Joanne Ratajczak on Continuous Travel

1. What drew you to traveling around North and South America with a camera?

Traveling around Canada grew out of many years photographing my hometown Poznan in Poland. I remember walking around this strangely familiar city where I grew up taking pictures and thinking about my personal history. This led me to want to start travelling around Ontario where I lived, and then the rest of Canada. At the time I remember reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus and being inspired by this childlike curiosity he had for exploring and learning about the world. This curiosity is what draws me to travel and photograph too.

Traveling to South America was different and happened by chance.

2. How did you start?

I was on a trip in the Yukon photographing the ends of roads. There was this old man Harold who had a van; he smoked a lot of cigarettes, something like three packs a day, and never emptied his ashtray in fifteen years. He also had a big hairy dog. When he died nobody wanted his van, there was a pyramid of cigarette butts in the front, it was pretty nasty; so by default because nobody wanted it we inherited it and thought it would be fun to drive it south until it dies. At this point I made a big change in my life, got rid of all my things and apartment. Cleaned the van for a week, put a bed in the back and started driving south from Whitehorse. Amazingly it made it to Ushuaia.

3. Tell us a bit about your first trip. Where did you go? How did you feel? What were the ups and downs?

The trip started in the Yukon and ended in Colombia. My boyfriend Dan and I did in parts, we would travel a while, then park the van, fly back to Canada and work for big chunks of time (mostly the summers) then continue. The first year we made it to Costa Rica, the second year we made it to Argentina then left the van in Uruguay for a year, the third year drove through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia where we ended up leaving the van for good.

I didn’t know much about Latin America before we took off so it was an amazing learning adventure. The beauty of it all was overwhelming and I was just trying to take in as much as I could, the landscape and plants, food, people, language…everything was foreign and trying to navigate your way through this unknown was really exciting. I felt free and in love, the happiest ever.

Travelling in a van for long periods of time on a budget creates it’s own challenges too. It forces you to simplify and get back to the basics, you start to appreciate little things like a hot shower and live day to day, really in the present here now. For me that is the best thing about taking these trips.

Sometimes trying to find a free camp spot at nights can become tiring, breaking down in the middle of nowhere (although most of these started as downs and lead to a new adventure which usually end up being an up), one down is not having a home base (working on that one) or community your friends and family.

4. What draws you to want to explore a place before you've seen it?

Lots of things, sometimes nothing other times could be just a name (Montevideo) or (Kathmandu - haven’t made it there yet).

For years I dreamed about this town in Argentina with multi colour mountains. I always wanted to get there, I read and read about it, looked at pictures, imagined the mountains and pink houses and this otherworldly landscape. When I made it there it felt surreal, this image I created in my mind was suddenly real, standing in front of me. Nothing is ever as you imagine it. I like that.

Other then this town in Argentina, the trip to South America was pretty unplanned so there wasn’t any research that went into it or a schedule to be followed. Most of the places we visited I’ve never heard of before and ended up there by chance or a recommendation by someone we met along the way.

5. What's the strangest place you've ever found yourself in?

Probably broke down for two weeks living at a gas station at the bottom of the world in Ushuaia. Or maybe on the top of a mountain in Northern Peru lost for three days also leaking oil trying to find a town to fix it in.

6. What's the loneliest you've ever found yourself on a trip?

Probably in Mexico on my birthday one year, I found myself alone in a strange town.

7. Who do you meet while on these trips? Or is space one of the appeals of traveling?

All kinds of people. Thanks to the van you end up in some town that has never seen tourists and get to meet locals and hang out with them. A few times we’ve slept in the mechanics garage while the van is getting fixed and it’s meeting these people that you wouldn’t meet in a normal situation that have become the best experiences. You also meet many traveler, young, old, people travelling long term or short but realize how many people there are living life this way. Most people you meet, share a great experience and never see again.

Space is a beautiful thing too. Especially here in the Yukon or down in Patagonia.

8. What way of getting around gets the best pictures?

Driving around you have the most freedom to get somewhere and then stopping and walking from there, it slows you down and you can walk for hours and observe things that is the best, for me there is nothing better then walking in nature (picture below from an early morning walk to volcano lookout in Guatemala).

9. How important is the camera and image making process to you whilst traveling?

The two always went together. Sometimes I take lots of pictures in one day on a walk and other times I don’t take the camera out for weeks.

10. How do you fund near-constant travel?

Pretty much work as much as I can back in Canada or on the road, making booklets and temporary work rooms along the way then tearing them down, sometimes living in a trailer in the Yukon, or house sitting and others in the van or a boat. It’s amazing how little expenses you have when you have don’t own anything. I have been fortunate to have assignments where I can merge the traveling and funding it, have been able to experience many places this way including the arctic ocean and the icebergs off Newfoundland last year. Things change and shift constantly and it’s being able to figure it out as you go, I haven’t figured it all out yet still working on it.

-travel frugal (we use a minivan good on gas, bed in back saves lots of money)

-live cheap (have near no expenses) (make more then you spend)

-work back home (save/invest)

-work remotely

-travel assignments

11. Do you ever feel like your work might be written off as 'travel photography'?

No, I don’t really care.