I first came across Freya back in 2019 when we initially embarked on our partnership with the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. She was on assignment for the charity, capturing their gentle giants up close in the most magical of ways. Her photos conveyed so much emotion, telling the stories of these beautiful orphaned ellys, the struggles they had come up against and the love of the Trust’s keepers who cared for them. I’ve followed her journey ever since then, as she’s traveled the world, become a mother and told countless more stories through her lens. I’m so excited that we were able to sit down and chat through her story, and to celebrate the launch of our new Baby Elephant design, supporting those creatures she now knows so intimately. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did!
Tell us about yourself?
My name is Freya Dowson and I live in Dubai with my husband, two young girls, and our big dog, Molly. I’m a documentary photographer and mum, I’ve just had my second baby and because of maternity leave and pandemic life I’ve not had much of a chance to do the sort of photography work I really love, but my youngest is growing fast (too fast!) and I’m looking forward to getting back to work soon.
"It struck me that this was my purpose and my way to make a contribution to the world, and I never looked back."
What was the catalyst for you becoming interested in documentary photography?
I started out with a career in the charity sector, specifically in animal welfare, and at this point the idea of becoming a photographer had never occurred to me. I didn’t learn how to use a camera until I was in my twenties but I worked in communications and developing photography skills was kind of a necessity. I quickly found I had a talent and a passion for it and the rest followed on from there. My job allowed me to travel and I slowly over time built a portfolio, and when the time was right I launched my freelance career. What lights me up the most is photographing stories surrounding wildlife and conservation, as well as challenges facing women and children globally. So I guess when I got the chance to pick up a camera and photograph stories I loved, it struck me that this was my purpose and my way to make a contribution to the world, and I never looked back.
Freya on assignment for the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in 2016
We love how beautifully you talk about the messy, beautiful fulfilment of motherhood, and the longing to do the kind of work you love. What is the one piece of advice you would like to give to other women who want to follow their passions?
I think it’s so important to find a way to accept where you are in the moment, to believe that your career isn’t going anywhere, to just enjoy your kids and not stress about taking a career break. With my first daughter I had a tough time settling into maternity leave and I was torn entirely in half by the need to be with my baby and the need to keep growing my career - it made for a bit of a torturous first year and there were a few failed attempts at returning to work which were so stressful. Then the pandemic hit and I couldn’t work! I thought “maybe now is the time to look at why I can’t shake these negative self beliefs and why I can’t just settle down and enjoy where I’m at in life”. I did a lot of soul searching and a lot of looking at where my anxieties and looping behaviours came from. Lots of inner work, several lockdowns and a second baby later and I feel so much more myself, so much more capable of enjoying my life and my career. So my advice would be to do the hard work on yourself, and if you’re struggling with any part of being a mum or having a dream career (or both!) it’s so important to ask for help and know that things don’t need to feel so hard.
"That pouch and everything it holds is a representation of my life outside of being a mum, it's a reminder of who I am and where I’m going so it’s really important to me"
How do you use Elizabeth Scarlett products in your daily routine and do you have a favourite piece?
I’ve used Elizabeth Scarlett pouches since, oh gosh I don’t know, 2018 maybe? Or even earlier? My first one was the watamu turtle pouch which got used as a wash bag at first, then a kit bag to hold camera cards and charging cables, then I think it was used as a nappy bag when I had my first daughter! Then I got a constellation pouch which became my little self care kit. I would bring it on flights and it had things like essential oils and an eye mask because I was working so hard that I needed to create moments of calm while I was on the road to just keep myself sane. My favourite though is the elephant conservation pouch because it holds my journal, AirPods, and diary so I can carry around all my essentials in one place - these are the things that I use primarily to focus on my mental health and planning the next steps in my career/life. That pouch and everything it holds is a representation of my life outside of being a mum, it's a reminder of who I am and where I’m going so it’s kind of really important to me… ha ha! That’s a lot of pressure to put on a pouch.
Freya with her youngest daughter, Marlow River
What sparks joy within you?
Primarily its three things: connection, creative fulfilment, and home. Connection for me is meaningful relationships with friends and family, meaningful conversation, moments and play with my kids, connection to nature, and feeling really in the moment and plugged into my life - not daydreaming about the future or the past, not being anxious about what’s next but being really connected to what’s important to me. Creative fulfilment is using my camera every day. It’s photographing the stories I love and it's feeling like I’m contributing in a way that is both so important to me, and hopefully to others in the big picture. And home is having a place where I feel at rest, a calm place surrounded by nature (currently that means lots of house plants) where I can have the things around me that bring me joy, be on my own with my kids and my husband, and just fully let go of anything else. Living in connection to these three things is what keeps me on track I find.
"Creative fulfilment is using my camera every day. It’s photographing the stories I love and it's feeling like I’m contributing in a way that is both so important to me, and hopefully to others in the big picture"
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Oh gosh who knows. I have ideas of places I’d like to live but having lived in four different countries now I’m convinced that anywhere is as nice as you make it. For now I’m happy in Dubai, it’s taken a lot of work to get settled and I’m still working on that. And then looking into the future I wouldn't mind living somewhere that allowed me to do more long form storytelling, where I don’t need to hop on a plane every time I undertake some work. For me it’s more about what’s around me - I would love to live somewhere more rural, not in a city. I’d love to live next to a river or lake where I could swim every day, somewhere really green, somewhere with lots of wildlife.
What are your personal practices that you cannot be without?
At this point, with two kids, it’s making sure I shower, brush my teeth, and eat well. Which I’m sure sounds funny but if I don’t make space for these things in the day they can easily not happen, I’ve never been very good at prioritising my needs and it’s even harder for me with kids. But beyond that it’s being curious about my mental health, watching when I’m looping on negative behaviours, thoughts or beliefs and unpacking them so I can create new, more peaceful and productive habits. It’s looking at what triggers me and why, and it’s checking in with myself constantly to ask what I need and find a way to fulfill that. Maybe these seem like basic practices to other people but for me it’s a form of self care that I’ve really had to force upon myself, I was way too comfortable with living in constant stress and anxiety.
Getting to know Sheldrick Trust's cheeky orphaned elephants
We know you have a deep love for animals (especially elephants). Tell us about your connection to them?
Animals can teach us so much about ourselves, I find. I know that sounds cliche but what I mean is that as mammals we all kind of have similar behaviours and motivations, so when you spend time with animals and you watch the way they structure their family groups or prioritise their movements in line with their deepest instincts, you can learn a lot about why we do what we do as mammals, and how living out of alignment with our deepest instincts can get us into trouble - as individuals but also as a species. Honestly I could go on about this for ages, it’s one of my favourite topics to discuss, but working with animals, and with people who have worked with animals for a long time, has taught me so much about myself - what is important to me, and how I hope to incorporate that into my work and my life.
Up close and personal, captured by Freya on assignment
What is most special about The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust to you and why is it important to protect wildlife?
When I first had the opportunity to work with the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust I felt like someone had made an administrative error and accidentally given me the opportunity of a lifetime! But the longer I went out on assignment with them the more I learned that their work is so much bigger than an elephant rehabilitation program. That part of their work is incredible and the knowledge and time that has gone into building that up is unparalleled, but equally important are their anti poaching efforts, their community engagement work, their ecosystem management, really their conservation work as a whole. So much goes on behind the scenes in that organisation it’s hard to express just how complex their workings are, how hard they work, and how far their reach extends. I’ve worked for a lot of charitable organisations and this one really stands out. Protecting wildlife is important yes, but if you don’t find ways to prop up such a delicate ecosystem in a developing world that is constantly strangling it, or build bridges between communities and the wild spaces that are being forced into conflict due to their ever increasing proximity, the protected animals won’t have an environment to live in. It’s so important to protect wildlife, but it’s more important to protect and advocate for wild spaces and that’s exactly what The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust does.
"When you spend time with animals and you watch the way they structure their family groups or prioritise their movements in line with their deepest instincts, you can learn a lot about why we do what we do"
Tell us about being a Mama to two girls?
It’s so lovely. It’s also a lot, but mostly it's great. Everyone always says that having a baby is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and having two is even harder, but I would say it’s not so much hard as it is all encompassing. I feel like I’ve jumped into a fast moving river and I’m in over my head, all I can do is meet every day as it comes and try to poke my head above water every so often to gain some perspective. I’ve found it's very easy to lose yourself in becoming a mum. My girls are everything and I wouldn’t be who I am without them. I’ve never done anything so wholeheartedly in my life and I think it’s because being a mum taps into such a primal instinct. The moment my oldest was born that part of me, the mum part of my brain, cracked open and pure emotion, love and instinct has been rushing through me ever since. It’s crazy because it’s exhausting and incredibly magical and overwhelming, yet it’s often very slow and mundane, it’s been an absolute contradiction for me.
Freya is currently based in Dubai with her husband and two daughters