DONNA TODD‘s visual and written work has travelled the world due to its human depth, unconventional beauty and powerful narrative.
A multiple award winner, with over 80 major awards to her credit, this photographic chronicler’s main aim is to offer a true portrait of the souls of those who are suffering extreme poverty, and thus act as a catalyst to remind us that we can, must, and need to do something about it.
She began her vocational career in Australian metropolitan daily newspapers 25 years ago, and was a journalistic photographer for over 15.
Her outstanding skill lies in her ability to capture the real as surreal and the surreal as real, all within the same picture. Her magic, however, is reflected in her capacity to portray the beauty and pride of the being, hidden under a pile of crude reality, so we can all see how alike we all are.
In her effort to give a voice to those who need to be heard the most, Donna has visited many underdeveloped countries and also lived with some of the most isolated people like, for example, the Tsaatan of northern Mongolia (Rendeer People).
Her photos taken in Asia, India, South Africa, and Nepal hang on the walls of art museums, such as the Mongolian Museum of Fine Art, and tour around the world in collections held by organisations like the United Nations and the World Health Authority.
Her artistic photography is original, brash, compelling and haunting. It is a privilege for us to interview this phenomenal professional, an inspirational force at many levels.
WONDERLANCER: Donna, thank you very much for participating in this interview, we are absolutely delighted. Do you remember the first time you took a camera on a creative impulse? What was it that you felt the need to capture?
DONNA TODD: I was given a camera when I was ten for Christmas and I remember loving to take pictures of swans and butterflies and flowers and any insect crawling on them. The pictures were not very good but I loved the magic of photography right then. When I was a cadet on newspapers I was so inspired by some of the great photographers that I worked with, I remember us all standing around the developing sink and looking at the great photos that they took come to life every afternoon. It was like magic and they planted the seeds that photography was to become my life’s great passion, I made a promise to myself right then and there that every photo that I took would be good enough to be in my portfolio. And I have been needing to capture life ever since.
WONDERLANCER: When and how did your curiosity for the foreign, and your mission to give voice to the forgotten, begin?
DONNA TODD: I went on a trip to India for the first time in 1992 and fell in love with it. However, life got busy and I didn’t go away again until 2000 when I was given an assignment with a volunteer agency to go and photograph the volunteers in around ten countries. And then I just caught the bug big time and have not stopped getting the urge to be away as much as I can. During my trips away to developing countries I could not just be there and not attempt to give these people a voice to be heard.
It has always been my aim to show the world that we are all the same, we feel the same emotions and need love. Each and every one of us deserves to be seen as equals.
WONDERLANCER: Your Calcutta Rescue ollection is as fantastic as it is heart-breaking. In your travels, has it been too hard, at any point, to take a particular picture, or your broad experience working for newspapers prepared you for those moments?
DONNA TODD: Yes I think the experience of working in the newspaper industry probably did prepare me to be able to concentrate on the story at hand and not get overly emotionally involved at the time. When I am capturing a story I seem to go into another dimension and I am totally focused on getting the best pictures that I can to tell the story. I focus on the big picture that these photos need to be taken, that the problems faced by the patients of Calcutta Rescue are real and should not and cannot be ignored. The people that suffer the injustice of severe poverty are still people who have loved ones and need love and support just like everyone else. It is my aim to tell their stories so that people put out their hand in some way to offer support, whether it is to send money or inspire them to go and volunteer with them.
I cannot remember a time when I could not take a picture of something important but sad. However if I were put in the situation where I could either help someone in physical danger or take a photo… there would be no decision: I would help him or her out as best I could first and foremost.
WONDERLANCER: Your portraits are so vibrant and powerful; they feel not only like a window straight into the world of each ‘model’ but like a door into his/her soul. What techniques do you use the most, for example for your black & white, and what camera is your ultimate favourite?
DONNA TODD: Knowing my equipment and technique inside out, is fundamental, so that I can take photos from somewhere in my subconscious.
I very much like to work on long-term projects…because I like to go and spend time when I go to a new place so that I can understand what is happening there; learn to understand my subjects, the problems that they face and the lives they live.
The most important thing when you approach people is to see them and relate to them as real people, not somehow quaint or foreign.
If you can just relate to people as real people and establish some rapport, whether you joke around with them or whatever, people respond and open up, and are happy to be photographed. I don’t think there’s any mystery or trick about it. I think a lot of times the mistake people make, is that they see these people as different. But once you break that ice they’re like anybody else. They just happen to be working in a field or as a monk in a monastery. The thing that fascinates me is that we’re all playing these different roles but we’re all part of the same human race. We’re the same, but we do things in different ways. We eat different food, live in different houses, and speak different languages.
There comes a time when it is like it’s not really me who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between me as a photographer and the people I am photographing. When people start to get used of me being there and see that what I ‘do’ is take photos it’s like I don’t really take the photo, they give it to me.
At the moment I use a Nikon D3 and I love it, it can take pictures in any light… low light is really not a problem for it.
WONDERLANCER: Great tip. What’s more entrancing: portraying the dance of the shaman or the dance of the warrior?
DONNA TODD: For me definitely photographing the shamans in Mongolia was more entrancing, fulfilling and spiritual.
My Mongolian Shaman project was spread over a period of four years and so I really got to know them very well. And will continue in the future. I never close a project when I fall in love with a story, there is always the possibility that I will return to it.
They are very spiritual people and their religion was banished and made illegal whilst Mongolia was under Soviet rule. Its re-emergence is so important to the psyche of the Mongolian soul and their presence is powerful, spiritual and kind.
Their religion is one of the oldest known to man. It’s based on the belief that everything on the earth is alive and has a soul and must be respected and nurtured.
The warriors that I photographed in Papua New Guinea were somehow robbed of their souls to this day due to the influence of religious presence of the Christian missionaries, because they have made a lot of them feel ashamed of their indigenous cultures.
(CONTINUE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DONNA TODD on Page 2)