Behind the Lens: A Deep Chat With Ocean Photographer Kat Nielsen

October 20, 2019


Perth, Australia

Every so often, social media puts you in the digital path of a kindred spirit. In my case, that person was Kat Nielsen, one of the most talented and deep-thinking photographers and content creators I know. We met on Instagram, a platform that is often blamed for contributing to the demise of real human interaction and connection, while I can’t dispute that argument, I can say wholeheartedly that I’ve found a real soul sister and friend in Kat who I may not have met had it not been for Instagram. Kat is based in Perth, Australia and I live on the other side of the continent in Melbourne—that’s a whole lot of land between us. Despite the distance, Kat and I have had some pretty thought-provoking conversations over the ‘Gram, she’s on a mission to build a thriving digital community that aims to uplift, inspire and connect fellow creatives. She’s also a passionate advocate for social and environmental change; her photographs are a visual tribute to Mother Nature and highlight the need for humans to protect and treasure the planet. Read her raw and honest interview below.

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in the King Country of New Zealand. My father was an alcoholic and my Mother bravely left when I was 2.5 years old. Walking away with nothing but the clothes we had and a few possessions.

I was and still am an extremely shy person it was crippling for me I couldn’t express myself. So I used to write. It always seemed so much easier to relay on paper how I felt and I am still extremely introverted. I had a difficult relationship with my Mum she kicked me out when I was 14 and I lived with my cousins for a long time before she asked me to come home again. Growing up  I never felt like I belonged anywhere my parents had such an unhealthy relationship even after their divorce, there was so much hate and resentment. I swore I would never get married.  I left school at 15 and completed a course in make-up artistry and production design. This was my first real exposure to a creative field that I could turn into a career and the first time I felt like I belonged. I have such fond memories of this experience. I loved working on music videos and short films. However, the money didn’t provide me with the ability to survive on my own and I just wasn’t cut out for freelance work I was way to shy. So I continued to search for something that would offer me a future of security. After seeing what my mother had experienced. I needed to know I could support myself no matter what happened. I tried hospitality, retail, being an Executive Assistant, working as a stable assistant (I absolutely love horses)  and later beauty therapy. I didn’t feel passionate about any one of them but each industry taught me something valuable and helped me gain more confidence.

I left home again at 16 moving in with a DJ and a lead singer of a punk band this shared home of crazy creatives was a whirlwind.  I worked at a restaurant to support myself.  I was such a naive kid I had no idea what I had let myself in for. I just wanted to be able to survive on my own but after 6 months of living with these crazy party animals, I went back home. This living environment also solidified my need to surround myself with people who created but in a much healthier environment. New Zealand was becoming so expensive so my current partner and I decided to move to Perth where my older brother was working as a helicopter pilot. I began my Nursing  Degree and just recently completed my Masters. This is an achievement I am proud of because I never thought I could afford University let alone finish it. That was nearly ten years ago. Which means I am getting old. I think it can be hard for anyone to write about their childhood and their past in general especially if it was anything but a fairytale. Although everything I have experienced has shaped me into the person I am today for better or worse.

What are three life-changing life lessons you’ve learned in the past year?

  • That just because someone is an expert in their field this won’t always translate as them being the best mentor for you.
  • That travel is literally the best investment for your soul.
  • Mental illness is not a weakness and despite what other people think it actually means you have been trying to be strong for a little too long. Be kind to yourself this to will pass with the right support.

What is one important social issue that you think the world needs to address and why?
I literally cannot just pick one because there are currently so many major social concerns that need to be addressed.  So I will keep it to two.

Human Trafficking and forced slavery happens all over the globe, it happens right here in Australia and it’s at epidemic levels. Human beings are being exploited as a commodity and it is a  very lucrative industry. According to World Vision, 21 million people have been trafficked for profit around the world. That statistic is scary. Human trafficking is a deeply complex issue which strongly relates societies breakdown in cultivating community. With the compounding effects of poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse, gender inequality, political unrest and addiction. These social issues are prime conditions for exploitation. The unfortunate truth is that the products we purchase may have been created as a result of slave labour, as consumers we must be more mindful of the items we purchase and how they could be contributing to this problem.

The environment is absolutely in need, Plastic waste is something that really stands out for me right now. It was actually devastating to see the waste washing up on the shoreline in Fiji, Malaysia and Bali whenever I have travelled the huge volume of plastic waste in our oceans shocks me. The ocean is so important to our survival as humans and we need to do more to protect it.

What are issues that women face and that you feel strongly about and why?
The #metoo movement is something that could not have happened soon enough. The sense of entitlement some men feel to a woman’s body is something that desperately needed to change. I am fed up with seeing abuse, rape and assaults against women. As a society, we have continued to allow damaging behaviours like bullying, harassment and sexual assault to remain so deeply engrained in our culture.

What message are we sending if people aren’t being held to account, for the actions that carry a life sentence for the victim? How can people feel safe enough to report abuse, if we, in turn, further abuse them for speaking out? The first reaction should not be to look at the victim first and consider what they may have done to provoke the behaviour. As a woman, I often wonder if men understand what it feels like to never truly feel safe. To have to watch your drink in a bar, so it isn’t spiked. To consider what you wear, to be mindful when you are alone, to run with headphones in and not feel safe and watch what you say so you don’t send the wrong message. Men and boys are socialised to uphold sexist norms which seek to dehumanise women; it’s time this changed.

Popular culture suggests masculinity is often tied in with how many women a man can get into bed. If a man engages in multiple relationships, the behaviour is socially acceptable and celebrated. Alternatively, if a woman behaves, in the same manner, we slut-shame them. We have been protesting for women’s rights for long enough; it’s about time women were respected for everything they bring to society. We all need to reclaim our true identities. The narrative portrayed in the media is damaging to everyone. More than ever, we need real role models, not some fabrications the media have created. The damaging effects of this hook-up culture need to be better understood.

I am terrified for my son to navigate through the technology associated with dating these days. The current culture seeks to avoid any real connection and encourage us to be devoid of any honest emotions. It is unfortunate, and I see an on-going and desperate need to create education around this as the mental illness rates continue to rise. Imagine a world where women were respected and valued for the diverse qualities they bring to society and not seen purely as objects for desire. Women are intelligent, emotional beings, with great compassion, and creative spirits. They are change-makers who are deeply empathetic and carry a strength that transcends the globe.

As women, we are searching for a purpose and a deeper connection to our world. Pop culture has constructed unhealthy stereotypes that need to switch. Men can be protective, innovative and robust with a deep capacity for love and gentleness. We need to nurture and encourage these traits. Falling back on the common phrase, that boys will be boys is no longer a reason for bad behaviour. We need to teach boys to use this strength for a purpose, creating a new generation that cultivates a healthy respect for one another.

Why do you ‘create’ and what drives you?
Creativity helps me to express my emotions in a way that is almost cathartic, getting my feelings on paper or capturing an image can help me make sense of something I might be feeling. I literally feel and absorb the emotions of others it’s the weirdest trait and it often freaks people out, including myself.  I have this innate level of intuition where I can sense thoughts, feelings, emotions and intentions. I can watch a movie and experience each person’s lived experience as if it were my own. Because of this, I need to be able to release the energy I often take on from others. When I  step into the ocean it’s like I am home and creating images in the water makes me really happy and relaxed.

Creating can also bring up fears and self-doubt so it can be a constant battle between peace and complete frustration. There are moments of total emptiness where I cannot create a thing. This on-going struggle with myself can be exhausting. In order to combat this, I have been trying to learn as much as possible about my craft. I have always been a creative person. I think my Grandmother’s creative influence rubbed off on me; she used to sew beautiful clothes, make porcelain dolls and handcrafted so many amazing things. I have always had a huge passion for writing. Sometimes I think my desire to create stems from a deep sense of wanting to feel heard, but for others to also feel heard. I think we can bury our trauma so deep within ourselves and while my life has never been easy I have certainly had it luckier than most. Photography is a universal language that everyone can understand.

Head to Kat’s website to check out more of her inspiring work and interviews with fellow creatives. Follow her adventures here.