Growing up did you know you would get into photography?
I grew up around a lot of photography. My grandfather was a great amateur photographer who photographed me regularly and with my grandma made entire albums of me. A young uncle of mine was also really into photography and had his own darkroom. I wanted a camera to record my experiences at my first YWCA summer camp when I was seven years old. I took a lot of very blurry photos of my friends and our activities. This was happening at a time when photography was not an interest and activity of the masses, like it is today, the seventies and eighties. As a child, I don’t remember thinking I want to be a photographer. It was just something I enjoyed very much.
When did your interest in photography become something more for you?
I got my first 35mm camera when I turned sixteen. But I didn’t become passionate about creating images until I had graduated from college and was working as a volunteer intern in Zimbabwe. I was working with an indigenous women’s organization there for two years and I found the culture, the people and the environment around me so beautiful and fascinating. I was dying to show my family and friends at home this new world I was experiencing. I was able to incorporate photography into my daily work at the organization. I used my images to illustrate the difficult issues that the women were facing in the grant proposals I was writing to European donors. I went home to the States for my sister’s wedding after nine months of avid photography. I showed them some of my photos and was really surprised with their reactions. They encouraged me to try and get an exhibit. It was the first time I remember thinking I wanted to become a photographer.
Are you self-taught?
Yes, I am self-taught but mentors have played a key role in my development as a photographer.
Which countries have you spent time in to pursue your photography?
African people have been my focus and I have spent a lot of time there. In addition to a ton of travel, I have lived and worked in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. In 1996, I did a solo backpacking journey from Egypt to South Africa where I went to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Swaziland. I have been to some of these countries several times and spent time in Rwanda and Namibia as well. I have also photographed in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala and Mexico. I would like to do more in Europe.
Which is your favorite place to make images?
Mozambique is my favorite place. I love it and have spent more time there than anywhere else. The people, their cultures and traditions, the food, the beaches, the beauty, I could go on. And all of the friends I have made there make it so special to me.
Where would you like to go back to?
I would love to go back to Zanzibar. What a fascinating place! I love the blend of cultures and the great beauty of the island.
Where is your favorite city to visit?
I love Cape Town so much! I lived there for five years and really miss it. To me, it is the most beautiful city in the world.
What countries are on your must visit list?
Ethiopia, Morocco and Portugal are at the top of my list.
What has been the motivation behind your most recent shoots?
My attention has centered on the people of northern Mozambique since 2005. In particular, I am concentrating on a small island there called Ilha de Mozambique or Mozambique Island. It is a UN heritage site and the former colonial capital of Mozambique. It is a unique place with such a rich history and varied ethnic and religious traditions. I really admire the islanders commitment to the celebration and acceptance of multiple cultures. I am documenting their lives and culture. My dream is to have a book of this work to be published. I would also love to have an exhibition in Mozambique. I’m headed back next year.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about being a photographer?
For me the biggest misconception is that being a photographer is a glamorous job that is paid well. For some, this is true but I think it is an exception. Carrying around a seventy-five pound backpack plus camera equipment, riding around for days in hot and crowded buses, trucks, trains and boats, staying in a lot of one star places, eating peanuts and mangos for days on end is adventure and I love it but it is not glamorous.
Where can we follow you online?
Please follow me on Instagram @jelisapeterson.
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© Alwayz Therro