Photographer Talks Travel, Culture & Recent Move to South Africa

Stephanie O'Conner at NYC gallery exhibit.

Stephanie O'Conner at NYC gallery exhibit.

Stephanie O’Conner — the Johannesburg-based mastermind behind Conner Varin Photography— is the type of person who, upon meeting, you never forget. The sort of individual who becomes a kindred spirit after the utterance of just a few sentences. She’s an inspired, free-thinking urban gypsy; her photography reflects this ethos. Meeting initially through a mutual affiliation with the popular Facebook community, Nomad•ness Travel Tribe, Stephanie, because of her tenacity and humility, quickly became someone I admire. To that end, check out what she had to say when I asked her about her travels, how she regards the idea of culture and her newfound life in South Africa.

ND: You recently decided to take up permanent residence in Johannesburg [South Africa]. What brought upon this decision?

SO: After my first visit to South Africa, the decision wasn’t hard at all.  I fell in love the moment my foot stepped off the plane.  I had been contemplating moving [outside the US] for a while, but I just wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what it was that I was even looking for.  I had only traveled a few places in Europe, the Caribbean and Asia. My love for travel and learning cultures had me in love with each of the countries/cities I had visited, but never in a way that made me want to live there.  It was different in Johannesburg— the energy ignited me. It was the unique similarities but obvious differences [to the world I came from] that made me realize this was exactly where I wanted to be.

ND: You spoke of ‘Unique Similarities but obvious differences.’ This incites me to ask how life is in South Africa compared to the life you lived here in America. Any personal revelations?

SO: Strangely enough, my life here isn’t that different than it was in Brooklyn.  I hustle, I work; I work, I hustle.  I spend days in coffee shops editing, emailing and communicating. I have awesome friends that I have fun with (not to say that I don’t miss my friends from the states tremendously because I do). We celebrate life, eat good food and enjoy good times & good music… can’t say that’s any different than it was back home. I think my biggest obstacle [in Johannesburg] is the lack of that super New York City transit system that allowed me to get anywhere I wanted to go at any given moment. It’s been a small adjustment, but I kind of like having less pressure to always go just because I can.

I think the only revelation that I’ve had is that although I appreciate having grown up in the states, my life does not revolve only around New York. [I’ve learned that] you can find happiness anywhere, you just have to want to find it. If your environment isn’t benefiting you in the way you want it to, change it.

Stephanie at the Robben Island Museum. Cape Town, South Africa

Stephanie at the Robben Island Museum. Cape Town, South Africa

ND: A lot of people today dole out the advice, “Just go for it. Live your dreams!” Even you said, “If your environment isn’t benefiting you in the way you want it to, change it.” In some instances, though, it’s easier said than done. What was your process in terms of uprooting yourself from an established life in Brooklyn and moving to a different country?

SO: Process, huh! (laughs) If you know a true Pisces, you know me. We have no process… we just go for it. It’s something I’ve always had in me from when I was a young girl.  As soon as I was [of legal age] to leave my mom, I moved from Wyoming to Atlanta, then decided I needed more and moved to New York eight years later. Six years after living and loving New York, I knew I was ready to explore further. For me, I couldn’t stand the idea of living with the “what if.”  If I had stayed in Brooklyn, my life would still be great— yes— but I would have had this itching desire to know, “What if you had made that move?” [That question alone] was enough to push me to just do it… with only slight reservation and absolutely NO regrets.  

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ND: As a portrait photographer, you have— perhaps inadvertently— taken on the role of cultural archivist. What has travel done for your ability to understand, appreciate and document culture?

SO: Wow, that statement is huge, and very humbling! I learned that as I started traveling, [to me] it was important to bring to light our generation’s culture within our travels. It’s beautiful to see the traditions of our ancestors; to know who we are now, we must know where we came from. I had a desire to globally document our generation’s style, or habits, what we do for fun, the things that get us going… after all, we are all one people. Traveling has taught me just that. No matter where we go, there are similarities and differences between the people I come into contact with. But hey, there are just as many similarities and differences from someone who lives in Brooklyn and someone who lives in Philly… right?

ND: Right. So what was the event that sparked your interest in travel?

SO: I have always had my eyes set bigger than where I was.  I was intrigued by the idea of the whole world and I wanted to experience everything.  I couldn’t live with the idea of only knowing one city, one culture, one way of living.  Diversity is what makes life so interesting and beautiful.  I didn’t start traveling internationally ‘till 28 (that trip was Barcelona).  I say 28 because that’s when I really started engaging in the cultures of the places I was visiting. Prior to 28 I had been to Jamaica, St. Lucia & Puerto Rico.  All beautiful places, but at the time I didn’t take advantage of what was in front of me… it was almost as if I was operating on a very shallow view of what experiencing the culture was. That “first” international trip is also what kickstarted my photography career. Why wouldn’t I want to pursue a career that not only allows me to travel around the world, but also to engage with the world as I’m exploring?  

ND: 3 things you never travel without…

SO:This is quite the easy question here. My camera case never leaves my side… ever! I’m just going to go ahead and throw my computer up under camera case, because they all function the same to me.  I guess you could call it my “traveling office”.  So the first item is My Traveling Office.  The second thing I never travel without is excited curiosity— I have to want to know more about where I am going; if not, what’s the point? I’d end up staying in a 5-star hotel eating room service and watching TV the whole time.  

ND: Right, and that’s not really travel (laughs).

SO: Number 3, An open heart.  I’ve learned (especially after having American friends come to visit) that Americans can often be completely oblivious to the ways other people live their lives.  And sometimes instead of trying to understand the culture they are in, they keep asking why [the locals] don’t do it a different way. I try, when I travel, to be very humbled to the ways of the people I am sharing energy and space with.

The rest of the stuff— clothes, comb, etc.— they’re just secondary! 

ND: What’s your travel philosophy?

SO: My Philosophy is.. experiences are far more valuable than things. Live, experience, love, appreciate… the rest of the “things” will come in time. 

You can check Stephanie out on her blog, connervarinblog.com & follow her on Twitter @cvarin