He travels the world taking pictures of the most incredible places on earth but what strikes most in his work is how he captures people's cultures and, let's say it, souls.
Robert Michael Poole is the former Editor-in-Chief of Culture+Travel (New York) and CNN Travel Japan and he has travelled the world showcasing parts of the world few people venture.
What inspired you to start travelling and pursue a career in photojournalism?
I blame it all on Finland! I studied abroad there and spending time in a country so different to rural England completely shaped my life. The experience of meeting fellow students from all around the world with their own habits, customs, outlooks, philosophies etc., taught me the most valuable lesson – that we are who we are, for the most part, because of where we are born. If we are born in a different part of the world, your beliefs, aspirations, even mannerisms would be different.
So in order to understand who you really are, in order not to simply be a product of the society you were born in to, you need to live in, travel in, and soak up the countries and cultures of the world. After Finland I went on to study in Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and Japan, and over the next 20 years slowly visited 155 countries and territories.
What is your favourite destination and why is it so special to you?
It’s a very tough question, so I am going to give two answers. If I had to pick a country to be stuck in for the rest of my life, it would be Greece. I love countries with rich cultural history and with so many islands each different from the other, the rural Peloponnese, the friendly people, warm weather, and my favorite cuisine in the world, it can’t be beaten.
But in terms of somewhere special, I would pick Micronesia. Spending time on these islands, far from modern civilization, makes you feel life as a raw and innocent experience. People live together in friendly tribes with nature as they always have, with ancient songs and chants maintained from centuries ago.
What is the best experience you have ever had travelling?
The most rewarding is always human connection and shared experiences. Meeting a family from Mosul, Iraq, whose house was taken by ISIS, and then visiting and staying with them in that house, understanding life through their eyes, and building a friendship with them which continues. That is an experience that is valuable not just in the moment, or as a picture, but something you carry with you, and hold in your heart.
Travel creates opportunities to meet lots of people and immerse yourself in local cultures. Is there one memory/destination that stands out in particular?
An early stand out for me would be Russia. I went there aged 20 just before the internet and mass communication world began, when Russia felt like a scary place to enter. Of course it isn’t, it’s one of the friendliest places you could ever wish to go, and a very important lesson for me that you can’t prejudge anywhere by what you see in media, not North Korea (much more normal than you think), not Kurdistan / Iraq (safe, peaceful, beautiful), not anywhere. Go and see for yourself and talk to people.
What are your top tips for taking stunning photos?
There are three basic things that you should never forget - light, framing and timing.
Most photos cannot be saved if the light isn’t right, so use Golden Hour or get up early. Next is framing, which only comes with practice and is how you define your style the most. Once you find the subject, it’s up to your own eyes. Everyone sees the same thing slightly differently, so it’s up to you to decide if you shoot it from close or far, frame the subject with a natural or artificial element, position it centrally or off-center.
Lastly, timing. Patience is the most important thing, whether you’re waiting for the right sky, right light, a sunset, a sun flare, someone to enter or leave a scene, the right look of an animal towards the camera… patience is the most important personal characteristic.
How do you distinguish yourself and your photos from the myriads of travel influencers on Instagram?
Mostly by subject matter. I find it astonishing that travel influencers seem to think there is a limited checklist of cool places to shoot in the world, topped by Santorini, Hawaii and Bali. There are incredible landscapes, cultures and people everywhere, from little-known nations like Comoros, Marshall Islands and Suriname, to territories peoples skip because they aren’t “countries” they can count, like Saba, Guadeloupe, Mayotte, the North Mariana Islands, French Guiana etc.
If you’re a travel influencer, show us something we haven’t seen a hundred times. I believe we have a duty to educate and inform, not repeat what has been done before.
What is your favourite photograph you have taken?
I’m going to cheat and pick a few.
Two shots from the Blue Mosque in Afghanistan. This mesmerising piece of clothing in the picture is called a chadri - the Afghan equivalent of a burqa, but all in blue. Unlike anywhere else on earth, Afghanistan feels like stepping back in time, to a mystical, almost fantastical era of Arabia of centuries ago. And it looks like that today, in 2020.
This one of a 13 year-old Yapese girl getting ready to perform an ancient spiritual chant in front of her tribal elders. The village tribes gather in the morning under the protection of palm forests from the glaring sun and cover their skin in turmeric and coconut oils so that they shine a distinct bright yellow.
The city of Amadiya / Amedi in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, which is thought to have existed on a hilltop as a settlement since 25,000BC. It sits right in the center of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, and is said to be from where the three wise men of the bible emerged.
Where is on your list of places to visit once travel restrictions have been lifted?
Top of my list is the South Pacific. We all know Bora Bora, and perhaps the Cook Islands are known to some. But I’m keen to go well beyond those, to Wallis & Fortuna, Tokelau, Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati, Niue and Vanuatu.
Discover more of Robert Michael Poole's incredible work on INSTAGRAM