Michele Westmorland left the corporate world after almost 30 years to pursue her true passion, photography. As a certified scuba diver, Michele is able to capture truly astonishing underwater imagery, yet also uses her extensive travel experience to capture village life in Papua New Guinea. She’s currently in China to take part in the Pingyao International Photography Festival where an exhibition of her images will be on display and Michele will be lecturing about the connection between culture and marine life. Luckily, she was willing to answer a few questions before starting her adventure.
CORBIS: According to China Daily, this year’s theme for the festival is “Image of Walking Toward Life,” with two parts. One highlights both the ancient and modern world, and the other that showcases the contradiction between modern fashions and traditions. How did this theme shape your gallery choices?
MICHELE: The photographs of the people of Papua New Guinea depict them in traditional dress or daily life. The underwater imagery is to connect both people and marine life since it is vital that the health of the oceans remain viable for the food source that is provided to the villagers.
CORBIS: The Pingyao festival has been referred to – by China – as the “Oscars of Photography.” Is this your first time attending or exhibiting your work there? Do you feel like this festival, that’s now 13 years old, is gaining more international recognition?
MICHELE: Yes, this will be my first time and I’m honored to be invited. I believe it is gaining recognition, but more in Europe and Asia. I’m not sure how many photographers from North America are aware of the festival.
CORBIS: How did you get into underwater photography? What are your other hobbies and interests?
MICHELE: I’ve always had an interest in photography but when I moved from California to Miami for a corporate position, I decided to give up snow skiing and take up scuba diving. That was almost 30 years ago. Once in the water I picked up and underwater camera system and became obsessed with capturing marine life. I spent every bit of my free time away from reading lease documents for Burger King Corporation and exploring the beautiful ocean life. Then I started traveling to exotic locations and made my first trip to Papua New Guinea in 1992. I knew I did not want to live the rest of my life in corporate real estate so I worked diligently to construct a business in photography. Rest is history.
CORBIS: What sparked your interest in beginning the Headhunt Revisted project? Do you see traits of Caroline Mytinger reflected in your own character?
MICHELE: I had been to PNG a second time and was hooked on the country. It has some of the most biologically diverse marine life in the world. It was when I raised my head above the surface that I realized just how diverse and beautiful the people of Melanesia are. Now I combine the two, tell visual stories and lead tours to PNG. I’ve been there 28 times.
In 1996, a friend of my mother was dying of cancer and I visited her to say my goodbye’s. Marie handed me a book from her beautiful library. It was titled “New Guinea Headhunt” by Caroline Mytinger and published in 1946. She said she wanted me to have the book because she knew how much I loved that part of the world and thought there was a bit of Caroline in me. I did not realize the significance until several months later when I read the book. I then began a quest to find out more about this woman and discovered her book on the Solomon Islands published in 1942. That started a very long journey for me to discover and understand this amazing woman who traveled to Melanesia to paint portraits of pure race. Caroline came home with 25 oil paintings and a myriad of sketches. How she and her friend, Margaret Warner, did this expedition from 1926 – 1930 is an amazing accomplishment and I have been determined to tell the story. Maybe it’s Caroline’s determination that was passed on to me so that once again, people could view her beautiful paintings.
CORBIS: Do you find the ancient walled city of Pingyao and its dust-covered factory to be a fitting place for your environmentally themed works?
MICHELE: Pingyao is an ancient city. I believe one of the few not destroyed by the government and radically changed. Although I’ve never been there, it looks like an appropriate setting for artists and photojournalists.
View her full gallery here