Through the lens: the daring adventure travel photography of Jody MacDonald

Whether it’s a backpacking trip around Europe, or a detoxing holiday by the beach, travelling is filled with an undeniable sense of adventure that only the most curious of explorers embrace to the fullest.

One such explorer is Jody MacDonald, who spent a decade of her life to sail around the world – twice – on a life-altering kiteboarding and paragliding expedition.

Beyond her time navigating the globe, the Saudi Arabian born Jody is a committed adventure travel photographer, documenting everything from extreme sports to otherworldly landscapes, wild beasts, and remote village communities. The one thing that spans across all of her work? A sense of curiosity and adventure.

We spoke to Jody about her enthusiasm for travel and what inspires her art. But first, the Paragliding Photographer of the Year award winner outlines the story behind some of her personal favorite photographs.

Going fishing, Mauritian style

Going fishing, Mauritian style © Jody MacDonald

‘The Imagruen fishermen of Banc d’Arguin National Park in Mauritania still use fishing techniques unchanged since first recorded by 15th century Portuguese explorers. I really enjoy spending time with these unique cultures and people and being able to experience and document their ways of life. I ended up learning a lot about the value of living simply. A lesson that is being lost in the Western world.’

Colourful chaos during Holi

Colourful chaos during Holi © Jody MacDonald

‘Holi is a religious festival in India. It marks the onset of spring. If you had to describe it in a word it would be ‘chaos’.

‘Imagine the energy, power and excess Mother Nature puts into spring. The blooms, growth, and surge of life. Then imagine people imitating this raw energy. That’s Holi! Dense, frantic, unorchestrated, insane, messy, beautiful and, at times, dangerous. It’s like being in a beehive that’s being rattled and poked. Women beat men with sticks. Colored chalk rains down like a flood. I dressed up like a local, wrapped my camera in plastic and tape and tried to blend in. It’s not hard to do this, when chaos happens.’

Sky-high photography on a remote island off the coast of Mozambique

Sky-high photography on a remote island off the coast of Mozambique © Jody MacDonald

‘I love to fly. I am a paraglider pilot and I use it as a tool to see places from different vantage points. Nothing gives you a better sense of a place than seeing it and capturing it from a bird’s-eye view. This was a 32km sand dune that we came upon while sailing from Madagascar to a remote island in Mozambique. After we flew over it, we ended up being stranded on the island for a few days, but it was all worth it since we were able to explore this magical place from above the ground.’

Ditch the itinerary and go off on an adventure. Perhaps with a Varanasi ferryman

Ditch the itinerary and go off on an adventure. Perhaps with a Varanasi ferryman © Jody MacDonald

‘A ferryman in Varanasi, India, rowing people along the Ganges River. I try not to plan too much while I’m travelling. I like to be open to the possibilities of the unknown and be free to go where my interests lead me. This day was no different. I just happened to be walking by this ferryman early in the morning and he asked if I wanted a ride. I said ‘sure’.’

Lose your fears and just say 'yes!' to swimming with humpback whales

Lose your fears and just say ‘yes!’ to swimming with humpback whales © Jody MacDonald

‘Swimming with a large mammal can be daunting, but, if you are willing, it will change your life. I spent many weeks with these docile, curious giants, but on this occasion after swimming directly at me they dove deep below and then suddenly turned and spiraled back towards the surface in an elegant dance. I didn’t photograph the dance because I wanted to put my camera down and enjoy the experience. I have this image, though, to remind me of how incredible that day was.’

Rajan the Elephant stands alongside the mammoth trees of an Indian jungle

Rajan the Elephant stands alongside the mammoth trees of an Indian jungle © Jody MacDonald

‘This is one of my favorite travel photographs that I have taken. This is Rajan the Elephant. After locating him in India, his life story revealed an incredible tale. In the 1970s, Rajan, along with a handful of other elephants, was forced to work with logging companies. They spent the next 30 years hauling giant trees through the jungles. When logging became banned in 2002, the elephants were out of a job. Rajan is the last remaining elephant of the group. He has been living out his ‘retirement’ among the giant trees he used to haul.’

‘While his story moved me, I feel this photograph tells his story in a way that words simply cannot. The trees give him scale and make you realize how daunting and grueling a job it might have been to haul trees that size. It is amazing how small he looks in comparison. It also shows the incredible beauty and simplicity of the life he lives today. Looking at this photograph takes me back to my time with Rajan and stirs my soul. I feel honored to be able to have spent some time with him.’

Lower your guard, go out and explore. Who knows what you'll find?

Lower your guard, go out and explore. Who knows what you’ll find? © Jody MacDonald

‘I love exploring old ruins or buildings. As a visual person, I find that they have so much character. They are filled with stories that you are longing to hear. There is so much beauty in that: just because it might not look beautiful on the outside, it doesn’t mean there won’t be amazing things inside.’

How did you kick-start your career as a full-time adventure travel photographer?

I’ve always been a pretty active person, obsessed with arts and sports. I majored in outdoor recreation in college and I took some photography course electives. The instant gratification and feedback I got made me fall in love with the medium immediately. I began taking the camera out with me on my outdoor pursuits, whether I was rock climbing or rafting or kayaking. It was the perfect combination of my two passions.

I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and traveled a lot as a kid. I think that instilled in me an adventurous spirit and a desire to get out and explore. So, I started a kiteboarding expedition company, sailing twice around the world over a ten year period. The open sea, amazing athletes and unbelievable remote locations all meant that it became an incredible platform to pursue my photography.

A self-portrait by Jody MacDonald

Self-portrait © Jody MacDonald

What are you looking for when you pick up your camera and shoot?

I think I’m just really trying to portray a sense of wonderment and fascination with the world in my work, and hopefully inspire people to take on any adventure, whatever that looks like for them.

What inspires you to travel and keep exploring?

I just have a lot of curiosity about the world, I guess. We’re not here for long time, and I want to see and experience as much as I can while it lasts, and get out of my comfort zone.

One thing that I have learnt, is that all the fear that Western media presents about other parts of the world, cultures, or kinds of people is total bullshit. We don’t have to live in fear of the unknown, and only travelling can teach you that. It’s a very humbling thing to realize. There is a common humanity and compassion that I have found throughout the world, and I hope that my work, in some small way, encourages people to go find it, too.

For more info on Jody, her travels, and examples of her work, please visit her website and follow her on Instagram. This interview was conducted as part of momondo’s ongoing purpose movement, encouraging diversity, travel and a more open world. To find out more, visit the Let’s Open Our World website.