In 1997, Jackie Nickerson left behind a career as a fashion photographer shooting for the likes of Vogue and Vanity Fair to pursue Africa where she opened her eyes to a more liberated perspective on life. Embracing the world outdoors, her work focuses on real lives and the anthropological relationship between a person and their environment, exploring themes of psychology, politics and human rights.
Tell us a bit about yourself. When did you first discover your love of photography and how has this passion developed?
I was given a camera when I was about 13 and I immediately loved it. After that I always knew I’d work with photography. I think about imagery all the time. It’s an integral part of my everyday life.
What drew you to Africa?
I was invited to Zimbabwe and decided to move there in 1997. I’m from an urban background, where I’ve lived in confined spaces and environments made up of concrete. For me, space has always been a precious commodity.  So living in rural Africa gave me a feeling of space and freedom and a different perspective on life. I exchanged an indoor life for an outdoor life.
You used to work as a fashion photographer and shot for names like Vogue and Vanity Fair. What was that like? Are there any parts of that life that you miss?
Working in commercial photography was great training – how to overcome problems, how to choose the right equipment for the right job, working with clients. And of course, learning how to define your own style. I developed a very pared down kind of image that concentrated on detail. I took that approach into my fine art work and still prefer to create a simple, direct kind of image.
In your collection, Terrain, you focus on issues of food production and labour, capturing people at work on the farmland in different southern African countries. What inspired this collection?
Yes, my first series, Farm, was really about personal identity through improvisation whereas Terrain is about wider, global issues - labor, the environment and the value we place on those things. I want to address political issues around food security, sustainability and human rights.
Whilst hanging out in the fields I began to look to see how the farmers were obscured or overwhelmed by their produce.  I wanted to create a distinct figure that perhaps shows that we are inextricably tied to our environment and this includes how we choose to grow our food and how we choose to change our natural environment. It’s really just asking the question about our inescapable link to nature.
On another level, I also wanted to ask questions about the invisibility of labor and how, as consumers, we might ask questions about how our food is produced and who produces it. The daily grind where movements must be repeated thousands and thousands of times over by the same person produces a deep familiarity with the tools and materials they are working with – earth, landscapes, plants, plastics. I try to illustrate the embodiment of a metrical cycle, an on-going cycle where the subject is central in this massive cycle from farm to table. The lack of facial identity in the photographs is a deliberate question mark.
There seems to be an anthropological premise running through your body of work, exploring different societies and cultures and looking at the relationship between people and their environments. Have you always been interested in exploring sociological themes?
I’ve always been interested in cause and effect and this theory informs all my work. I’m specifically interested in how we are all affected by our environment – in our shared social and psychological condition, the relationship between being and appearance. There are big questions about human rights here – always important for me.
Since leaving the fashion industry, you are no longer shooting models, who are essentially actors in front of the camera. You are shooting real people living their real lives. What does that mean to you?
Well, the experience of working in the two areas couldn’t be more different. We’re talking about two totally different applications of photography so although you’re using the same medium you need to use an entirely different approach.
All my work is informed by my own life experience. The key is trying to find a visual language that illustrates what I feel, what I observe and experience.
For your series of photos, Ebola Fighters, you must have been extremely close to everything that was going on. Even the Health Promoter who appears in the collection stated how “Guinea broke my heart. I was not prepared for the level of mortality”. How was it for you as a photographer and observer in such a tragic and what must have been chaotic environment?
When I landed at the airport in Monrovia there were dozens of healthcare workers at the airport who escorted the passengers from the plane. They took my temperature, asked me a number of medical questions then instructed me in the various healthcare protocols I needed to comply with. I suddenly realised this was a very serious situation.
I met some amazingly inspirational people like Dr. Jerry Brown who appears on the TIME magazine Person of the Year cover. He operates his Ebola Treatment Unit with no backing of any NGOs as far as I know. He was an obstetrician but he chose to keep his hospital open to treat Ebola patients.
Working on this story was upsetting but I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation about taking on the job – I knew it was a really important story and I felt honored to have been given the opportunity to make photographs of these very courageous people.
What’s next for you?
I continue to work in Africa and have begun working on my next series.