Cat is an award-winning adventure and ethnographic photographer. She photographs ways of life, working on adventurous projects for NGOs, social entrepreneurs, responsible businesses and on expeditions.
Cat’s curiosity for human nature and her adventurous spirit have seen her explore the landscapes, seascapes and people that have so far escaped the long reach of today’s world: from the mountains to the ocean, across the deserts and the tundra, with some of the last true nomads of the world. In addition to the Illuminate projects documented on this site, Cat’s Nomadic Souls Project has taken her to the frozen Himalaya, in search of the Chang Tang-Pa, the Tibetan nomads, refugees in the Indian Himalaya. She has followed the remote, isolated yak caravans of the Dolpo-Pa, the salt traders of the Himalaya, through high passes in the heavy snowfall of winter months. She has lived with a nomadic family in the South Gobi desert and spent months with the elusive Moken, in their last years of nomadic life on the Andaman Sea.
Cat is passionate about sharing stories. On every project she completely immerses herself in the way of life, as one of them, allowing her to develop a strong and empathic connection with the people. This intimacy allows her to capture the human stories, their spirit and the fragile connection between people and land. It has led to some rare and remarkable explorations, encounters and lifelong friendships. Her sensitivity paves the way for authentic and compelling eye-level stories, otherwise hidden to the outside world.
Behind the scenes…
I have dedicated over a decade to photographing ways of life, human stories, adventurous and environmental stories with complete integrity. I love what I do. I am in search of the World’s remaining nomadic souls. You can view my full portfolio of nomadic images here.
Cat lying on the floor of a Temple in Sakten, Eastern Bhutan
Bhutan is a small Himalayan Kingdom, a sovereign state, landlocked in the eastern Himalayas. The King of Bhutan is known as Druk Gyalpo, meaning Thunder Dragon King. Since 1971, the country has rejected GDP as the only way to measure progress. In its place, it has championed a new approach to development, which measures prosperity through formal principles of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment. It is an example to the rest of the world and a reminder to us all that we have a duty to protect our fragile planet.
Top: These children in Myanmar seemed to take a huge tropical rainfall in their stride; Bottom left: The mothers learning to swim in the Maldives are used to tropical downpours; Bottom right: At -40 degrees in the high Himalaya, my fingers were frozen – but life carries on and the sheep and goats still need feeding
I am lucky that I have an ability to feel ‘at home’ in any environment almost immediately. But shooting in ALL types of weather, environment and terrain can make capturing images incredibly challenging. I need to be as prepared as possible before I arrive and then let nature take its course. Mentally I have to adjust, carry on and ‘see’ the moments through the pouring rain, the biting wind, the sweat dripping in my eyes or try to ignore my frozen fingers.
One of the last salt caravans in the world in the high Himalaya
This was probably the hardest thing I have ever done, a real test of my commitment to photography and a test of my resilience. I had traveled for six weeks and over a thousand miles across the high Himalaya with one of the last nomadic caravans of the world, the Dolpo-Pa people of Nepal, and Pasang, a Sherpa. We had woken at dawn to a whirling snowstorm and chaos in camp; a yak had been lost in the night. Pasang insisted we went ahead to reach the Nangdalo La (pass), 5,350 meters high. We waited, frozen at the pass, and the Dolpo-Pa didn’t come. I wanted a shot of the yaks crossing the pass in the snow as for me this portrayed these high altitude traders – the bloodstream of the Himalaya. We finally arrived at a new camp that night in the pitch black, exhausted. At dawn, we repeated the trek back up to the pass and waited frozen, all day, staring into the snow. They didn’t come. We returned to our camp again in the dark.
Three days in a row we made this journey. On the fourth day Pasang said we had to rest – the journey up to the pass was at such high altitude and we’d already pushed our bodies too far. That morning a caravan came. I had missed them at the pass. I practically ran up the mountain to try to meet Thinle’s caravan, which I had been traveling with earlier. I saw them come charging down over the pass – this was my moment. I was just below the pass and I got my shot. I was exhausted but I had managed to reach them, just in time, as they crossed the pass in front of me.
Top left: The mothers from the Sink Or Swim project sharing a special moment together as they took us to visit their home island; Top right: Sanee, a beautiful girl inside and out, invited us into her home and talked to us about her life.
It’s all about fitting in to the family or community, being accepted as a friend, as an artist, and not being seen as a tourist. I try to cross the inherent boundaries of language and culture to move beyond the ‘stranger’. Making a connection is imperative. If you’re careful with people and you respect them, they will offer a part of themselves that they don’t often share. When I arrive somewhere new, the first thing I do is try to make a friend with someone I’m drawn to. My projects evolve through empathy and the connections and friendships I make.
Waking up in the kabang at first light
I slept as they did on the bare wooden planks without a pillow or blanket, wrapped only in a sarong. It was my first night with the Moken, the last of the sea nomads, on the Surin Islands, south of the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea. I spent over three months living with Sabai, her husband Tat and their three young sons. Home was a small hand-crafted, single-log boat called a kabang that served as a kitchen, bedroom and communal living area. Open to the elements at either end, a cold wind would howl through the boat sapping warmth from its barely covered inhabitants. Diam, meaning cold, was the first Moken word I learned. Seeing me shiver, Sabai gathered up her youngest son and placed him on top of me like a human hot water bottle. It was for me the ultimate form of trust and the first indication that I had been accepted.
Left: Working along side Colin in the central dry zone of Myanmar; Right: Working along side Alex on the Sink or Swim project in the Indian Ocean
Working along side film crews can often be challenging with competing demands and needs and usually up against time or light. But when it all comes together it feels incredible, knowing that these moments of human endeavour have been captured as an image, with a voice, with movement, sound and atmosphere. It needs more patience than shooting alone but its incredibly exciting to share a story in pictures, words and film.
Wild horses of the Mongolian Steppe, South Gobi desert
For three days I tried to persuade the Mongolian nomads to herd their wild horses towards me as I lay in the dust, in the middle of the Gobi desert, to capture the energy of wild horses. Finally they agreed, on the proviso that four Mongolian men would stand straddled over my body to protect me.
Left: Looking at my storyboards in the Nepalese Himalaya; Right: Learning to spin yarn from yak wool in the Bhutanese Himalaya
I want my work to serve as a memory for the next generation who may never witness first-hand their family’s traditional existence. Indigenous people are facing huge challenges: climate change, government restrictions, border controls, aggressive assimilation policies, authorities compromising their freedom, cultures and natural disposition, replacing it with dependency and isolation. They continue to display a resilience that is humbling and inspiring.
Here I am sharing my images and story boards of other indigenous people. I have found that people love this and look with such fascination. For example, a Tibetan nomad asked me from inside his tent in -40 degrees: “How can the man in this picture have bare feet and hardly any clothes on? Why is he not frozen to death? And WHAT are they eating?” It was +40 degrees there and his diet was only fish, about as far from Yak meat as can be. Different worlds!
I live on a boat in East London and I have an overwhelming curiosity to explore everywhere and to see everything. I feel a huge responsibility to our planet and to how I lead my life. To roam the farthest corners of the earth, where people live in the wild, is a privilege reserved for an adventurous handful. Even though most of us may never live with these communities of people, images and words can help us understand the urgency many of us feel to protect these wild people and places.
I’ve worked closely with both Maria and Cat over many years – and have seen for myself the huge impact their work can achieve. And I know why: good story-telling is all about good listening, about empathy, and about a deep personal commitment to helping others create a better world. That’s Illuminate for you!
Jonathon Porritt, Founder Director, Forum for the Future
Soneva has worked with Maria and Cat on an ongoing basis for a number of years and on a number of projects, some of them very high profile and some of them less so. Creativity. Reliability. Consistency. Understanding. Over-delivery. These are the words that sum up our experience.
Bruce Bromley, CFO, Soneva
I have now watched the OXSRAD video six times and I can't believe how awesome it is. Thank you for being able to put into film and words and pictures exactly what we do here at OXSRAD. The video and photos along with the words added to profiles and posters is totally amazing and I don't know how to thank you guys other than assuring you that your fantastic work will help us massively to continue ours and for us to achieve so much more.
Paul Saxton, OXSRAD
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Maria for six years in highly intense and sensitive situations with global spiritual, political and non-profit leaders. She is graceful, yet determined and always achieves the objective while making people feel special. A true gem.
Sarah Z. Borgman, Director and Curator, Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship
Cat Vinton is a photographer with a rare and valuable talent. She tells engaging and emotive stories with her photography, embracing her subject and her viewer with her insightful and sympathetic eye. I would highly recommend Cat to any individual or business hoping to work with her not only for the beautiful and telling imagery she will produce but because at heart she is an empathetic soul and will create work that will live long in your consciousness.
Caroline Metcalfe, Director of Photography, Conde Nast Traveller UK
As a hugely talented ethnographic photographer, Cat combines her fine insights into people, her affinity for nomadic hearts and her love of wilderness with her artistic flair, strong composition and eye for colour. She is creative and never without ideas, unfailingly professional and positive and in general a joy to work with and to know.
Joanna Eede, Features and Photography Consultant for Survival International
Cat has a unique way of connecting with people - you get the feeling she persuades people she may have never even met before to give a piece of themselves that no one else gets.