Samantha Gilchrist 'Follow the River' Full Interview

What was the motivation behind 'Follow the River' and why was it important for you to document the six-day hike along the Hollyford Track?

I think my original motivation was quite simple, I just wanted to keep a record of the experience. One of my favourite personal photos is one that I took at Annapurna base camp (Nepal) on my first multi-day hike in 1999.  

I love the photo because it reminds me of the actual experience, the feeling of achievement at making it to the base camp, even though I was totally unprepared for the trek and struggled most of the way.

It reminds me of how awestruck I was by the grandeur of the surrounding mountains and my absolute amazement at seeing the small wildflowers growing defiantly at that altitude.

That one small image has meaning for me, because it helps me to remember those sensations, along with memories of the many tears, the heavy pack, the leeches, the local lodges, the friends made along the way.

And every now again, it gives me the opportunity to re-tell the story, to keep those memories alive.

I think that is my main motivation for all my photography, to keep the memories alive, because I have a fear of forgetting and of being forgotten.

I suspect it is the same reason that many people take photos.

They serve as a proxy for a memory and provides an easy entry point to share some part of the story or experience with another person. 

‘Follow the river’ is an idealised version of our walk along the Hollyford Track, moving the viewer towards the ocean, taking in the mountain, river and forest landscapes along the way.

It doesn’t tell the full story of our hike, the difficult terrain, the challenging weather, or the ways that we were assisted by strategically placed three wire bridge crossings and timber huts.

But I hope that the images draw in the viewer and encourages them to engage with it and to then potentially ask questions about the location.

Perhaps they might be inspired to take a similar journey themselves and create their own memories and experiences. I mean, if I can do it, anyone can! 

Rebecca Solnit's 'Wanderlust: A history of walking' inspired your work, how so and how did nature and the everyday environment play a role in your creative process?

Earlier in the year, I listened to an interview with Ed Panar, who spoke about his photography, much of which he creates during walks around his hometown.

During the interview, the interviewer tells Panar that he should read ‘Wanderlust: A history or walking’ by Rebecca Solnit, to further unpack the link between his work and the act of walking.

As someone who also walks a lot, and enjoys taking photos during those walks, I was curious about the reference and decided to read the book myself.

The book expanded my understanding of walking in ways that I had never even thought to consider before.

Looking at the way that walking for pleasure in nature is a relatively new cultural construct, with unquestioned underlying supporting factors that enable this practice.

I also learnt about the Sierra Club and the activist work of Ansel Adams, an early member of this walking group.

I felt inspired to go back to my own experiences of walking in nature, applying this new knowledge.

This led to the decision to use the images that I had taken during my hike along the Hollyford Track in 2018, and to attempt to create a narrative to point to the ideals of the Romantics who developed the cultural construct of walking that we now enjoy, and the early environmentalists who linked walking to activism and the protection of our planet.

You captured your images on an iPhone 8, why and what were the benefits/difficulties in using a smartphone as opposed to a traditional camera? 

For me, using a phone to capture the images on the hike provided huge benefits that outweighed any potential creative difficulties.

When you are doing a multi-day hike, carrying all your supplies with you, it is all about the weight of your pack. Every gram counts.

It doesn’t feel that way when you first step out, but 6 hours later, you wish you didn’t pack that extra ‘thing’.

The spare battery pack, the notebook, the extra pair of socks. A few days into the hike, and you seriously regret all those decisions.

The lighter you can go, the more enjoyable the experience. I learnt that lesson the hard way.

During a hike a few years earlier on the Overland Track (Tasmania) I decided to take my DLSR, a tripod and two lenses with me.

Not only was it heavy, but I was also carrying it inside my pack to keep it safe, and so it meant that I had to stop and take off my pack each time I wanted to take a photo.

About 5 hours into the walk on the first day of this 6-day hike, I decided that it would be easier to just keep the camera around my neck for a while. It had stopped raining heavily and we were alongside Cradle Mountain.

The landscape was beautiful as we walked along a riverbed. Unfortunately, as I was taking in the view, my foot got stuck between some rocks, and I tripped.

With a heavy pack on my back, I couldn’t stop myself from falling, and because I still had my camera around my neck, I instinctively tried to protect it.

I fell awkwardly, my face hit a rock and a tooth cut through my lip. The pack pinned me down, so I couldn’t get up again on my own, and the sight of blood made me panic.

At that point we were still about three hours away from the first hut. I was hiking with my husband, so thankfully, he was able to help me, and we kept going.

After that incident, my husband ended up carrying the camera in the top of his pack, so I could get to it more easily without taking off our packs, but it also meant that he took the extra weight.

Stopping to get the camera out still felt like a hassle, so it didn’t come out very often.

By the end of the trip, I regretted that my husband had carried this extra load the whole way for no real reason.

When we planned the Hollyford Track hike, I again wanted to try and record the experience through photos, but with the experience of the Overland Track I knew that it had to be an easily accessible and lightweight option, otherwise, it just wouldn’t happen.

I always carry a mobile phone with me on the hike, so being able to have a piece of equipment that could multi-task and take photos too was ideal. I could easily keep it in the pocket of my raincoat or hiking pants and whip it out and put it away quickly.

So, I upgraded my phone to the best one that I could afford at the time and bought a waterproof, tough case.

Of course, there are some limits that are then placed on the images in terms of quality and size.

But my motivation at the time was to document the journey to help us remember the experience, and to share some of it with family and friends online.  So, I didn’t have an issue with the compromise.

To be honest, my main concerns came along afterwards, when I decided to use the images for my photo book project.

I started doubting whether the images could be considered as art because of their original intention and the use of an iPhone.

I felt like the photos were not valid because they hadn’t been taken with a ‘proper’ camera.

It led to many questions about my understanding of art and the creative process, and I had to find a level of acceptance, and let go of my pre-conceived ideas about what art ‘should’ look like.

What was your creative process and what challenges did you come across from concept, through to creation, then to editing/piecing together your final work?

I enjoy the experimentation phase of the creative process. Trying out ideas, learning new skills.

In this case, I trialled using photos with paints and inks, layering images, testing different page layouts and hand binding the pages.

With so many ideas, it was difficult to settle on a final concept, but in the end, I decided that the narrative would be best presented in a simple layout, with the use of mainly black and white images, complemented with simple line drawings.

With a deadline in place, I also had to make some compromises in the end, so the final product is not exactly as I had imagined it, but my pragmatic side knows that it had to be completed, and whilst it’s not perfect, it is always better to finish the work. 

What motivated you to enrol in Contact Sheet's mentorship program, what did you find most challenging during the course and what do you feel you got out of it that you wouldn't have if you didn't sign up?

I enrolled in Contact Sheet hoping to expand my understanding of photography as an artistic practice and searching for new inspiration. I had been feeling unmotivated to pick up my camera at the time and was hoping to find a new direction.

I found a supportive environment that expanded my understanding of art and artistic practice.

The most challenging part was speaking about my work on a regular basis.

But despite my personal struggles with this aspect, it was also invaluable in helping me to think about my process and consider areas where I could add more structure and research or question more deeply the reasons behind my creative decisions.

This is an area that I need to keep working on and would have been an area that I wouldn’t have given much consideration if I didn’t sign up for the program. 

How did the mentorship program change you as an artist and what direction would you like to take your art in the future?

The program has helped me to gain confidence in my work.

I still have a way to go, but with the support of Paul and the group over the last year, I have felt empowered to experiment with multiple artforms alongside photography, and to continue to pursue a visual aesthetic that I enjoy, rather than trying to meet a certain self-imposed ideal.

I hope that I will continue to develop an artistic practice with an increased emphasis on research, alongside creating intuitively.