Meet Writer and Photographer Sera Lindsey
Above all else, Sera Lindsey is a traveler. She's also an incredible photographer, journalist, creative writer, videographer, and a social media star (@portablesera). Hailing from Morocco, Sera recently left her Los Angeles home to create a life in the great outdoors of Cody, Wyoming.
Nearly six years ago, Sera began her pursuit of photography as a serious art form. As a natural-born writer, Sera saw the powerful storytelling elements photography could provide: It has no language, and an entire story can unfold in a viewers mind with one passing glance at a powerful image.
In the following interview, Aundre Larrow uncovers the driving force behind Sera's powerful photography, how travel plays into her life and what she's setting her sights on next.
How & Why Sera Photographs the World
What was the first trip you ever took? What did you capture? What did you learn?
My first trip of real importance was to Morocco. I'd taken domestic trips before, but going to the place I was born was a real game changer for me. Everything I captured at the time was in writing, and I was...an angry kid. I had a lot to be angry and confused about, and I wanted to channel my energy into something beneficial. I saw writing as a positive outlet, though I didn't know what it was for at the time. Much of life is made clearer in retrospect, and my aimless rage was like this: Unknown and misunderstood, I wrote about the things I would now probably like to take photos of. This led me to my interests in documentary photography as well as fine art photography. I guess it could be called something along the lines of Embellished Non-Fiction. I made lists of beautiful colors and made up names for them, and tried to identify where I might have acquired certain traits that I couldn't place when searching my adopted families mannerisms for answers. I saw what I was made of, genetically. It was my first real time asking myself about how culture is born into someone, despite that person being distant from it for a time.
What is your mentality when you're traveling?
Invisibility. This follows me throughout my life, but especially when traveling. I'm sure some basic armchair psychology could be applied here, but I don't see it as a problem. I'm happy when I can observe without being noticed. This gives me a stronger sense of honesty when visiting new places. Some of my best memories are centered around this sensation. Walking through Paris with my headphones on and watching clothes dry out of a small window, or hearing an unseen woman sing to herself from inside her apartment. I try to be part of wherever I happen to be so that the environment does not cater to any requirements. There is so much to see when you don't force something to happen.
What are your must haves for each trip you take?
I know we're talking photography here, but I'd like to talk about more than that. I'm a very light packer, at least in terms of clothes. I don't like to check bags, so I try to get everything on the plane as a carry-on. If I'm traveling by train, I prefer to keep my things with me. I never take a trip without one simple, but really great dress. I take a Plan B pill and think every woman should when traveling. To assume safety is irresponsible, and to assume the worst creates anxiety. I try to have things like a basic sewing kit, probiotics, a medium sized travel towel, some packets of tissues, a sharpie, two hard drives, duct tape (it's insane how many things you can use it for), a small notebook and a large notebook, some plastic bags and zip-locks, a few rolls of film, and two lenses for my digital camera. Something I've started doing only recently is keeping an Instax camera with me as well. The instant film is really fun to share with others. If I meet someone and say "may I take your portrait?" I'll often take their email or information to share the outcome with them, and perhaps snap an instant photo that they have something to keep. Another cool thing about these images is that you can write on them, so if they want your email, Instagram, or even the date - you can make sure it's saved.
How to Prepare for Trips
Do you do research before you travel? How do you decide where to shoot once you're there?
Yes, I usually research. But I don't want to have one singular vision. I prefer to get different angles. For instance, if I was going to Greece, I'd be sure to look up where the beautiful places are, the cultural points of interest, restaurants, watch some travel shows, and learn the basics in language. I'd also be sure to read some recent news articles about what's happening there culturally to discover what I should be aware of and sensitive towards before leaving.
Where haven't you been yet?
What is the best travel advice you've been given?
Besides Douglas Adams' words on always traveling with a towel, I'd say the best travel advice I've ever received wasn't specifically about travel, but I believe it applies quite well. Someone once told me, "how you do one thing is how you do everything." I think about this every day. It haunts me. Definitely a friendly ghost, but still. When you wolf your food, you're likely not taking time in your larger sense of life to experience. But on the whole, I find that when I observe my everyday actions? and when I make my bed in the morning and remember to journal, I'm respecting myself, and my life improved universally.
How to Find a Home Within the World
You've been everywhere. Where do you find yourself most at home?
It's a bit of a trick question. My body certainly enjoys being in desert climates, which I think is genetic. But the concept of home has become such an abstract term for me. I grew up in motion, moving nonstop. I haven't found that one This-Is-It! place yet. But I took a press trip to Miami last year, and I think about going back almost every day. The culture of Miami is so rich: There is such great music and a joie de vivre that I've never experienced anywhere else.
If I wanted to travel with you, what would you tell me are your basic tenets?
"Opulently Minimal." Always. I can't remember when I came up with this term, but it was years and years ago. Perhaps I was in Spain? Regardless, I think Spain sums it up well. You can drink a great wine, but don't ruin the experience by having too much and forgetting the night. It's the difference between "having" and "enjoying." A beautiful place, a beautiful experience, a beautiful fabric, or a beautiful meal - they have this commonality.
I'm also a great believer in Do As the Locals Do. I remember going to Mass in France. I attended a small stone church near my apartment. The seats were all wooden fold outs, and the congregation was made up of such a variety of humans. I was guided by the meditation of a language I only knew the basics of, and after the service, I went to the cafe next door to write about it - an unimpressive little room with a sparse decor. My neighbor at the bar was the priest: He looked elegant in his clerical collar. He ordered a brandy and had a good laugh with the bartender. It was a moment I could not have had without trying something entirely outside of the tourist spectrum.
Window or aisle seat?
Who cares - whatever is cheaper. I like being able to watch the land from up high, but I also get anxiety about the window being up or down.
Rent a car, cabs or public transit?
Generally, I enjoy public transit, but it truly depends on where I am. In India, I felt safe in public transit. In South Africa, I rented a car because there is so much to see, and it's very spread out. I don't really take cabs unless I'm in the US or somewhere I feel closely acquainted with. It's an easy way to get ripped off.
How to Photograph Nature and Plants
I see you've been in the Southwest a lot recently: What have you tried to capture and convey to your audience?
I'm still finding that out, to be honest. This part of America is no different than other parts in that there are so many facets that make me feel conflicted. But the biggest difference is how it claims itself, culturally. A deep history with a lot of growth makes this place what it is, and the people are very proud of what it means to be a member of it. Most people have more in common than they would assume, and exploring this part of the US - it's the same thing. Ultimately, I think I'm hoping to express the individual pride and pleasure that people have in where they live and work. I don't like making fun of people, or creating comedy where there is none for the person or scene. I want people to feel involved when they look at a photo, not outside of it. I don't want my viewers to feel the need to become bullies, but rather, my desire is to bridge gaps and create more empathy.
You love capturing plants! What's your advice for how to use them in photo compositions?
Plants. Yes. I like life. I like to shoot life, and I find that plants often want to be shot. Why else would they make themselves so presentable?
I see plants as a trending prop in photography, but I want people to find out for themselves why they want to use a certain plant, and really view it as another subject. I see bright photos of flowers and greenery, and I think it's great, but what does this flower say to you? They have attitudes, they pose in ways specific to themselves, and they represent different aspects of the world, just as people do.
Why is nature so vital to our existence?
Human beings are not outside of nature. I would say it's just as vital to our existence as our heartbeat is. They are interdependent. This is why it's important to understand what the environment is experiencing. If nature is sick, we can enjoy it blindly for a time, in the same way as we enjoy our bodies until we understand that something is wrong with its functioning. We are made of planetary and cosmic matter. Our blood, skin, mannerisms, knowledge, inspiration - it's all entirely interwoven into the sacred place we call home.
Utilizing Space, Color, and Light
You aren't afraid to show photos of yourself as you travel: How do you compose something when you're not in it?
I'm so moved by Vincent van Gogh and his paintings. In his work, entitled Bedroom at Arles, he paints a crude rendition of his sleeping space. The bed seems to jut out at you from the frame, and the chairs seem to float, though grounded. van Gogh was fond of the self portrait as well, though when he isn't seen in a painting, you can always tell it's his world. Whether or not you are seen within your own art, the viewer should feel connected to the artist, by way of vision and voice. My compositions are usually made up of silent space. I don't want to say negative space, as my images are rarely devoid of activity. But I do often fill the frame with animate stillness. It's something I never intended to do, but when I look back upon my work, there is generally a feeling of shhh. A city will stand still for me, if I stand still within it.
How does color influence your work? How do you use it?
I think years ago it was a way for me to discover what a still image was. I was so overwhelmed and charmed with color that I used it in excess. I love - LOVE - color. Our world is made of color. I always scoff at the term earth tones, because someone using it isn't really thinking about their choice of words. Look at the earth. Look at the colors of what our planet produces. Feathers, the various Ph balance of dirt, skin tones, fur, the spectrum of florals, the fierceness of fire with its blues, oranges, and reds all combined; existing with, and for one another. Colors communicate. They argue, or they embrace. And it doesn't matter whatsoever what we've been taught as artists. "Red means passion and rage," is what we are told. When it could easily be anything else. "Never combine green and pink." I say, try it. Often times rules are lacking in innocence. We have to learn so much just to know what needs breaking. I enjoy creating dialogue within the shades of an image. The colors create the subtext, often giving the viewer something to giggle about, a mysterious sense of sadness, or a dream - something personal that cannot be fully interpreted.
You have so many shots in all sorts of light: How do you use harsh light to your advantage?
Harsh light can be wonderful. It's nature's sharpening tool, carving out the details amidst the shadow. It can give a sense of urgency, speed, or disturbance. It feels like a blink: Like preserving a blink of an eye. There can often be something careless and whimsical about it as well; even rude. You can also shoot at a much faster shutter speed, catching all the small nuances of a fast paced environment. Harsh light can give a sense of environment, and, whether it's under a baking sun, or swimming in florescent light, they have their benefits to creating an honest scene within a specific world. When all I have to work with are extremes, I generally keep things extreme.
Golden Hour Is a Myth and Shadows Are Great
When we travel, it isn't always the golden hour. What would you advise to others in terms of how to get the most of their images in different lighting situations?
Don't be a diva. That's the shortest way to put it. Don't think that the light will make the image, or that the brand of light will make the image. Don't moan about how you missed the shot. Maintain professionalism. If you want drama, save it for the photo. Most of the time, there's something to be found in a challenging situation. Let yourself be challenged! What a wonderful gift, after all.
I personally don't care for the term magic hour. It's like happy hour: It's usually crowded, and it's usually not that groundbreaking. Do what's different. Or alternatively, wait on it. If you see a moment and then miss it - if the light is just where you wanted it to be but the moment passed, go back the next day. And if you can't go back, if your plane is leaving in the early morning, then take out your notebook and write something like, "this is what I saw today - it was magnificent, and I'd like to capture something similar in my next destination." Try to find it elsewhere. The world never stops, and sometimes that's lost on us.
What role do your friends play n your photography when you travel?
I've learned that a friend is only as honest as their willingness to critique you. These are the people in my life that have been instrumental in helping me develop my sense of photographic style. They've modeled for me, often making themselves look ridiculous for the sake of my curiosity.
I just had a journalist friend fly from New York to collaborate with me on a piece about an equine assisted therapy program. When handling a creative project together, his words and my images work together as much as we do as people. We could be on the same page the whole way through, but if these two elements don't work, the piece doesn't work. It makes me want to work harder knowing my friends gives me such tremendous pride: They are some of my favorite people in the world, but also some of my favorite thinkers and creators. In friendship, there's a sense of unspoken creative collective consciousness, and I feel it's a responsibility to uphold.
Talk to me about shadows: How do you see them, why do you use them, and what role do they play in your photography?
I see shadows as playful counterparts. I like to see what a shadow wants to do. I make the joke that my heart stays young while my brain grows up, and I find myself reflecting on Peter Pan. I almost wish I had something more technical to say, but no, I'm going to talk about a children's book. Even if you haven't read the book, nearly everyone is aware of Peter's shadow. Always causing a disruption and with a mind of its own, his shadow engages in friendly, bothersome activities. Instead of banishing it, I like to give the shadow a chance to play as well. Some of my favorite photos I've taken center around the shadow as the protagonist, whether belonging to a person, a neighboring building, a tree, or otherwise. They're so present most of the time, such hams. I feel they want to be seen.
How to Document Destinations, Take Selfies, and Where Sera Is Traveling Next
How does your shooting change based on the spirit of a location?
Entirely. I've found that my photography will almost take on an accent of sorts when traveling. I usually need a short while to feel comfortable properly documenting a place. The images are still formed with my own visual language, but with a cadence belonging to the region. When I'm in Los Angeles, I shoot harsh lighting happily, because it's abundant. I shoot bright colors because they express the vibrancy of the place I'm in.
During my time in Japan I shot on the go, fast and messy, and I was thrilled to take portraits because so many people seem excited to be seen. That kind of engagement gives me such joy, and there's an ease to it. Unlike places like Ghana, where candid photos aren't welcomed. There's a kind of intimacy that I feel should be earned. Wyoming is similar. The setting is unavoidably more neutral and environmentally derived. I'm not sure if it's as obvious to viewers, to be honest. But I see it. It's the difference in attitude. I know what I was experiencing at the time, and I think that makes up a lot of what goes into an image. The viewer isn't necessarily going to know the underlying details, but I hope they are subtly expressed. I don't like to make a place feel like what it's supposed to feel like for the sake of delivery. It's almost satisfying when someone says, "where was this?" And I say, "Oh that was Portland," and they say, "It WAS?" I feel that many photos are meant to have an "I Was Here" quality instead of a "this was my experience here" one. What I learn about a place, how I opt to respect a location and its people, determines how I shoot it, both beforehand and during.
Capturing yourself doesn't always mean selfies: How do you capture a trip more authentically than a selfie stick can?
A tripod is an easy answer. But I will also sometimes ask people to take my photo. Once, before I was "a photographer," I was in the Louvre in Paris and thought to send my dad a photo. I was alone, and asked a woman in busted French if she would take my portrait. She indicated that I should smile by dramatically frowning, then suddenly smiling in an over the top, cartoonish way. I often don't smile for self portraits, and it made me genuinely laugh. The photo became a great memory. Nothing for publication, but a wonderful moment to remember. I shared something with a stranger, and that feels important. That was an authentic moment.
Most other photos, the ones I publish, are posed and meant to be seen. Some of which I'm very proud of. However, the ones that aren't necessarily great works, those are the ones I cherish the most, because of how they feel to look back on. It's about their periphery experience. Photo booths with new friends, turning the camera around with strangers, asking locals to pose with me during embarrassing tourist moments. I don't need to do these things, but I sometimes see that the locals enjoy it, too. Often, sharing a stupid moment and a laugh at nothing, is a great way to breach language and cultural barriers.
Where are you off to next?
For as much as I've seen, I'm feeling ready to explore the US. There's so much here and so little I know. It's time for me to hit the history books and hit the road.