Today, Julia Cumes joined your hosts Kaitlyn and Nawaf to discuss her expansive career in photojournalism, capturing some of the rawest and most dynamic photographs we have ever seen. Featured in Nat Geo, freelancing, and contributing to The Cape Cod Times as well as other reputable publications – Julia is a truly decorated and appreciated photographer both in Cape Cod, South Africa, and across the world. Cumes was born in South Africa, and moved to Cape Cod when she was young. She summarises that her mission from the very beginning was to tell stories she’s passionate about, and she has succeeded in doing both that and becoming a well-renowned photographer. Cumes’ scope is immensely wide, and she says there are so many different mediums she’s worked with.
“I actually didn’t study photography… After studying an NFA in writing, I was offered a free class – so I chose photography. It just really struck me that it was my passion. Academia didn’t feel right for me.”
Cumes decided she wanted to return to photojournalism at an Ivy League University, Syracuse University.
When you started Julia Cumes Photography, what did you envision when you began it?
It was hard to imagine the trajectory my life would take. Underneath it all, I knew I wanted to tell stories that I really cared about. I ended up in a geographically isolated place [Cape Cod] and because of the seasonality, I could get a lot of work during the season, but in the off season I could travel to places that I wanted to tell stories about. I quickly started realising that people weren’t going to give me the stories I wanted to tell, so I did it myself. So I combined projects: I went to India to photograph orphaned elephants and while I was there, I’ll tag on my own project (The Devadasi System).
I very quickly understood that I needed to make my own way and find projects I cared about. So, I never had a specific vision but I knew I wanted to follow my passion.
Cumes actually travelled back to India two more times, to study the Devadasi System. Cumes recalls a time when she was at a bus stop in India, and everybody was staring at her. A gentleman asked her questions in English, and she then communicated with the huge crowd surrounding her, since the bus was two hours late.
Years ago, I discovered a small article about the Devadasi system. I was stunned to discover that this practice, which began in the 9th century, is still going on in India today. With few leads online and almost no literature about the system, I decided to go to India and see what I could learn about this extraordinary practice of religiously sanctioned prostitution.Julia Cumes, on the Devadasi System
Where do you get your commissions from? Who are your biggest clients?
I’ve freelanced for Newspapers, the Boston Globe, The New York Times, a lot of work for animal welfare – Lion Collaring in Kenya, Hurricane Katrina, domestic snakes rescued during Katrina. The fires in California, a lot of animals needed to be brought to safety and they’re my favourite clients.
I worked with Kenya, Rwanda, Lebanon, Malawi, undergraduate degrees for refugees – so a very wide variety of projects. I worked for local magazines, from everything from healthcare to animals.
It’s kind of crazy, the broad scope of my work.Julia Cumes on her 19 years of work
What kind of obstacles and hardships did you face in your career?
I have definitely been in situations that have been a bit hairy, when I did a story in Tanzania on a political issue [corruption] and they basically confronted me [the police] and I was actually afraid for my life. I’ve definitely been in situations where I have been censored, and you know, I would say I feel lucky to be in a time period where there’s so much incredible communication – where you don’t necessarily have to have your work published in the New York Times to be seen by the world.
The BLM movement – if those videos wouldn’t have been made, no one would have heard of this. In South Africa, there was a lot of censorship.
The newspaper industry has fallen apart, so photojournalists can no longer work for a newspaper for their entire careers. Everyone has been laid off. It’s definitely a challenging time for photojournalists in general.
On my blog, apertures and anecdotes, that’s my own thing and my own platform. I don’t need a publication, and there’s no censoring.
Thank you for tuning in for today’s podcast, and we’re so glad to have interviewed Julia on her great career in photojournalism. Stay tuned.