This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine – a special edition with a double theme, Love / Ukraine. It can be delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription or available to purchase as a single issue on the BJP shop.
“You just have to keep moving forward. There’s always going to be danger out there, but you need to keep going, what else are you going to do?”
In March 2018, Ameena Rojee began her journey along the Camino de Santiago, in Spain. Starting in Sevilla and travelling north, the route – also known as the Via de la Plata – winds through the cities of Mérida, Cáceres, Salamanca, Ourense and finally ends in Santiago de Compostela.
Traditionally a religious pilgrimage originating in the 9th century, today the path is walked by thousands of people every year, not exclusively for spiritual reasons. Rojee made the journey in part to get to know her heritage better – her mother is from Galicia in Santiago.
“I wanted to experience [the country] by walking because you’re more exposed. You have to interact with people to know where you’re going,” she explains. But the photographer also wanted to use this time to reconnect with her practice, walking with her camera and taking pictures without distraction.
For 45 days, Rojee walked through the arid Spanish countryside. She stayed in albergues, small hostels dotted along the route. At first, the plan was to make portraits of the hospitaleros, the hosts and helpers who worked there. But long days of walking didn’t allow for much time to connect with people at the pit stops. Instead, she turned her lens to the nature that she was immersed in every day.
The result is her project, Valley of Paradise. Contrary to the initial plan, there are almost no people in Rojee’s images. “That was a big decision in the photographs,” she explains. “Partly because I was relishing the solitude… I’m quite a solitary person anyway, but I wanted to see what it would be like to be remote for that long.”
Instead, the work is populated by vast, grassy landscapes, sleepy country houses and farm animals. In one image, the patchy hide of a cow glistens, catching the sunlight on its undulating belly. In another, a quiet terrace lined with tombstones and crosses lies in the shadow of a fiery, orange mountain.
There is a sense of movement too, and the oscillation between dusk and dawn. “It’s like one long meditation,” she says of the experience. “Often you end up daydreaming, it’s an out-of-body experience and you don’t realise you’re walking.”
Rojee spent many months reworking the narrative. Then, in March 2021, the news of Sarah Everard’s murder shocked the nation. Everard, 33, was walking home alone in London when she was kidnapped and brutally murdered by a police officer. “It was then that I realised what this project was actually about,” says Rojee.
While the work began with a sense of adventure, with time it took on new meaning. Rojee began to consider the act of walking alone, as a woman. She remembered how her loved ones worried for her safety, and the constant mental battles that she had to overcome along the way too.
“When I looked at my images again, I realised that this feeling does come through,” she says. “I didn’t see it before, but there’s this slightly scary, slightly sinister stuff.”
Along the way, Rojee developed a particular affection for the horses, which feature several times in the project. She remembers her moments with these majestic beasts as some of the most special, and later, illustrative of the meaning she is conveying with the work.
“Although all the horses I saw, bar two, were tied up, that too is symbolic of the struggle between the tension of having this wilderness available to me, but with the undercurrent of those worries and fears.” She adds: “You just have to keep moving forward. There’s always going to be danger out there, but you need to keep going. What else are you going to do?”
Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.