All images by Mattea McKinnon. Used with permission.
“There’s no greater feeling than heading to a completely new country, stepping on new ground and capturing scenes from your perspective,” says photographer Mattea McKinnon. Her travel photographs, as detailed as they are, take you away from your environment. Her images transport you to where they were taken, filling you with a sense of wonder and excitement. If you’re struggling with the global restrictions right now, this article is for you. Join us as we hand our metaphorical passports to McKinnon, allowing her to take on a breathtaking journey.
Mattea McKinnon Essential Gear
“I travel fairly light. I take my main camera, a Sony a7iii and a Sony F.E. 24-70mm G.M. lens, a 35mm prime, and a tripod. I always carry spare memory cards and at least one hard-drive to back everything up. I usually take my smaller Sony A6000. It’s a handy camera to have when space is an issue or when I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I’ve still shot some of my favourite photos on that camera.”— Mattea McKinnon
Phoblographer: Can you tell us what life was like growing up and how you feel that influenced your thirst for travel?
Mattea McKinnon: I was very fortunate to be born by the sea. I grew up on the South Coast in the U.K., in a small place in between Southampton and Bournemouth. Looking back, it was a great area to grow up. We had the New Forest and the ocean close by, and the city a 15-minute train journey away. It helped keep me busy as a teen. I was very fortunate to have been able to go on vacations overseas with my family as a child. This must have sparked my interest subconsciously. I found my old school yearbook the other day, and I’d written ‘to travel the world’ as my ambition, so I guess at 16 I must have already had the yearning!
My Grandad was also an influence – he travelled to Sri Lanka and lived in Malaysia during the 40s and 50s. I remember being really intrigued by his black and white photo albums. He was a keen photographer himself.
Phoblographer: Which is the one bit of kit in your camera bag that you couldn’t be without?
Mattea McKinnon: My 24-70mm is such a great all-rounder lens. It’s perfect for when I’m on the road and I’m not sure what I’m going to document – whether it be landscapes or portraits. The lens is super versatile and the quality is insane when paired with the Sony a7iii. The dust blower is also a bit of kit I couldn’t do without!
Phoblographer: Allow us to set the scene. You’re in Indonesia, and you’re creating your Mount Bromo photo. It’s sunrise, and the scene is beautiful. What feelings are running through you in that moment?
Mattea McKinnon: That was a really significant moment for me that will forever stay imprinted in my mind. To see Bromo had been a dream for a very long time, and it truly exceeded my expectations. We’d set our alarms for 12.30am that morning to get up there in time for sunrise, travelling from a town called Malang. The light was incredible – low lying mist and a hazy orange hue around the active volcano. It was a proper other-worldly experience. The world felt almost pre-historic and as if time no longer existed. I remember feeling completely present and grateful to be alive.
Phoblographer: From your travels, where did you experience the biggest culture shock? How did you adapt to ensure you could still make strong images?
Mattea McKinnon: Going to South East Asia for the first time can be a bit of a culture shock, especially coming from the West. Everyone remembers their first trip! I travelled to Laos and Thailand with two mates as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. We were dropped in the middle of a street party in the early hours of the morning and hadn’t booked anywhere to stay. This was way before the days of having internet phones, and we found most places by chance and word of mouth. We ended up staying in a ‘hotel’ for $1.40 a night. It had no running water with a bedsheet for our window – and some complimentary cockroaches! I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed at the time but pretty chuffed with the price we’d paid!
I quickly fell in love with the food, culture, climate. Once you’ve been, you can never quite capture that first feeling again – being in awe of the organised chaos.
I find that part of the world so fascinating. The food, the colors, the smells – it hits every sensation. I think that’s why I keep going back! One of my favourite places in the world is Java, Indonesia – for the people and the landscape. Now, I research a fair bit before heading somewhere new – the last thing I want is to do something unintentionally disrespectful and offend the locals. It is considered rude to take someone’s photograph in some places, so it is about being mindful. Most people are very happy to have their shot taken if you ask permission.
Phoblographer: Travel is limited right now. How has that impacted you mentally and from a productivity perspective?
Mattea McKinnon: The downtime last year really gave me time to focus and work on personal projects. There are stories everywhere, they can just be a bit harder to see from your homeland. But they appear when time is on your side. I’ve been shooting a lot from my doorstep and going to places I’d previously overlooked which has been an eye-opener. The older I get; the more precious time feels – so I am trying to make use of every moment. Being a bit bummed about being unable to travel is still a position of privilege – something I have to remind myself of.
Phoblographer: Travel photography offers a dream lifestyle, but what are some of the struggles of being a travel photographer, and how do you deal with them?
Mattea McKinnon: It definitely isn’t as glamorous as it may appear. There’s a lot of long, uncomfortable journeys and sleepless nights. Stuff gets broken, flights get missed – lots of things can go wrong, and it is easy to get sick and pick up bugs. The competition is also pretty fierce. You’ve got to be dedicated and confident in your ability to offer something different.
My income doesn’t come solely through travel – I offer other types of photography and video etc. Being adaptable is important as a freelancer, especially now.
Phoblographer: And to sell the dream: what’s the best part of being a travel photographer?
Mattea McKinnon: Ultimately, the idea that an image may inspire somebody else to travel is really rewarding. Trying to document meaningful stories in the form of photo projects is something I’m passionate about – to draw attention to difficult world issues which require attention or political action.
Meeting people from all over the world is something I love. That includes learning about other cultures and ways of life. And, as cheesy as it might sound, photography really does change your perception of everything and the way you digest the world. It stretches my mind and helps me become super in tune with my surroundings.
Phoblographer: For many people, their biggest barrier to travel, especially in developing countries, is a concern about safety. What advice would you give an aspiring travel photographer?
Mattea McKinnon: I think it is important to remember there are dangerous places everywhere – we often find the unknown a little scary but it doesn’t mean it actually is. I’ve had far more bad experiences in my own home country than whilst travelling.
Doing plenty of research is always handy and there’s heaps of great content online now to help you get a feel of a place before you go. It is always good to be aware of your surroundings. Most people in life are very kind, genuine and helpful. Things often won’t be done the way you’re used to in your own country. There will be similarities but many differences, and sometimes it is easier to just roll with it.
Phoblographer: You sell prints. We imagine you have many images. What makes an image “print-worthy” in your opinion?
Mattea McKinnon: Tricky! I think the question I often ask myself is – would I put this up in my own home? If the answer is no, then it definitely isn’t going up for sale! Something that evokes emotion is always something I like to look for. Also, the obvious things like checking the quality against the sizing. I still pinch myself that people actually like my work enough to hang it in their home. Mad.
Phoblographer: Finally, when freedom restores, what does the future hold for you?
Mattea McKinnon: A trip to Slovenia is definitely on the cards – it looks incredible, and I am still yet to go. I’m itching to explore some more of Europe whilst I’m in the U.K. I’m also working on lots of projects that I’m excited to get out there soon.
You can see more of Mattea’s work by visiting her website.