How I got the shot: Yulia Denisyuk on capturing the daily life of Jordan’s Bedouin nomads

We take a behind-the-scenes look at the highlights and pitfalls of shooting a photo story for National Geographic Traveller, chatting to photographer Yulia Denisyuk about her latest assignment — an immersive and eye-opening experience in Wadi Rum, Jordan.

By Yulia Denisyuk
Published 14 Jul 2020, 16:30 BST, Updated 22 Feb 2022, 13:43 GMT
A local girl holds a goat.

A local girl holds a goat in Wadi Rum, southern Jordan. Tribes have lived in this stark land for generations, and are renowned for their accommodating hospitality.

Photograph by Yulia Denisyuk

On assignment for National Geographic Traveller, photographer Yulia Denisyuk shot the photo story, Jordan's nomadic Bedouins.

What drew you to this story and location?

I’ve frequently travelled to Jordan over the past few years, and each time I’ve been taken with the diverse landscapes and the genuine, warm-hearted hospitality of this country. There are a lot of misconceptions about the Middle East, and my experience here has always been nothing short of incredible. I’ve been looking at my work through this lens a lot lately: how do the stories I tell help build bridges, not walls? Getting to know people is one of the best ways to do so and I was excited to be able to tell a story about the rich Bedouin culture of Jordan.

On location, what elements are you seeking out for a successful shoot?

I usually plan to capture a variety of images that transport the viewer to the place I’m covering in different ways. I look for landscape shots that set the mood for the entire story, like a dramatic Wadi Dana landscape with tiny hiker figures in the foreground. I look for intimate portraits and always aim to spend time getting to know the people I’m working with for each story. I capture delightful moments, whether it’s sharing a meal or preparing Bedouin coffee, and look for unexpected details like a tea kettle brewing over an open fire. I’m most interested in conveying a sense of wonder with my stories and I look for that everywhere I go.

In Bedouin culture, guests can stay for up to three days with no questions asked — only on the fourth day is the host allowed to inquire about the visitor’s name and their intentions. 

Photograph by Yulia Denisyuk

What was the most unexpected thing you discovered while shooting?

It was wonderful to see how much the people I was working with for this story wanted me to succeed. Becoming a friend with the Bedouin communities and being able to record their stories is an honour for me, and I think it shows here. I brought several issues back to the people who were featured in this story and they were excited to hold the magazine in their hands and share the story with their communities.

Was this shoot typical of your career as a travel photographer?

I gravitate toward stories of people and traditions from different corners of our world that showcase our diversity while also celebrating our shared human values. Over the years, I’ve found those values to be universal — we all love a great meal, a laugh with a friend, a simple pleasure of tea by the roadside — and that fuels my hope for humanity. I’m also drawn to stunning visual locales that capture how remote, wild and vast our world is. For past assignments, I’ve shared a roof with nomads in Mongolia, traced the origins of Iznik tiles with artisans in Turkey and learned the art of imigongo with artist collectives in Rwanda. So in that sense, this was a typical shoot.

Photographer Yulia Denisyuk, seen here on assignment in Jordan. 

Photograph by Yulia Denisyuk

What do you take into account when selecting a kit?

I try to pack light and work with one mirrorless camera body and one to two lenses on assignment to give me the most flexibility and freedom. I’ve found that two lenses — a prime 55mm for portraits and a good-quality zoom for the rest — is all I need to capture a variety of images. One exception to that is when I’m shooting in extreme conditions: my gear for the assignment in Mongolia included two camera bodies and multiple battery back-ups. I was shooting in the midst of a Mongolian winter (-40C!) and the cameras were having a hard time keeping up!

Where’s next on your wishlist?

I’ve been planning to travel to Austria to capture the art of traditional indigo textile making, and I was very excited about the opportunity to do a story on Yamabushi monks in Yamagata, Japan who have, for the first time in history, opened their training practices to travellers. I also can’t wait to return to the deserts of Oman and Jordan, as these landscapes and communities now feel like home.

See the photos from Yulia's shoot in our gallery, below.


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