Women Taking Leaps Interview with Freya Dowson
Taking the leap to become a cause-focused international documentary photographer
Freya Dowson was born in Bermuda and in her adolescent years moved to Canada with her family. There was a time when she moved to Hong Kong to be with her father, while her mother and stepfather, an accomplished international journalist who served as an inspiration to Freya to pursue journalism, lived in Jamaica. Freya’s world has always been far-reaching and her parents instilled travel in their children as a way of life. Fitting, Freya identifies that “The world has always felt local to me.”
After accomplishing her Masters in Journalism, Freya still wasn’t certain what she wanted to do. She considered public relations, advocacy, publishing, but she graduated into the recession where jobs were nearly impossible to come by - even for Masters-educated graduates. Thirteen months without work turned into a position with the not-for-profit organization Brooke, where Freya would work in their communications department.
Brooke was the first organization to recognize Freya’s potential for creative direction and visual storytelling. They sent her on-location to Kenya after she repeatedly asked for resources to create more compelling content. What she thought would result in a bump in her budget to “hire some freelancers” in turn launched her career in humanitarian media creation.
Freya worked in the not-for-profit sector in London for seven years.
It’s easy for outsiders to look in on someone’s career or on their artwork and fail to recognize the amount of time, practice, and effort it took to build what we see today. Speaking with Freya about this time in her life doesn’t sound like “paying dues” or simply a means to an end. Her passion for honesty and telling compelling stories empower her every word.
“If you align your ambition with what makes you happy and do something every day toward that ambition - crazy things happen. Work toward something with the right attitude.”
Recently, she’s made the leap to a full-time freelance career, managing clients, projects, travel arrangements, a self-curated team, and her deliverables. This entails flying to countries far from her home and sometimes into places that carry a heavy preconceived bias affected by our mainstream media. Talking about Sierra Leone, where Freya recently shot on-location with local surfers, she recounts her experience with awe.
“When I was driving through Sierra Leone, and I took pretty conventional transportation, I couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t the Sierra Leone I thought it would be. I feel like I’ve been lied to [laughs].”
Those familiar with Freya’s work have had the pleasure of seeing countries like Morocco, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and many more from a much different perspective than our mainstream media would like us to see. Her milky sunsets over dusty African savannahs, stark street portraits of fishermen on the docks in Morocco, and baby elephants on reservation in Kenya are as enjoyable as they are works of storytelling gold.
But, the reality of being a humanitarian photographer can be far from heartwarming. “99% of my deliverable photography and videography isn’t on Instagram because it’s either too upsetting or it is specifically for client-use. The reason I’m employed is because of a need. And, that is need is usually pretty unhappy.” Freya is often on-location to tell stories that compel donations to save lives, improve environments, or to right wrongs that its sufferers are unable to combat on their own. She considers the works she shares for her digital audience to be more behind the scenes.
I asked Freya how she copes with a career that takes her, at times, to dismal and hopeless situations.
“As human beings, we like to believe that we are more than just mammals… that we have more power than we actually have. Death and disease come to everybody. We have to accept that’s how it really is. I just to convince myself that we don’t have to have control. Sometimes life and nature happens to us. There’s a lot of sadness out there but it’s not your responsibility to fix it.”
Freya was recently recognized by the National History Museum as the Shortlisted Wildlife Photographer of the Year for her media work in elephant conservation, a huge accomplishment for any photographer. Yet, she still intimates that “Self-doubt has been the biggest personal challenge from the very beginning. Only recently have I stopped looking at my life with the “screaming face emoji.” She says never got over the ‘unqualified’ feeling until she worked at it for so long that she got, in her own words, “a little tired.”
“You work at something for so long that you get tired and you can’t feel anxious about it anymore.”
Thinking back to what she said about aligning your ambition with what you love and doing something to work toward that ambition every day… I’m speaking with someone who has been working up to this moment for nearly a decade, longer if you count schooling and life experience. Putting that level of dedication and consistency into her craft has clearly paid off.
“If I had known from the very beginning that everyone was making it up as they went along…” we laugh. Freya tells me that if she had only known there wasn’t some universal qualifier or clear way to identify that you know what you’re doing, she might be a million miles ahead of where she is now. “Nobody knows what they’re doing. I’m flying by the seat of my pants, making it up as I go along.”
A theme I feel is important to cover in each Women Taking Leaps interview is myth. The myths we create about those we look up to, those we look into, and those we aspire to embody in some day. When asked about a myth she might dispel about herself or her work, Freya took a moment to hit the nail on the head. She is proud of her commitment to transparency and her style is undeniably honest. Yet, it’s her personality that seems to inspire myth to her capacity.
Someone once asked Freya, “How do you work in your field being so sweet, soft-spoken, nice, and shy?” This frustrated her! She exclaims, “If you want to work in development, animal welfare, or if you want to travel internationally - you don’t have to be big, pushy, and have a loud mouth. You don’t need to take up all the space in the room.”
Freya describes herself as always having been more reserved, more soft-spoken and observant. That hasn’t stopped her from being brave, direct, and assertive. There seems to be a belief that bravery is synonymous with big, loud gestures. That to be brave and reserved is not possible.
“It’s such a shame to think that if you want to be someone who travels, who takes photos, who talks to strangers in big, busy foreign places - that you have to fundamentally change who you are.”
Of course, she gets intimidated. She speaks of a time that on-location, she stood in a crowded room for four hours and didn’t lift her camera. It wasn’t out of shyness or a lack of confidence. Years of hard work and consistently have honed her creative style and her voice such that she knows herself, and knows what makes her unique.
“Being who you are is the most important thing. That means you’re doing something unique.”
When asked about what advice she has for anyone who may not feel like they’re very resourceful or confident - qualities I have come to see Freya exhibit with vibrancy watching her career evolve - her answer was passionate, as if she knows from experience.
“Do something every day. Keep working toward your big dreams. Don’t make a perfect plan and say “this is it, this is what I’m going to do.” and then wait until the right time to make it happen. Start now - do whatever comes into your head. Do what feels right. Focus on what makes you happy. Keep following that path.”
Freya is an old soul, I can tell. I wish I would’ve asked her if anyone has said that to her before. Old souls have this way of dispensing wisdom far beyond their years as if it were a regular quip of conversation. Her honesty, transparency, and her unwavering commitment to truth are what make her and her work so impactful to the causes she serves.
As I do in each interview, I asked her about what’s next. Unsurprisingly, everything that she’s thinking of is very much in “manifestation stage.” She says superstitious about looking things in the eye before they’re real. But Freya is no stranger to the work of manifestation. She jokes about locations she’s always wanted to visit and then strangely, the following week a pitch will come to her for that very location! This success, she explains, is also attributed to the network she’s built in London during her career in the not-for-profit sector.
I can’t help but ask, is there a story still waiting to be told that you’re aching to capture?
“Afghanistan. I’d love to work with women and children in Afghanistan. There’s an orphanage for refugee Afghan children in Pakistan. I would drive past it every day when working on location. It was so beautiful. They are a beautiful people, a beautiful culture. You know when you pass by a photo and you want to take it but you can’t. The image is burned into the back of your mind forever.”
Though she doesn’t have plans for Afghanistan yet, knowing what I do about Freya leads me to believe it won’t be long.
About Freya Dowson
Freya Dowson is an internationally recognized documentary storyteller, primarily working with photo and video while further venturing into services for non-profit agencies. Her work features a range of subjects from animal conservation in Kenya to surfers in Sierra Leone, street photography in Morrocco to her personal delights in England and Western Europe. An eye for light, a commitment to capturing the raw beauty and authenticity of her subjects, and a hearty resourceful soul continue to inspire us - all of us who follow her journey and those new to her work - to embrace life and "awake the light."
Learn more about Freya Dowson and her global documentary storytelling:
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Join us LIVE on Instagram: Thursday, February 22 at 12pm EST
Meg Dixon is no stranger to the struggle with food or its numerous root-causes. For years, Meg has catalogued her healing journey and shared countless inspiration and helpful articles to impact the lives of those struggling with disordered eating. In her years studying nutrition, Meg found clarity on her own pathway to healthy eating and is now a champion of the concept: intuitive eating, and arguably intuitive living. She now has a weekly podcast, a partnership consulting firm, and serves hundreds of women through her Facebook group: Nourishing Minds Tribe.
Learn more about Meg and Nourishing Minds:
If this is your first time joining us, read the introduction to the Women Taking Leaps Series
Check out the 2017 interviews that launched the series: