Sari Not Sorry : How leading my women’s photography workshop in Sri Lanka turned me into the st

October 18, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Recently Nikon had a huge backlash when they chose 32 photographers to test out one of their cameras and they were ALL men: I am SO glad that I am a Canon user and that Canon (who is not exempt from sexism) at least recognizes Nikon’s faux pas and is trying to promote more of their female photographers.  But to be honest, all of these men I should be thanking.  The ones that made me have to work harder, prove myself more, blaze my own trail, and just DO what makes me happy no matter what “nay sayers” were out there, because no one else was really out there to fuel me.  You see, that is the problem, our generation of female explorers never really have any “female pioneers or pathfinders” before us to aspire to.  We ARE those pioneers.  We are the disruptors in our industries and the reason why I am so proud to be a woman right now in media and who fearlessly travels the world, is that I get to be a pioneer that helps inspire other women to do it and to prove that we are not a minority or less capable, but we have just been there unseen in the media for so long.  



Because of this, I started leading Photography Adventure workshops around the world that give back in a certain way to women’s organizations or charities.  I went to Senegal with the Women’s global education project, I led a group in Nepal to benefit the Unatti Foundation school for girls, and my most recent Social Media Adventure workshop in Sri Lanka benefitted the women tea pluckers and their families who work for the Ferndell Coffee and tea plantations there and also promoted local female Sari designers Romaine and Sonali with Sri Lanka on Silk (@srilanka_on_silk) .  Most of my trips are mostly women, probably 85% women and sometimes 100% women.  I don’t think this is because I am a woman and I don’t market only to women, but I find that when you add a philanthropic element to a trip, sometimes that can scare away men.  I have worked hard to make my trips adventurous and well rounded, so anyone no matter what sex would have an equally epic journey.  But I also have found that people want to “give back” if it is made easy for them.  If they can be told where to go, how much and who to pay and not have to worry about planning and organizing an adventure, that I can build in money for charity and activities where we volunteer and people will sign up eagerly.  If I were to ask people for those exact donations for a cause, they most likely wouldn’t donate.  So by creating an amazing overall experience, that makes the price tag more palatable and people more excited about philanthropy.  It’s all about the way you frame it and for me I love any way that I can use my voice and media to benefit great causes that I believe in.


But even with how far we women have come in the last 100 years, we are still struggling to get equal pay, equal notoriety, equal opportunities out there.  I am so lucky to have been brought up in a country and with a family that told me I could do anything I wanted to do in life.  It is a goal of mine to find creative ways to celebrate female explorers, leaders, and entrepreneurs and to be representing women in the media. I think half the problem that keeps this divide alive is that girls out there don’t have enough bad-ass women in the media to relate to and aspire to be.  With the Kim Kardashians out there dominating Instagram and magazines, we need more women promoting travel, education, exploring our planet, and thinking about social issues greater than ourselves.  We need better female role models in the media. With that message in mind, I wanted to use my power as an influencer photographer to DO MORE and to make an Impact for women.


The reason I launched this social media Adventure photography workshop was to allow all of us to use our voices and multimedia options around us as photographers to create impactful, striking imagery. Our #sarinotsorry photo series showcased each of us modeling a one of a kind hand-painted sari in iconic locations all across Sri Lanka. Sometimes the process of getting to a location and the memories that we created as a group of women traveling together were more important and life-changing than the photo shoot itself. Each photo shows a powerful woman who overcame adversity to get there and what I learned is even as a workshop teacher, that I could not prepare my students or even myself for the lessons that we were to all learn from this trip. The most powerful takeaways of all ended up having nothing to do with photography or even social media. Instead, we were able to leverage both of these tools to be able to share our incredible stories and inspire other along the way.




Tea fields Sari Shoot (Red dress)

100% of all Ceylon tea leaves are picked by hand by women in Sri Lanka and over 20% of their population is directly or indirectly affected by the tea industry. After spending time out in the Kandi tea country, meeting the workers and their families, and even throwing on the tea baskets ourselves and joining the women in the terraced fields learning how to properly pluck tea leaves, you realize that every cup of tea we buy here in the US literally takes a village to end up in your teabag. It is unforgiving work to pick and process tea leaves and the women get this job because of their precision and dexterity. Brittany Paradise who is featured here in the red sari, is the founder and CEO of Ferndell Coffee and Tea based in the United States, but whose tea is produced here in Sri Lanka. Not many women OWN tea companies, so it seemed fitting to have her model the sari in the origin of her own tea leaves. I had to have the striking red in contrast to the vibrant green terraced fields and the craziest part about this shoot was that we had NO idea that these fields were covered in leeches!! So as we were all standing in the midst of this beauty and focused on getting the shot, we were all getting our ankles attacked and covered by leeches and spent 30 minutes after the shoot having to take them off of each other; something that I am sure the tea pluckers deal with every day of their lives. It was sort of a metaphor for what women’s struggles are here. It is a sacrifice of literally blood, sweat, and tears to produce something that represents relaxation, communal gatherings, and new beginnings and is integral in so many people’s every day lives. The lesson Brittany learned and wanted to convey through this shoot was the blending of her work, life, and passion and how there are struggles woven throughout.

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Stilted fisherman

I was inspired by Steve McCurry’s famous photo of Sri Lankan stilt fisherman who sit perched far from shore atop crude crucifixes of sticks and twine, dangling fishing rods into schools of fish. I decided that we had to seek out these male fisherman near Galle Fort in Sri Lanka who are still practicing a vanishing tradition, and to pose a powerful woman in a sari out in the ocean with them.

The practice started during World War II when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots prompted some clever men to try fishing on the water. At first they used the wreckage of capsized ships and downed aircraft, then began erecting their stilts in coral reefs.

The meager returns these fishermen pull from the sea are dwindling and may well disappear entirely. The tsunami that devastated much of the Indian Ocean coastline forever altered the Sri Lankan shoreline and reduced access to fish using this method. So it is becoming harder and harder for this primitive method of fishing to survive, which made it even more important for me to capture an image of a woman posed in this once iconic backdrop in Sri Lanka before it ceases to exist.

Influencer photographer, Sarah Natasha, posed for this shoot because she is always seeking out adventure and new cultures on her travels and pushing the boundaries of where women can go. Having to wade through the ocean and scale these jagged, rickety sticks and falling numerous times onto hidden, sharp coral rocks just to get up on the stilts and to try to pose with the wind and waves swaying her around was a challenge on its own, but completely worth it for the shot!


003A2189FINAL-1024x683 Adam’s Peak

Adams Peak is Sri Lanka’s Holiest mountain and each year tens of thousands of Pilgrims flock to climb its 5500 steps and almost 7000 feet of elevation. For thousands of years, people have been sacrificing their muscles and testing their endurance to the limit climbing this peak in the middle of the night to reach the top by sunrise.
It is said that this is the place where Adam first stepped foot on earth when he was cast down from heaven.
It is also believed that it is the place where Buddha last stepped from earth before reaching Nirvana, while others believe it is the giant footstep of Lord Shiva.
What is incredibly unique about Adams Peak is that it is a pilgrimage for every religion.  We climbed beside Muslims and Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.
Maybe it is true.  Maybe this is a holy place. Where else on earth do so many religions join together as one for a festive and spiritual journey?

Although this place isn’t as “Instafamous” as other peaks in Sri Lanka, we felt that spiritually and as a lesson of ultimate perseverance, that we had to do one of our sari shoots at the top after hiking for hours in the dark and not knowing if any or all of us would even make it there.

We started out at 2:30am laden with backpacks filled with water and heavy photo gear, glitter make-up and long sari fabric to trek to the top. To say this hike was hard is a gross understatement. There were times I wasn’t sure we would finish; times I had to mentally push myself to finish. It became a sheer test of will long after my muscles gave out to make it to the top, but we ALL did and the reward was glorious! We literally made it to the summit at 6am just as the sun was rising after 4 hours of straight climbing! Once we got to the top we rang the bell and got Bethany ready for our photo shoot by doing her make-up and wrapping her sweaty and cold in a sari alongside passed out pilgrims and monks praying and lighting incense. The morning light beamed through the incense smoke and made this image just magical. We were exhausted, tired, hungry, and emotional when we did this shoot and I think it was such a profound moment for all of us to have accomplished this and to have potentially been the only shoot of its kind at the top of that mountain. The hardest part was scaling the 6000 steps back down after all of the adrenaline wore off! The lesson we all took away from this shoot was perseverance and that you literally CAN do anything you set your mind out to, no matter how hard it is.


Sigiriya-Lions Rock

Deep in the middle of Sri Lanka, a massive column of rock juts out from the green tropical forest. It reaches 660 feet tall and features frescoes of beautiful women, graffiti, and landscaped gardens. The rock is known as Sigiriya and holds a special place in the island’s cultural history.

Over 500 years old, monks used to live at the top of it and disgraced King Kashyapa who murdered his adored father to secede to the throne, fled from a similar fate from his angry people to the top of Sigiriya Rock. He built his new fortress and palace at the top of the rock and created beautiful landscaped gardens, which today is the oldest surviving palace in Sri Lanka. The terraced gardens employed an advanced irrigation system and created this “Garden of Eden” at the top of what from the ground just looks like an unforgiving, stark rock with no shade or vegetation.

We decided to do one of our Sari shoots here, because not only is the site important in ancient Sri Lankan history, but it was an example of how things are not always as they appear. When Kimberly and the rest up us hiked up the side of the steep cliff walls on a staircase that seemed never ending, we had NO idea what the top was going to look like or if it would even be pretty at all for our shoot. We just took a chance and had faith that we could create something out of whatever scenario was given to us and we ended up being very rewarded at the top.

I wanted Kimberly and her colorful hair and jewel-toned sari to pose for this shoot, because I envisioned the top would be ruins of neutral colored rock walls. We had no idea how beautiful the gardens and terraced ruins would be. We had perfect 360 views of the entire country below and it was amazing to imagine this as a bustling palace hundreds of years ago at the top of this rock in the middle of nowhere and at one point a place where only male monks lived, and now we were having a full fashion shoot at the top!

003A0599FINAL-1024x683 Giant Buddhas of Polonnaruwa

Kings ruled the central plains of Sri Lanka from Polonnaruwa 800 years ago, when it was a thriving commercial and religious center. The glories of that age can be found in the archaeological treasures that still give a pretty good idea of how the city looked in its heyday. With hundreds of ancient structures, tombs, temples, stupas, and giant carved Buddha statues scattered in the rural countryside, riding bicycles through 40 kilometers of what was once the ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka alone is worth the trip.

We decided to seek out Sri Lanka’s largest Buddha statues to do one of our Sari shoots in front of and we ended up getting a HUGE lesson on humility, spirituality and respecting other people’s beliefs instead!



First of all it was pouring rain and cold when we finally reached the walk out to the statues. When we got there, we started the photo shoot and we were quickly stopped because you are NOT ALLOWED to turn your back to a Buddha statue. So basically NO selfies are allowed and the only photo you can take is if your body is facing Buddha. So we corrected and started taking photos again and I was having Mandy our model move her arms to make the sari fabric flow in the wind, when we were quickly stopped again. No DANCING or arm gestures are allowed in front of Buddha. Then, no closed fists, no sudden movements, no laughing, no loud conversations, no singing…the list goes on of what NOT to do in front of Buddha. So I finally asked what we COULD do in front of Buddha, and he moved Mandy’s arms and hands like he was posing a Barbie doll to allow her to be in the final pose that you see here, partially turned towards the camera and of course Buddha. At first I was frustrated, and thought it was a bit ironic considering Buddha himself would roll in his grave if there was a huge statue of him that people prayed to, since he didn’t believe in idols, but then I realized how important this lesson really was. No matter how much we don’t understand another’s spiritual or cultural beliefs, it is SO important when traveling to respect them and to not assume you know anything. This out of ALL of the shoots was the most restricting and we only were allowed to take a few shots, but the entire moment of learning “what not to do” was actually one of the most important lessons of all and more powerful than getting the shot itself.


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