Social Effects — Holly-Marie Cato
Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Holly-Marie Cato
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Holly-Marie Cato
Social Effects is a podcast hosted by Edward Barnieh, or as many people know him, EdwardKB. Social Effects dives deep into the world of social media with transparency and in search of what’s lasting in an ever-changing atmosphere.
The effect of social media has had an undeniable impact on our lives, and these conversations allow us to find out more about the background of some of social media’s most prolific creatives, who Edward’s fortunate to call friends, their approach to the craft, and what keeps them up at night.
In this second episode of Social Effects, Edward spoke with London based photographer, filmmaker, all-around visual content creator and storyteller extraordinaire, Holly-Marie Cato. The two talk through how Holly got started in photography by being at arguably the wrong place at the right time (the 2011 Tottenham riots in England with a point and shoot) and has reached a point where she can make powerful choices as to when is the right time for her to bring her camera to the right place.
I just remember one of my friends saying to me, “You know you can be a photographer. If you do it you’ll be really good.” At the time I didn’t even have a camera but all you need is that one person to believe in you and to speak the things that you know you felt but weren’t bold enough to say it.
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Edward: I’m here today with Holly-Marie Cato, she’s an amazing photographer based in London. We’re going to talk to her today about street photography in London, how she got started, the current state of street photography—I’m sure you have a lot to say about that. And the little things relating to both the female and black experience of being a photographer, especially maybe a travel photographer around the world, how you are perceived.
Holly: Sounds great. Hi!
Edward: If you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in the photography game?
Holly: Yeah, I mean I have a degree in architecture. I’m not officially an architect and, yeah, that was the plan. I think I wanted to be an architect since I was 7, but I think I always liked photography, it was definitely a hobby. I wasn’t any good at it but I certainly enjoyed it. It wasn’t until… I can’t even remember the year now—when were the Tottenham riots? 2013?
Holly: 2011. Yeah, wow. I kind of found myself in the middle of that and I was there before it turned into the riots. I was there when it was still a protest and it was just by chance. I was taking backstage photography with a little point and shoot that I didn’t really know how to use. It was the summer, I was back in London from uni so just one summer and there was a protest happening outside. I was taking pictures inside a theatre, came outside and was like, “What’s this?”
I was the only one with a camera so I started taking pictures, people were happy I was taking pictures because they thought it was important. It was just locals in the area and I had heard that a guy had been killed by the police and the family was never informed, I think they said he was armed but he wasn’t and then it was just the whole injustice of that. People came out and were protesting and I was taking pictures and then the protests just grew and grew to the point that it was maybe 30 or 50 people and then it turned into 60, then it turns into 100 and before you knew it, the whole of Tottenham High Road which is a big busy road, but the part where the police station was—this is in London, North London—got shut down because of people protesting.
It turned out that via social media it just gained traction and people we saying, “Come down, come down, show support.” I was unaware and to be honest it was a peaceful protest, but the family eventually left. Come the evening time, the sun had gone down, the family and friends and the people that were protesting actually did leave and another wave of people were there and they just weren’t using the same approach because at the end of the day their voices weren’t heard. The police didn’t even come out of the police station to talk to the family who were grieving the death of their family member. That’s not me making excuses, that’s just me saying that this is what happened from my eyes and my knowledge, but it just turned into something else and I was still taking pictures.
Edward: You not being a photographer at that time, what motivated you to stay when things got—or may have looked like they were about to get—violent?
Holly: Here’s the thing. I was still taking pictures inside this event. It was like backstage photography of actors getting ready. So I was taken pictures and intermittently I would go outside and see what was happening and I could see it change.
I remember, come nightfall, I saw people in balaclavas and people were creating Molotov cocktails and were throwing it and they were throwing rocks and I don’t know what got me to stay. To be honest, in a weird way it was scary but there was this adrenaline rush, I can’t explain it. I remember after the whole experience, I think that was the first time I really felt alive, you know? And I just felt like this was what I wanted to do.
A lot of people know what happened but houses got burnt down, shops got shut down, even the building that I was in people tried to set fire to it but it didn’t light up and people had turned up for the play that was happening and I think 500 people had to get evacuated by the police. We were being escorted out of a back door eventually and I just wanted to go off to where the riots were happening to take pictures and my mum was there and I went in the direction of where the riots were and she just grabbed my arm back and was like, “You’re crazy, you’re coming with us.”
A lot of the footage, parts of it you could tell when I was scared, I remember there was a time where we all got locked into the building and the caretaker had run off with the keys and I had to climb up the building but in parts that were having renovation work so it was completely black, there were rats running around, it was just gross. I remember getting onto this rooftop space and hanging off the side of it with my camera, really shaky taking footage but I’ve just never seen anything like it.
Edward: Do you still have that footage?
Holly: I do yeah, somewhere. It’s been archived but it’s there.
Edward: It’s funny you should say that because that seems like the first experience of photography that sent you on a certain path.
Holly: Yes, so that was the catalyst for me just thinking—I think this is what I want to do. But even then I didn’t voice that, I felt it and I knew it, and then I went back to university when the year started and I was doing that. Now in hindsight I think this was always going to happen because I would wake up before sunrise—I was studying in Leicester and Leicester is quite flat—and I would just walk in a direction to see what I could find to take pictures from somewhere at sunrise. This wasn’t even thinking about Instagram, this was on a little point and shoot DSLR, entry level that I didn’t even know how to use.
It was just that passion that was growing and then afterwards I did move back to London and even before that I had gone to New York for a month and I met people on Instagram and it was just this story about this passion and meeting other people who were also passionate about photography, but no one at the time was a photographer, they were all using their iPhones. I had recently got an iPhone, I was quite late to the whole Instagram game. I always felt kind of nerdy about it, it was my own private hobby which I couldn’t really talk to other people about because people were taking selfies on Instagram and I don’t want to do that. It’s like I instantly found that little nerdy group where it all made sense.
Edward: So you found this nerdy group in New York?
Holly: Yeah I shouldn’t call them a nerdy group. They were just passionate about it and it was just like—okay, we don’t have to hide this. Okay, this thing that I thought was nerdy was actually cool and they were cool people. So yeah the first people I met on this app were in New York.
Edward: I just want to say that being nerdy and cool are not mutually exclusive.
Edward: That act of social justice which was documenting the riots, that became your style in a way or did you draw more from the architecture?
Holly: I don’t know man. I need to start archiving stuff from my social media. The truth was, when I started, everybody was taking leading lines photos, that was just the thing in London. I don’t know if that’s how it started because I was in New York so I did have people in my shots but I came to London and everyone was taking photos of the tube when it was empty. I can’t remember who—because I would never show people my work—but I don’t know if it was my mum or a friend who said, “Oh yeah, look at her work” to somebody and I still don’t even remember who that somebody was. It was a guy that was on the street but clearly someone’s friend and he saw my images and he goes, “Oh, it’s all leading lines.” And I remember up until that point I felt it was pretty good and then I looked at it again and thought it was rubbish.
Edward: Sometimes it takes one person who’s not in the game and doesn’t know about compliments or insults to just look at your pictures and say something and it just blows your mind.
Holly: Oh my gosh, it was so good. It was like I opened my eyes for the first time again because that app was like an echo chamber.
Edward: You’d just been doing vanishing points like everyone else. Clean white and black buildings that somebody else built and I’m just taking pictures of it.
Holly: Yeah, so it was definitely architecture motivated to start off.
Edward: Okay. No, the very start with this documentation of the streets and probably one of the most important events in London in the last 20 years.
Holly: So can I go back because I feel like there’s a nice story. It involves you. How I met Vivien, because she kind of introduced me to that whole world of Instagram.
So I was in uni as I said, and I would be working on a Saturday on this project, deadlines coming, I haven’t slept in five years. Hashtag architecture student. Vivien, who goes by @vdubl is a practicing student architect. She was working for an amazing firm at the time. She must have seen me tag that—this is back in the day—followed and even then to me she was a big deal and I was like, “Oh my gosh,” and she must have written this encouraging message and she said something like, “Hang in there, I know the struggle but it will be worth it.” Or something like that. And then she followed me and then fast forward now, I’m in New York for a month, I saw on your post because I’d been following you, you said that your friend Vivien was coming to New York. I was just like, “Oh, Vivien!” I don’t know if DM was a thing then, it might been, or maybe I left a comment and I wrote, “I’m in New York, it would be good to meet up.” And she did, we met on the Brooklyn Bridge with two of her friends.
To be honest, when I told my friends that I was going to meet a person off the internet that I didn’t know in the middle of winter—it was like minus 10—on the Brooklyn Bridge and I don’t know where we’re going next. They were like, “You’re crazy, do not do it.” And I met her and she introduced me to so many cool people in New York, the people were just so nice. They offered to show me around. The whole thing was that she gave me a community when I didn’t have one in photography. So by the time I came back to London and I think my following had maybe doubled. I wondered if this existed in London.
I was following Emmanuel at the time, @ecolephoto, and his friend Rich said he was doing a meet and asked me to come and I didn’t even know on that day until years later, that that was worldwide Instameet. He had a smaller group and we all ended up being really good friends. Then I got to meet you, Jess, yeah I got to meet Jess. It was just a funny story because I’m telling your wife about how I met this girl called Vivien and how it was this guy called Ed who told me that she was coming over and she goes, “Oh yeah, that’s my husband.” The world is so small. Fast forward to us being in Hong Kong now, friends, on a podcast.
The catalyst was always being around people that were better than me. I stand by this, sometimes I say this in talks—some people get intimidated when they feel like the least qualified but I always thrive when I’m the worst one in the room because it means I get to be the sponge, I get to ask all the questions and you go in one way but you come out the other.
Edward: You still haven’t got the part where you became this don street photographer. So you’re still in the architecture game, you came back, you went to New York.
Holly: So when did it start? I left university and I went back to London. I left university not as strong as I thought I would. I think I went in as such a confident person and came out very doubtful of myself. I think that experience and just how things went wasn’t for me, it was just kind of an unfortunate experience. I don’t know. I mean I’ve spoken about it now so my mum might hear but I remember going, “I’m going to look for an architecture job, whatever.” But I kind of had one already set up before I’d finished. But I remember not knowing if I could do it. So I worked on my half-finished portfolio. I pretended to apply to some places but I didn’t.
I just went out with my iPhone every day and took pictures and I met a few guys who were my age who ended up being like brothers and we just went out every day for a whole summer. Honestly I saw more of London than I’ve ever seen in my life. In fact we saw parts of England, we’d just get on a train for three hours somewhere because we heard about some abandoned building and get chased by wild horses but it was just exciting. They started using cameras, I was probably the last one to pick up a camera. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to and I just remember one of my friends saying to me, “You know you can be a photographer. If you do it you’ll be really good.” At the time I didn’t even have a camera but all you need is that one person to believe in you and to speak the things that you know you felt but weren’t bold enough to say it.
Edward: I really believe that. Hopefully someone with some knowledge of the situation but it just needs one person to push you in the right direction.
Holly: And my friends meant it because when I had my first job we were sharing equipment, they would give me their cameras so I could go shoot that job. And I think the catalyst was—I mean people do say Instagram which is true—but the catalyst was always being around people that were better than me. I stand by this, sometimes I say this in talks—some people get intimidated when they feel like the least qualified but I always thrive when I’m the worst one in the room because it means I get to be the sponge, I getto ask all the questions and you go in one way but you come out the other. I can go in the least knowledgeable but I get to be the sponge and learn from everyone and learn faster than if I’m in isolation and I think that has been my story.
Edward: But is it still your story? Are you still…
Holly: The worst one in the room?
Edward: I don’t think you’re the worst in the room. That only works up to a point, right?
Holly: Yeah, it’s true but I’m always gaining new skills, so I’ve been making videos now and I just haven’t been afraid of putting myself in that situation and just doing stuff. I remember when I first wanted to do portraits because portraits were never my strong suit and I just remember not being good at it. So I decided to tackle it head on, I’m going to do the thing that I’m not good at and now the stuff I like to photograph the most is people and portraits.
Edward: So what do you think now about the state of street photography in London? Do you feel like there was a summer where you just shot London? Do you feel like that started a trend?
Holly: I don’t know. I feel like if I say we started the trend that’s insanely…
Edward: But do you feel like there are a lot more people doing what you did? There, is that a better way of putting it?
Holly: Yeah. I don’t know, it’s a hard one. I feel like stuff is always changing, if I’m asking if we were the first people to do street photography in London, no. One of my favorite photographers is Matt Stuart. He has been photographing London for many years, beautiful work and the scale of the year gave you an audience that pre-Instagram would not have been seen.
Right, there was a time when I remember me and my closest friends—@ecolephoto, Emmanuel Cole, @humothy who just wants to go by that name—he’s a don, he can do that—and then Vincent Chapters and the truth is that I remember a time when we were the youngest people on the app, it didn’t feel like there were people younger than us. Now we’re going on and there are kids that are 14 and 16.
Yeah, we were in many ways the faces that people were looking at and looking to, and especially people that were younger, because we were doing something that wasn’t the same as other people and we were taking risks and especially Vincent Chapters, the first of us to really be hitting street photography before we even knew what street photography was and I think a lot of people were inspired by that.
I remember when sometimes we’d go to Chinatown and we would photograph and then we saw a whole heap of younger kids with cameras go to Chinatown. It turned into something that we didn’t know it was turning into because when it’s one or two people going to Chinatown maybe once twice a month or whatever, when it becomes this incessant bombardment of Chinatown—and our Chinatown is not the size of New York or San Francisco—when we were seeing the images it kind of touched a nerve because it felt not just invasive but it felt as if there was a group of people who were almost being dehumanized in a camera and were being harassed. I remember, I think at the time Humothy had said something on someone’s photograph. Now in hindsight, he got it, but at the time there was a set of young kids who were just like, “We’re allowed to photograph everyone.” And the truth is, you can, but I think it made us realize that there’s an influence outside of here that maybe we didn’t realize that we had.
Edward: Not to say you made that happen but you might start to think, “What I do next influences somebody else to do something very similar”.
Holly: Yeah and remember that’s only within a really small group of London because there’s so much other stuff. There’s stuff that I’m like so happy that I see people owning their own stories, taking up their own agency to tell their own stories. I know a guy called Zaha who photographs the Sunday Football League because that’s what he’s passionate about. And it’s amazing seeing this kid who’s been taking pictures since he was like 13, 14 and as these pictures are growing and his skill is growing, there’s been so many positives to it. Maybe I shouldn’t have lead with the negative vibe.
Edward: I knew we’d get to so many more positives. One thing I wanted to talk to you about today was your story, not you as a person, but as representing a black woman from London telling your story. Tell me how that has been in terms of how people have accepted you? You mentioned how, like it or not, you are a representative sometimes. You know you’re going to be the figurehead for that.
Holly: Yeah, well the first thing to say is like, “Hi, I’m a black woman.” But like I remember on social media where the misconception was that I was a white man from New York.
Edward: Really? How did that happen?
Holly: My whole journey started in New York and then people were like, “Oh, he’s in London now.” Because I didn’t post pictures of myself but it didn’t matter—my name was on there, I’m a man. I’m a white man. So that was a thing. I posted about it a little while back. Every now and again I have to post a picture to say, “Hi, I’m a woman!” Because I remember being invited to an event, the person who said it wasn’t the person who invited me, but it was one of the organizers and was like, “Oh I didn’t realize you were a woman. I never read your name, I just read @h_cato.” And I was like, “Oh, but I posted a picture of myself a little while ago.” And he goes, “Oh I thought that was the photographer’s girlfriend. I didn’t expect it to be you.”
Edward: In a way he was jumping through mental hoops for it not to be a woman.
I’m a strong believer about not living in your comfort zone and I remember my art teacher just going, ‘My job this year is to make you uncomfortable because when you’re uncomfortable you learn 70 percent more than when you’re in your comfort zone and I’m here to keep you in a state of uncomfortable.’
Holly: I laugh about it, it’s funny. I think one of the biggest examples of being a black woman and representing everybody was me going to India. I went to India maybe 2 or 3 years ago now and I was there for a month. Half of that month was by myself and then my best friend joined me out there. I remember just going, “Oh man, I don’t know if you should have come. It’s been kind of hard.” I didn’t do glamorous India, I did India on a budget. I was traveling and I was sorting out my itinerary as you go, just really immersing myself in there.
To be honest there were parts that were beautiful and fine but I remember being with an organization out there for the first ten days in Mumbai. It was an organization that I had known about and supported for a long time, quite a few years. It was cool to just be able to go out there and meet them face to face, not just through the interweb. They work from five of the poorest slums in Mumbai. They’re called Vision Rescue. What I love about them is that they’re an organization run by people from Mumbai serving people from Mumbai and I just love that because at the end of day, if foreign aid comes in—and this is what I learnt from them especially—they’re not going to understand the intricacies to do with how many different cultures exist in India. Every slum had its own cultures, one slum was predominantly Muslim, another slum was Hindu, and it was just the different issues that each community had. Just even entering a house and the different things that you would do or who you would speak to.
That is why they were there and that’s why it’s so good and it’s still an organization that I love but there were small things, from kids seeing me and I’m a black girl with an afro, and the truth was up until that point, I’d grown up in East London and moved to North London. I was with Bangladeshis, Indian people, Pakistanis, but my idea of Indians was that they were brown but I didn’t know until I went to Indian that the majority of Indian people are darker than me. So that was a whole thing going, “Oh okay, I just didn’t know that.” Because I’m seeing the caste system exist there and I’m seeing one caste. I’m seeing the upper tier. I’m not seeing people who are low on the caste list that make up a huge majority of India.
That was the first thing and then going in there and I’m seeing people who are darker than me but they know I’m black and I’m a girl with an afro and that’s not a norm. Like kids crying when they would see me because maybe they thought I was a witch. Other places where it was a lot more that you just had moments where people just didn’t respect you and especially men.
It’s not to say it was everybody because I would hate to paint everybody with that brush. I met incredibly kind people in India who showed us around or shared meals with us. It was extremes, at parts it was the most hospitable place I’ve been to and at parts the way that they treat women sometimes was really troublesome.
Here’s the truth of it—maybe you are a white woman who’s been to India but traveling as a black woman is just something that is so vastly different. India was colonized by English people. They’re used to white people in their land. White people often get treated better but they are not used to black people in the same way. So the same privilege that a white woman would have if she was to travel India by herself. I’m not experiencing that and in some places, man, it just got insane. You know, people like try and drag me into a car. A guy in a hotel makes moves, it was just mad.
Edward: The owner of the hotel.
Holly: The owner of the hotel, yeah, exactly. And even though I say all of that, and this is the flip side of it—it’s still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. That trip stretched me and pushed me like no other. I remember day one where we were staying, within twenty minutes five people had come up to me saying don’t walk here at night. I was staying at tourist accommodations but I couldn’t go home so I just had to deal with it but because I had something that stretched me so far out of my comfort zone, now it’s like everything else in comparison, everything else I’ve experienced, I’ve been more prepared for.
A lot less things ruffle me because I’ve done the most extreme things very early on and maybe people have had nothing but great experiences and it’s been safe for you. It just wasn’t safe for me but I have been dying to go back to India. I stayed in the Thar Desert one night where we slept under the stars. You’ve got desert, you’ve got mountain regions, you’ve got the city—I love Mumbai. I’m addicted to chaos and no matter what time of the night or morning it’s so chaotic and it’s just brilliant. You can stand on one street corner and be just entertained. But then I’ve been to Kenya as well like you said.
Edward: Yes. How was that experience? That was relatively recently? What was the project?
Holly: Originally it was to film a set of videos for a company called Ubuntu Made.
Edward: And then I just want to scroll back even further, we’ll come back to this point but I want to talk about how you’ve just taken it upon yourself to just take on videography as well out of nowhere and very publicly, “Hello everyone. I’m going to do videos from now on so like it or leave it.” Then you just put out some videos and they’re just high quality immediately.
Holly: Whatever. You know how I got into video? The first video I ever made was from my first trip to Hong Kong. I was taking short video clips and I’d been taking video clips for maybe a year previously and I remember a friend going,“You’ll never get better unless you actually edit something because you don’t know what you’re taking.” She was completely right. So I was filming with your wife Jess and we were taking video clips and I took my video clips and I remember my mum’s always like, “Be a starter finisher, Holly. Start something, finish it.”
Edward: Solid advice.
Holly: Because I start a lot of projects and because of my perfectionist gene, if it’s not as good as I think I can make it, I don’t finish it. So she’s always telling me to be a starter finisher, I heard it enough so I decided to finish something.So I was filming video clips and the plane ride is long on the way home, it’s like 13 or 14 hours, I’m going to put together a video. I think my laptop recently had been factory reset so I think I only had 15 songs on iTunes. But I was like—I don’t care, no excuses. So I picked a song, which I actually got permission from later on, by the way, guys. I edited it in iMovie, put together a little video, went well. Then the following month I was in Venice with friends, had a little point and shoot on me, I wasn’t being too serious, and I put together a video and then companies…
Edward: This is just like the same as photography. Within months of making your first video, suddenly you were being paid commercially.
Holly: Yeah, to make videos. People were calling me a filmmaker and I was like, “Okay.” So it became a baptism of fire. I wasn’t going to set them straight. I was just like… Download Premier Pro. After the first big job I was like, “How do you import content?” So yeah, that was the beginning and it was a baptism of fire but the whole point is, I’m a strong believer about not living in your comfort zone and I remember my art teacher just going, “My job this year is to make you uncomfortable because when you’re uncomfortable you learn 70 percent more than when you’re in your comfort zone and I’m here to keep you in a state of uncomfortable.” I remember he said that and that stuck with me and that’s true. I think I’ve just learned a lot of things because I’ve been uncomfortable and I’ve had to just learn it because it’s either sink or swim. I always think that God doesn’t set me up for failure so it has to be good and that was that really.
Edward: You were hired to do this job in Kenya?
Holly: Make certain films for this company. Eventually it ended up including photography but they said to me, “Well we’ve just done a Kickstarter for these shoes. They’re espadrilles but they’re made in Africa so we’re calling them Afradrilles.” Nice name, you can go buy them. The people that had backed the talk were putting them on a 10 day tour of Kenya, so they asked if I wanted to come.
So I dropped everything and went which was good because it meant I got more B-roll and then it also meant that part of it was filming Maasai because all their beading—because they’re in Kenya—is beaded by the Maasai who—if people don’t know—are master beaders, they wear very elaborate jewelry that is a representation of the earth, their culture, so many different things. It was just good because ten days also meant that for part of it we were staying with the Maasai on their land in Ngong. I got to build more of a relationship before the filming started which I really appreciate now. Going to Kenya, it was different because that was only my second time ever going to a black nation. Before that I went to Lagos, Nigeria. It was different because I was going with essentially a fairly big group of Americans who were white. So it wasn’t like I was going to fit in but also Kenyans knew that I wasn’t Kenyan and I’ve always kind of had this othered thing of sticking out.
Edward: When I’m in Ghana, anybody can see that I’m not Ghanean so obviously but a daily occurrence in London can be like, “Where are you from?” You’re definitely an other.
Holly: So it was still beautiful and it’s amazing going to a black nation where everything by default is black because I come from England so that’s just not my norm. That was what I loved about Hong Kong though, that the default wasn’t white. It was just so bizarre for me. It was just like wow look at the billboards, just seeing that for the first time, it was really impactful too. Just because that has always been our norms.
Yeah, going to Kenya was amazing, in fact it’s like one of my favorite places now. You had asked originally about me carrying my blackness as a black woman I guess. You would just see subtle things—how people greet you. They would want to know about you because essentially I’m the tourist going to some places where they’ve not seen this. I’m not saying Nairobi but we were traveling to places where they’ve not seen Western black people. I remember we were being introduced to young people and kids and we one by one had to say where we were from and I said England, London, and everybody laughed. They thought it was hilarious. That’s not what London looks like! So I said I’m from Jamaica and they were like, “Okay. That’s acceptable.” It was hilarious. And to give reference, yes I’m from mixed Jamaican descent but I’ve never been to Jamaica. My mum went to Jamaica for the first time this year and both my parents have never been to Jamaica.
Edward: But still you were in this place where the only acceptable answer for them was that you were from Jamaica.
I just think I’m really fortunate that I get to do what I love. It’s not always blissful, sometimes it is stressful but essentially I’m seeing the world and I’m seeing worlds that are so different to mine and I just get to experience it and get to share that story.
Holly: I just remember meeting the Maasai tribe that this company works with and having a really other worldly experience where I just connected with one of the women when we were being greeted—and it’s a big thing, when you’re meeting someone, especially like that, I can’t come in with my camera. The camera’s in the car. I’m just coming to meet you. The Maasai often greet you in song and dance.
Edward: Do they get a lot of this?
Holly: I’m sure there are tourism groups where Maasai come and greet them but this tribe was really far out and there were no road signs, you have to know where you’re going. When I say where we were driving, I don’t understand how people would have found where the place was, it baffled me because there were literally no road signs, nothing. It’s not a tourism thing.
Edward: So it’s really leave your camera in the car.
Holly: I mean it’s not to say you can’t but I just wanted the experience of them greeting me. It’s that thing of humanizing people, they’re not just a picture, they’re a person. It was just very beautiful and pretty early on I saw one of the older ladies and she turned out to be one of the elders of the tribe. She kept looking at me, I was looking at her and I went over, we were greeting everybody, and by the end of the first night, there was a translator and we had just been hanging next to each other.
She doesn’t speak English, I just said, “You’re my favorite.” And I said something like, “You’re my mum.” Or something like that. And the translator said, “You have given her great honor.” And then that was it. It wasn’t flippant to her. Next thing, there was a massive campfire, the tribe was there and she just was like, “I’ve got nine children but today God has blessed me with a tenth.” And everyone was greeting me and I met the siblings and I was given a Maasai name from one of my brothers and it was just a very out of body experience and during that whole time there you are made to feel so… I mean they are so welcoming, they were teaching me the songs and dances and what it truly meant. It was just something so beautiful, so even the following week after ten days, when I went back to film, I now knew people by name and you know peoples quirks and who’s shy and it becomes so much deeper than just being a job.
Edward: And it was so good that you left your camera that first time. It’s funny. You can go from Tottenham High Road, in the right place at the wrong time with a camera and then what you did that day has pushed you to this point where at the right place at the right time, you left your camera to do the right thing.
Holly: And I know that’s really fortunate, some people have really tight schedules and they’re not afforded that time before the shoot. Also this organization, they are family. They really are. I’ve already made a promise I’m going back, my mum’s there. It’s just crazy to think that photography has opened the doors for me to see the world but for me to really experience other cultures, to appreciate so much more and to see so much more of the world than where I came from. That just blows my mind.It’s also made me aware of me as a black woman and the fact that, like you said, I’m not people’s norms and even there they knew I wasn’t their norm but they were willing to welcome you in.
Edward: Right now in the world, I think that’s a story that’s not really being told very often. Different cultures meeting and being willing to welcome each other. We’re living in a time where the news is about division.
Holly: And I think for the organization too, they definitely saw how different it was when they pull a black person, a photographer in because of how different it was for the women that they had who aren’t just Maasai, because they hire Kenyans to see a Western black woman. It just flipped the switch. It was just so different.
Edward: I love it. It’s something quite unique to your experience. I wouldn’t know many people that would have been able to do that, knowing that there might be some negatives and there might be some people that see you as “other”.
Holly: It’s true, you’re “other” in England and you’re “other” abroad. Even if I do go to Jamaica tomorrow, I will be called England or London. That’s what they will call me. So it’s just like, where is my place? I’m from mixed descent. I am definitely a black woman by skin, It’s just so interesting how you’re “other” no matter where you go.
Edward: Yeah, I just find myself saying I’m a Londoner. If you want some detail breakdown then yeah, fine, I’ll give it to you. If you have been to London, I think that’s enough for most people. If you’ve been to London it’s like, “Oh, okay cool.” The only people that might ask for more are people that have not visited London or have some stereotype view of a white man with an umbrella and a bowler hat.
Although you would see yourself as a minority in London, you don’t know minority as a black person until you leave London. So what you think you knew, and what has turned on its head for me in Asia, people have said to me a lot of the time, “Wow, that’s really amazing that you don’t react to that,” or “you didn’t notice what happened there.” If someone is just looking for a bit long but you just get used to it and get on with it and hopefully, again, be that representative where somebody welcomes you in and then you’re the story for the ages—the black person they met.
Holly: You become a monolith.
Edward: Hopefully the Maasai are talking about you as this person who said they were from England, maybe she’s from Jamaica, either way she’s my daughter now. So you’ve been telling your stories, sounded like some amazing stories from India, Kenya, I know you’ve got a ton more that we haven’t gone into. What’s next for you?
Holly: What is next? Honestly after this trip in Asia, I came back from Seoul, now in Hong Kong, going back to finish off some work and some deadlines that are due and then just planning on some bigger projects that I want to do that involve friends actually. The more I’ve got into this, I was documenting London for a while and London’s still home, I still love it.
But I do a lot more travel and I’m always interested in how I’m described because depending on what talk or event, you get described differently. Sometimes I’m the portrait photographer, sometimes I’m the filmmaker, sometimes I’m called—what was it the other day that he said?—the power blogger. I was like okay, I don’t have a blog but I do a lot of travel but my travel photography is always from the people perspective.
I want to show what travel photography is for me and it is from a people perspective but it’s like can I go to different countries and engage with different cultures and take portraits and it doesn’t have to be just landscapes and beautiful views. That’s what my travel photography looks like and it’s just honing that in, making that my message is that it’s always from human interactions. I think someone in a DM said, “You have some type of auntie, no matter which world, no matter which country you’re in, dressing you.” And it’s true, I went to Morocco and a lady’s going, “No you’ve got to wear these clothes, come here, meet us.” I came from Seoul and I was dressed there. I just think I’m really fortunate that I get to do what I love. It’s not always blissful, sometimes it is stressful but essentially I’m seeing the world and I’m seeing worlds that are so different to mine and I just get to experience it and get to share that story. I just want to get better at telling a more authentic story.
Edward: Meaning it and working out how to do that.
Holly: Yeah. How do you do it? And how do you align yourself with brands that fit you?
Edward: Honestly I think what you’re doing is pretty authentic already. I can’t imagine getting more authentic.
Holly: That means a lot but I guess photography is a way to communicate and I just want to get better at communicating, much like a writer gets better at writing.
Edward: That’s a pretty good place to wrap up I reckon. Thanks for coming in Holly.
Subscribe to the podcast Social Effects, listen to episode one of Social Effects hosted by Edward Barnieh with Varun Thota or episode two with Tyson Wheatley, and follow Holly-Marie Cato on Instagram.