Hi world travelers, I’m Simon Russell, professional photographer and explorer of moments in time. My eyes and mind are forever searching for light, color, and gesture; be it a human condition or one of nature. My motto is to always aim for the highest vantage point, to get the end of the road, to see in 360 degrees and to always stop, take a moment, and talk & listen to people. My trusty camera has been my companion for over 30 years and it always takes me on the most amazing adventures.
What interests you most about traveling?
As a kid I read adventure and science fiction novels and both created a sense of wanderlust in me that only travel could satisfy. I guess I’m really just intrigued by people and their lifestyles, by exotic landscapes and by the food (I’m a foodie), which I jokingly say is the “real” reason I travel. Another aspect of travel is that when I leave the comfort zone of my home and head out on an assignment, I get a heightened sense of awareness – my vision, hearing, touch and taste all become super sensitized to what’s going on around me. The world really becomes a kaleidoscope of experiences and I’m compelled to dive in and be a part of it, to let my passion drive me forward, to truly feel exhilaration, joy, fear, anticipation and a plethora of other emotions – it’s the best natural high ever!
How do you select countries that you visit?
I have a large world map on my studio wall, placed so that I have to walk by it all the time. It’s loaded with multicolored pins, representing the bucket list of countries I must visit. Invariably, though, I end up returning over and over again to a country I’ve been to before, sort of “falling in love” with it, seeing it at different times of year, experiencing the festivals, finding new people and landscapes to visit.
What brought you to Ireland specially?
Well, to answer that question, I have to take you back in time. In 1986, a friend purchased an old mansion and castle in Dundrum, a tiny village in the lush, green heartland of Tipperary and she invited a few friends and myself over to help her renovate it. We were too busy to travel around the country much, but that was fine - it was really more about meeting some amazing people, experiencing the character and spirit of Ireland, which we did with reckless abandon! Those six months on the Emerald Isle really left an impression on me and in part, opened the door to being hired by Fodor’s Travel Guides to photograph a book on Ireland in 2001. The images you see in this story are all from the four trips I made to Ireland during that year to capture images for the stories in the book.
How did you plan your trip?
Well the “Escape to Ireland” book I photographed for Fodor’s Travel Guides was the perfect opportunity to explore the country. The writer, Anto, who is Irish and I, were given carte blanche to come up with ideas and stories about the Emerald Isle. Between us we had so many friends, family and connections there that we just made it our playground for a year!
What recommendations can you share for future travelers?
For me, it’s the landscape that very often draws me to a place. So visiting the West Coast of Ireland is a must, especially The Burren [An Bhoireann, the “rocky place”] in County Clare. This stark, geological moonscape with its megalithic tombs and absolute solitude was a wonderland for me.
Now, if you’re looking for a wee bit of the Irish lyrical spirit in music and storytelling, then you have to check out the “craic” [good fun] at a Fleadh, which are traditional music festivals held in different towns around Ireland. The one I went to, the Fleadh Nua, was in Ennis, County Clare and it was 5 days of foot stomping music that spilled out of the pubs and onto the streets. Everyone is welcome to join in, in some way or another, from keeping a simple beat on your glass of Guinness to picking up your fiddle and playing like Tommy Peoples!
Lastly, if you’re like me and love to travel as an excuse to eat, then Ireland has a treat for you, especially in the West Cork, the epicenter of a region devoted to the glories of farmhouse foods. You really can taste the landscape here because its green lushness permeates the food. In villages like Schull, folks are dedicated to preserving local food making traditions.
What is your favorite memory of the trip?
Crikey that’s a tough question! Almost impossible to answer, since every experience I had in Ireland has an amazing memory associated with it. Here’s one that stands out though:
For a week I had been living the agony and ecstasy [words that Anto coined] of riding the wild mountains and seascapes of Connemara in the west of Ireland with a tour operator and their American clients. The two guides leading us were brilliant and told great stories with a wicked sense of humor that had all of us laughing our heads off every day, even through the hard uphill climbs! When the tour was done we all said goodbye and went our separate ways. The sudden change from all that camaraderie and laughing to me being alone, was a huge downer, I almost cried! So I called my friend in Ennis and asked what he was up to, he said he’d be taking his boat out to Inis Mor, one of the Aran Islands, so I raced to meet him. By the time I got there it was dusk, a dubious time to take a 45 minute boat ride to an island in the Atlantic, but we donned our survival suits and hopped into his 16 foot Zodiac and made haste for Inis Mor. Darkness descended and the waves grew into 5 foot white caps, which in a small boat is quite frightening. Finally, the glowing lights of Inis Mor came into view and I knew we’d make it there alright. We moored the boat next to a pub and ordered an Irish whiskey and Guinness to calm the nerves.
The next morning we rose at the crack of dawn, met a few friends at the boat, and sped off to the Cliffs of Moher; which rise almost 400 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. It was a scene out of a National Geographic documentary – seabirds of all kinds diving into the ocean and fish jumping the opposite direction to avoid becoming our breakfast. And in the midst of it all, we spotted Fungie the dolphin, a male dolphin that had been living the solitary life there since 1984. We put on our snorkeling gear and jumped in to play with him in spite of the water being unbearably cold. Even though we could only stay in for a few minutes at a time, it ranks as one of my favorite travel experiences ever!
What advice do you have for individuals that want to start traveling internationally, but don’t know how to start?
Get a passport! Pick a point on the world map that intrigues you and then head to the computer to do some research. The world is really getting easier to travel around and the variety of ways in which to experience it are endless. Maybe choose a place where your family has some history or a city where a friend lives, that way you’ll have a guide to show you around. Sustainable tourism and what some operators are calling “transformative travel” are great ways to see the world as well as experiencing the lifestyle of the country and people you are visiting through working with them on community projects. The world’s your oyster. Get cracking!
What was your funniest moment from your trip?
Well humor and Ireland are wicked bedfellows, so almost all of my travels were laced with sublime hilarity or outright hysterics! One instance that stands out, mostly for its “quiet” humor, was an early morning run in with a group of roosters crowing away outside my bedroom window at a pub/inn that I had spent the night at. The sun hadn’t even risen and they were crowing something wicked, so I ran outside in my pajamas, with wild eyes and hair and chased them off the windowsill. Not sure if anyone saw me, but it would have made for a hilarious photo.
What’s next for you?
Well, my new “love affair” is with Haiti, specifically a tiny speck of and island called Ile-a-Vache, a real pearl in the Antilles! For the last four years I’ve been sponsoring and organizing [with the help of a few amazing people] a kids soccer tournament on the island, everyone has fun - the kids, the community and it’s absolutely changed my life in so many positive ways. In February of next year I have plans to travel to Bhutan to meet up with a friend who is organizing The Bhutan International Festival; a weeklong celebration of music, art, films and culture. This trip will be a dream come true for me - what could be better than seeing the Himalayas?! Life is short, get out and have some adventures.
Images Courtesy of Simon Russell