Polar Explorer: Maya Beano

Maya Beano is a scientist and gifted, self-taught photographer. Her work is an explorer’s dream world of isolated landscapes captured in vivid colours; which show hazy figures wandering as if they’re simply passing through these places onto somewhere else. There is something comforting about the contemplative mood of both the places and the people in her work. It is Maya’s unique eye which takes the viewer on a reflective journey exploring the connection between humans and nature. We were so pleased to speak to Maya further on how she approaches her photography, her travels and the poignant series of images that she made using her late Grandfather’s beloved camera.

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There are so many things about your work which enthralled me: the exploration, the way that it makes me feel like a tiny speck of nothing in those huge landscapes. I felt that some of the images were almost a mirror into which I was studying myself too.  I imagine there are lots of emotions that you experience when you’re travelling to new places to photograph. How do you focus yourself on trips?  Does your method of shooting involve a lot of waiting around for the right moment, or do you plan in your head what you’re aiming to capture?

It’s definitely a bit of both. Most of the time, I have a preformed mental image that I try to bring to life. I enjoy telling emotional stories with my photos, and there’s a fair bit of planning that goes on to capture some of the ideas in my mind, to present them in a tangible form. I guess anything that involves inner observation is a bit more ambiguous than the tangible world around us. However, it’s not very healthy to live in your head all the time! I think it’s important to let go every once in a while, to embrace spontaneity and to live in the moment. Sometimes I get an infinitely better photo out of that. I’m still learning.

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I really like the way that people in your images are often cast as anonymous silhouettes – sometimes faces are obscured, they have their backs to the camera or they’re shown as figures far off in the distance. Yet despite this, they don’t feel like strangers to the viewer. I know that some photographers find combining people with landscapes difficult. Do you have similar struggles and have to approach composing your images differently when there are people in them?

I think that nature does a great job at encompassing the full range of human emotions, and my favourite photos are landscapes with people in them. The colours, patterns and moods brought on by the ever-changing weather are things that I especially love working with. I’m drawn to photos in which nature is used for the projection of the viewer’s feelings, and combining people with landscapes makes it even easier for the viewer to relate. Perhaps they see parts of themselves in the figures, hence why they don’t necessarily feel like strangers. As for the composition, I wait until the people in the photos blend into their surroundings somehow – I try to always keep the focus on the landscapes rather than the people.

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I was so touched by the series on your website which you created using your late Grandfather’s camera. With film cameras there’s often that knowledge that you’re using a piece of equipment that was once owned by someone else, but the poignancy and sentiment is obviously much greater in this instance. The series that you created with his camera are incredibly beautiful and bold, painterly pictures. Can you tell us a little bit about where these were shot and how it felt using such a treasured camera?

My Grandfather’s beloved camera – he gave it to me only a few days before he passed away last year. Photography meant a lot to him – he was an engineer, an avid camera collector and a painter. He always used to take me aside to show me his photographs and paintings of nature. I didn’t want to let him down, so I put my soul into a new series shot solely with his camera. I went to Minnesota, where my grandfather lived for many years and where my mother grew up. I’d never been there, and it was my mum’s first time back there in forty years. I was really excited about shooting with a new camera, and I quickly learned why that camera was his favourite. It’s a very sturdy piece of kit that ended up visiting six different states in the US with me. The series that resulted is a combination of photos taken on the road, by the Great Lakes and in some of the deepest forests I’ve ever been to. It was a very rewarding trip photography-wise, but really, the main reason I was there was to spend time with family. Most of my mum’s siblings live out there. It was a trip to remember my Grandfather.

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I’ve read that your work is frequently described as quite gloomy, but for me there is also a warmth to it. I felt that there was something beyond those images I’m meant to be looking for – maybe it’s that sense of exploration again and the world being so much greater than us. For me, they also define one of the essential elements of what makes a good image, in that you want to go back and look at them again. Are there any places you’ve already been to that you’d like to revisit and re-shoot?

Oh yes, definitely. Having seen a very icy Iceland last March, I’d like to go back again to explore it in the summertime. I was told by the locals that everything there changes dramatically with the seasons, and I’m curious to see the landscapes under a different light. To address your point about the world being greater than us, I definitely think it is. On the whole, the universe is indifferent to us, but I also think we have a great impact on our world here on Earth. It is up to us to create meaning in our lives, to protect our tiny planet, to strive towards understanding each other a bit better and to cherish what little time we have with our loved ones. That, to me, is warmth. 

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I know that you juggle your work as a scientist with your photography. What are your plans for this year?

I’m currently a full-time scientist, which means that most of the photos are taken during holidays or occasionally at weekends. I’ve got a few ideas of where I’d like to go next in the world… Norway, Canada, Greenland to name a few. Lofoten in Norway would be an absolute dream, as well as Banff in Canada. I don’t have any firm plans just yet, but I’m working on it. 

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Images © Maya Beano
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To see more of Maya’s incredible work: mayabeano.com/

Instagram: www.instagram.com/mayabeano/

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