and in telling a travel story you have to show a multitude of different details to give a real sense of place including food, people, street style, architecture, interiors and markets…it’s almost like a collage That’s how I think of it. What are all the different pieces and how do I fit them together to provide the feeling of this place.

 Creatively how do you approach a shoot like this to ensure you can tell a cohesive story? How much was produced and setup in advance and how much did you show up and figure it out.

I always find room for spontaneity – that’s the nature of photography – that decisive moment. But so much of the trip is highly produced and scheduled just because of the logistics involved. We worked with a PR agency who put into place all of our transfers and our flights, the hotels and the food.

In South Africa, we had everything highly scheduled and we had a guide through the city, but in that case the destinations they were bringing us to and the things they thought we would be interested in weren’t actually quite on point for what we were hoping to see and cover. That was a bit tricky where we had to sort of maneuver a bit and negotiate with the itinerary to make sure we saw the things that we needed to see. Because ultimately at the end of the day you have two or three days in this place and you’re trying to capture all of these details and this whole story and you’re jet lagged … it’s a balance. It is highly produced, but we made some changes to the itinerary when we realized we weren’t moving in the direction we wanted to go and then also there was a little room when we were on the ground for me to [make changes]. I really had to assert myself  …  knowing it was my responsibility to bring back the images that I know the editors were expecting. There was a little bit of politics involved, a little logistics, a little bit of pivoting, but it all worked out really well.

What size crew did you work with?

I traveled with a writer named Shannon Harley from Delicious Magazine. It’s actually just the two of us which is great, partly because of the logistics involved. It’s so much with the flights and the hotels and the transfers and everything else, but also we really like to be nimble and be able to move quickly and adapt to the situation. Shannon and I work really well together that way. We originally met while on assignment but worked so well together we have started offering travel content that covers inspirational and aspirational destinations. We are so lucky to spend time in so many amazing locales and ultimately produce so much content, we realized we could distill our experiences into travel guides for a number of commercial and editorial clients. The driving principle of our offering is an ethos of slow travel, to provide a way for readers to have an intimate, authentic and sustainable experience through the paradigm of culture, from food and wine to design and creative arts.

What kind of gear did you take on this trip?

I’m really light. I have a really great bag. I try to fit everything in my backpack [The Camps Bay by Ona]. It’s been such an awesome bag and it really made all the difference in the world because of the way it fits and how easily I can grab all my equipment. Even though it was really heavy on my back, I wanted to be really mobile. I always carry two camera bodies [Canon 5D Mark III and L series lenses]. I’ve got my 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and my 2x extender. My double harddrives, backup harddrives. All the cords I need. My mini reflector for portraits. Some waterproof covers for lenses. Filter set. Batteries. Chargers. And my flashes. I’m pretty lean on my equipment. I’m not a super technical shooter. I don’t ever want to be distracted by my gear when I’m on an assignment because I’m so attuned to what’s happening in that moment and I want to be really present to what’s going on so I try to be as light as I can for that reason.

See more of Jaime’s work at jaimekowal.com or on Instagram @jaimekowal