Currently based in the Swiss Alps, Ana-Maria Pavalache is an outdoor photographer and visual storyteller. She has spent much of her photographic career in the High Asia region and alongside her photography, she is a wonderfully engaging writer with a natural talent for discovering and sharing important, often uplifting, stories from the places she visits.
Whether it’s trekking in Ladakh, ski touring and climbing in the Swiss Alps, sailing the Pacific Northwest, exploring glaciers in the Karakoram or tracking wildlife in Tajikistan, Ana makes it her mission to immerse herself in the lesser known and to foster a true and vital understanding of our place in the world through visual storytelling.
Ana’s passion for wilderness and remote communities eventually shaped all parts of her life and her photography became a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries; a tool to inspire action and evoke empathy.
Wild Spaces: Give us a brief description of your journey to becoming a professional photographer.
Ana-Maria Pavalache: My journey wasn’t a straightforward one. After graduating with an MA in Geopolitics and International Affairs (Romania) and an MSc in Entrepreneurship & Innovation (Switzerland), I found myself pursuing a career in the banking industry but I soon decided to change and move into the humanitarian field working with local and international organizations.
For more than 13 years, I have held a camera in my hands in different circumstances and in the end, photography has become an essential part of my life; a way of life and a vehicle to explore the world. This wasn't about making a career anymore or just taking some shots, but a process of discovery, both external and internal. In the end, my dedication and passion for wilderness and remote communities eventually shaped all parts of my life and brought them together. Photography became a natural extension of the subjects that I loved the most.
How have the last 12 months been for you? How has COVID affected your work?
I remember being in Muscat, having spent a week in the Jebel Akdhar mountains and Sharqiya Sands desert with Outward Bound Oman (see image below). This was when I found out that a virus started to become a global problem, which knew no borders. My plans to visit a conservation area from Shiraz in Iran had to be cancelled and in the end, the remainder of my trip to Oman. With a pandemic crisis developing by the end of March, I had to come back to Switzerland. Here, I try to find a balance working as a part-time social educator and spending as much time as I could in nature and writing about my latest projects.
Inevitably, I had to postpone my work schedule for the summer of 2020, which included various different workshops and travels in Central Asia. However, I was fortunate to be able to join Coastal Exploration Company, a local community of traditional wooden sailing boats in North Norfolk. From here, new ideas emerged for future projects to that end, COVID helped me to step back and re-think, re-shape and re-design everything in my life.
What project are you most proud of and why?
In summer 2018, I joined the team and worked for Tajik Women & Conservation Initiative, in southern Tajikistan (image below), where the roaring waters of the Panj river separate the country from Afghan summits. Being in the right place at the right time gave me a profound sense of presence and connection with the people around me and the environment. Tajikistan as a country faces many conflicting challenges, not least striking a balance between politics, corruption, feeding its population and wildlife conservation. Despite many situations of despair, they are open-minded people and support for women initiatives in conservancies was outstanding. Inspiring young women to become aware of their environment and how to initiate change for a brighter and self-determined future was maybe one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.
Who or what has inspired you most during your career in photography?
With a father working in in Libya during the '80s and other relatives travelling to Oman and Yemen regularly, I developed a strange curiosity and passion for remote places during my childhood. Being born and raised in an ex-soviet country, near the Black Sea region, I joined the local Society of Oceanographic Explorations and Protection of the Marine Environment "Oceanic-Club" (Romania) in 2003 supporting in their endeavour to explore the Aegean Coast in Turkey. In that same period, I joined Satwa Guna, The Illusion of forms, a photographic project based on the visual interpretation of the universal concept of unity in diversity, an "acceptance and integration in an era of intolerance and fragmentation." Later on, I had the chance to meet photographer Olivier Föllmi and I resonated deeply with his search for higher ground and what connects people to their landscape; “the intensity of a moment shared” through his travels and outstanding artwork.
It feels like a pivotal time for the natural world - are you optimistic or pessimistic? Where do you think we’ll be in 2050?
The current pandemic situation and a climate crisis bearing down on us can easily make us negative about the future of our planet. If I look back, there have been many times that we have stood at the crossroad during time of crisis asked 'what's next?' but remarkably nature found its way out, so did we.
In the last couple of years there has been a significant effort in changing the narrative; from one of relentless anger and despair to one of taking action and creating optimism about the future by highlighting what is working today and finding ways to replicate and scale-up. There is a will from academia to better understand how our natural world is so deeply interconnected: trees communicate through a "wood wide web", renew all forms of knowledge, human stories that pushed the boundaries of what we know about the deep connection between human and other forms of life.
Indeed, we don't always direct our lives as responsibly as we can. But by not doing so, we do not honour the unique life each of us has been given. In the long run, I can only imagine a world split between a very urbanized and technology-driven population and one that want to find a more meaningful purpose and reconnect with nature. However, this is the right moment for us to walk towards a more authentic type of living, where we project ourselves into the future: actively, consciously, thoughtfully.
“Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better” Albert Einstein.
What projects do you have planned for 2021?
First, I would like to continue my project Close Encounters in Pakistan, travelling in some of the most remote corners of the Karakoram range with the purpose to reveal to the world what is unseen and often misunderstood. In parallel, I will continue my collaboration with local projects on supporting the conservation of the snow leopard (BWCDO, Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organisation), Girl's education and the environment (Iqra Fund) and the Karakoram Anomaly Project.
Furthermore, I will continue working with Mark Evans from Outward Bound Oman, with whom we have a new project in the pipeline exploring the traditional Dhow Sailing in different cultures around the world.
I would love to rediscover the Carpathian Mountains, one of Europe's last great wilderness areas and the ancient and primaeval beech forest trail. Essentally, I hope to continue building greater awareness of the responsibility we have as humans and the idea that every living story is our story, in the end.
How do you relax away from work?
In the last couple of years, I learned how important is to step back and give myself space to reconnect with nature. Whenever I’m out in the mountains or at sea, I have learned to find ways that are in tune with my true nature. These experiences have put me at rest and taught me to slow down and reconnect. Far away from being a professional, I love rock climbing for the flow state of experiences, where you have to be fully present. I love the simplicity of it; just you and the rock.
Which artists do you admire and why?
It all started with Sebastião Salgado and his profound interest in how different word economies affected people, seeking out the most moving, unsettling, perspective-shifting stories of life on Earth. It’s only later that I discover the work of Galen Rowell, one of the most iconic adventure photographers travelling to some of the most remote places around the world. I remember him saying that the ‘meditative’ nature of climbing was similar to the meditative nature of photography, in the way that both climber and photographer enter a ‘zone’ where time slows and senses are heightened.
Finally, what is your favourite book and do you have any you’d like to recommend?
One of my favourites is the stunning children’s fantasy novel Momo, by Michael Ende that holds one of the greatest truths:
“Life holds one great but quite commonplace mystery. Though shared by each of us and known to all, seldom rates a second thought. That mystery, which most of us take for granted and never think twice about, is time. Calendars and clocks exist to measure time, but that signifies little because we all know that an hour can seem as eternity or pass in a flash, according to how we spend it. Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart.”
From another perspective, I'd also recommend French writer Sylvain Tesson book “The Consolations of the Forest”.