My happy place: John Stanmeyer, National Geographic photographer

John Stanmeyer likes to get lost in the process of finding the narrative; the proof is in his winning photo of African migrants trying to get a cellphone signal.
John Stanmeyer likes to get lost in the process of finding the narrative; the proof is in his winning photo of African migrants trying to get a cellphone signal.

Home is where I reconnect, reconstruct and relish being with my family. I live on a 160-year-old farm with my wife and children in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, two hours' drive from Boston and New York.

We have 17ha - half is small-scale organic farming; half is forest - and the property sits in a dramatic landscape, created by glaciers millions of years ago. It's extremely green, with lovely snow in winter and a rich seam of art and culture.

The Berkshires reveal how I feel both internally and externally. Surely New Zealand must be the same, as I've read the same brilliant energy and essence also exists there. Assignments take me away 125 to 200 days a year, depending on the year. I am just back from the Middle East for part three of the Out of Eden Walk Project for National Geographic (it comes out in the December issue). Part two will be published in the July issue - a journey overland through Saudi Arabia that we did last year. I have another National Geographic story beginning in Indonesia later this year.

No assignment or story is simple, all have challenges. There's no agenda or plan. I like to get lost in the process of finding myself and finding the narrative.

For the picture that won the World Press Photo, I was photographing on a deserted beach on the Red Sea in Djibouti, with my translator and friend, when we come across this collection of men and a few women. They all had their phones in their hands.

"What are they doing?" I asked.

He said, "They are from Somaliland and they are doing what is called 'catching', trying to catch a signal.

"They go to the black market and get a SIM card from Somalia. And if they are lucky there are one or two spots on the beach if they move their phone in the air they will get a signal."

It was naturally building and I just waited. There were one or two frames and that was it, people would wander on again. That is often how unique moments happen. It's preferable that way, nothing in life can be previewed - it's all unexpected and therefore unique. I don't look specifically for such moments. They either naturally manifest or they do not. If the photography is felt and understood by others, then I did my purpose. If not, then I need to work harder.

It might seem peculiar, but I don't consider the work I do as international. Issues in my own backyard or across a sea affect us all. I'm fascinated by topics everywhere, be they here in the US or in Uruguay. The ground beneath my feet at any given time is equally fascinating as anywhere else on Earth, but home is where I hug my children and seek balance.

- as told to Bronwyn Sell

- Herald on Sunday

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