Emma Hamilton, 26
Hometown: Haverhill, U.K.
Lives in: Freiburg, Germany
Emma Hamilton arrived at The Crossroads of Should and Must a few years ago while working at a department store in Derby in the U.K. A chance encounter with a blind woman forced Emma to ask herself what she really wanted and take a leap off the proverbial cliff into the unknown.
Now, Emma lives in Germany. She has learnt Italian, German and has turned her attention to French. She has interned in art galleries across Europe—occasionally even showing her own photography—and has taken part in exciting production projects in Bolzano, Italy.
Emma spoke to us about what makes her happy, her passion for photography and baking, the art of conversation and the power of chance encounters. We think she’s got something pretty special to share, not least of which is her stunning photography, (featured below). If you’re also a fan, you can check out more here.
Emma, we met at what I think was the very beginning of your adventure! Can you tell us a bit about how you ended up where you are now?
Well, the recession had just hit big time in the U.K. when I graduated with a photography degree from university. I was working in a department store, volunteering in an art gallery and also working a part time job at a photography shop.
One day I was working in the men’s wear department and a blind lady came into the store and asked if I could help her find a jumper for her husband. While we were looking at the jumpers, she just stopped and turned to me and said, ‘You don’t belong here. What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Well, a girl’s gotta eat!’ Then she asked me what I would be doing if I could be doing anything at all. I said, ‘Well, I’d really like to do my masters but I’m not really sure which direction I want to go in…or I would like to travel.’
She said, ‘Ok, then why don’t you just do one of those? Have you got some money?’ I said ‘I’ve got some money…not enough for a masters but some.’ When she left she said, ‘I hope when I come back here in a months time we don’t see each other.’
The next day I handed my notice in.
I really loved the flexibility and spontaneity that had come into my life.
I class myself now as a spontaneous person but then I most definitely was not. I was not spontaneous, I was not adventurous, I was a complete worry-wart. I decided to do a little trip around Europe (where we met). Every few days I was in a new country. After that I just had this thirst to see things! A friend of mine from university told me she had worked as an au pair in Finland and really enjoyed it. So I decided I would try that. I ended up moving to South Tyrol in Italy to be an au pair. I didn’t know any Italian before I went to Italy so it was quite a shock to the system. But it was the most refreshing and revitalising thing that I’ve ever done.
I had planned to go back to the U.K. after a year but I had gotten used to jumping on a train and heading down the coast or crossing the border to Austria whenever I had time off. I really loved the flexibility and spontaneity that had come into my life and I wasn’t ready to let go of that. So I decided to go to Germany for a while…it’s been two and a half years and I’m still here.
The family I work for here (as an au pair) are completely amazing. They’re both surgeons. The father actually formed his own charity based in Burkina Faso, called Surgeons for Africa and I was lucky enough to go with them to visit the project in January of this year, which was amazing. I’ve also interned at an art gallery and done some voice over work for a production company based in Rome. I helped them out with the voice over for a documentary they eventually sold to China. I also did a commercial. It was completely non-glamorous though, it was for a company that makes balustrades!
Awesome! And along the way you picked up Italian, German and French I believe? Can you tell us what it means to you to speak another language?
It opens so many doors and I don’t mean that in terms of your career, I mean it in terms of the world. It is so exciting to be able to have a conversation with someone in another language. You also come to find these words that don’t exist in your own language and you really start to appreciate the beauty of English as a language.
I think communication is something you take for granted until you’re in a situation where you can’t communicate. But I think that’s also so refreshing and exciting. You really get a whole different experience of a country when you can communicate with people in their language. I think there’s a greater respect. There’s also an openness towards you when you’re making the effort to share something of yourself and you’re making the effort in their language.
It is tough though, but I think once you learn a new language you prove that you can do something. I was not very good at languages in school at all. I wouldn’t say I have a gift for languages but it is also very different when your mind knows you have to learn.
That immersion part is very important to the process isn’t it? How have these languages and your adventures changed you?
I guess the girl who sold the jumper to the lady in the shop wasn’t really living. I mean if I say I was just surviving that sounds melodramatic, depressing…but basically I was just going through the motions, everything was very routine, I had no plans.
Now, I genuinely think that I have bigger ideas, bigger ambitions.
Whereas now everyday is different. Sometimes it’s wonderful and sometimes it’s a complete stress! But I love that I have more free time to go out with my camera, take some pictures, go through some pictures, edit some—I’m trying to pull together an exhibition because I had one last year and I’d really like to try to show more of my work.
I had entered some competitions in the U.K. but I felt drained of my creativity after university. I think it’s always a battle when you finish your bachelor degree. No matter what you study, at the end you’re just so done and you don’t want to even think about what you studied for a little while. You’ve lost yourself in a really wonderful way and you burst out of that university bubble and it’s the real world and it’s pretty scary.
Now, I genuinely think that I have bigger ideas, bigger ambitions, but also a greater belief that I can make it work. I think by living in different place, by taking myself completely out of my comfort zone I have proven to myself that even if I don’t like the sound of something at the beginning, ultimately something good always comes of it. Even if you don’t realise at the time. I really do believe that everything happens for a reason. Not to say that people should just sit back and let life happen and then just say, ‘Well, everything happens for a reason.’ But when you are consciously making decisions about what you want and who you want to be, how you want to view the world and how you want the world to view you, things can work out.
I am of the exact same school of thought and it’s always at that particular point of reflecting that you realise, ‘I wouldn’t have reached this point if I hadn’t had all these kinds of particular experiences.’ It’s so interesting, it’s so evident in people’s lives but some people can’t recognise that.
I think at the moment it’s really stressful for a lot of people, especially in our age group, especially in Europe. Here you’ve got a lot of people just completely dissatisfied. They’re dissatisfied with the way their country is run, they’re dissatisfied with their jobs (if they’ve got one) and maybe they’ve got student debts that seem to just loom at all times but there’s no manageable way of tackling them. I think that’s leading to a generation of negativity and that’s really dangerous because at some point that generation is going to be the main bread winners, so to speak, and they’re going to be the ones setting examples to the younger generation.
It’s tough but I think you always have to stay positive. I never in a million years thought after graduating I would have found myself living abroad. Of course, I’m not really further in terms of my career. My big dream would be to own my own art gallery—a small gallery where you can have a coffee and have cakes (I also love to bake)—but for now I just want to work in exhibitions in the art scene.
So is that the bigger ideas and bigger ambitions you were talking about? They’ve solidified into this dream of having a gallery of your own in ten years from now?
First I think I want to work in other museums. I have found the experience I’ve had here in Germany working in different galleries and different areas really wonderful. I had this internship where I worked in the archives and every day I was sorting through letters from photographers who I had studied at university, college, school. I held postcards in my hand that they’d selected because there was an image on it that they found interesting and then they’ve hand written some kind of completely mundane thing on the back. ‘Having a lovely time, weather is terrible. Ansel Adams’.
Happiness is always being open to the possibility of something positive and something good.
For me that was mind blowing and I realised these people were just like me, they just loved taking photographs and they were just doing what they wanted to do and eventually they got there.
I don’t want to be a famous photographer but I like showing my work so I just found that really inspiring—coming into contact with people that you’ve idolised and then you realise that they are just like you, that they were also just a person who had a certain interest in something and a passion for something and it all fell into place.
Do you believe in luck then? Do you think there’s element of luck at play in those types of success stories?
Yes. In the art world, especially, luck plays a huge role. I’m not saying you don’t have to be talented and you don’t have to have worked hard and you don’t have to have passion—of course, you have to have all of those things. But there are people who have all of those things, perhaps more of those things than other people, but it is often who you come to meet or where you happen to be at a certain time and that comes down to luck basically.
What has been the best thing that has ever happened to you?
I think encountering that blind lady. I really wish I knew her name. I think for me I see her as this person who made a huge change in my life. I would say that was a pivotal moment in my life.
Where do you think you would be if that hadn’t happened? Do you think you would have found your way?
I don’t know where I’d be but I don’t think I’d be here.
What does happiness mean to you? How would you define happiness for yourself?
I think happiness is something you create, I don’t think it is something that just happens and I think it’s created in various ways. But I also think a huge part of happiness is surrounding yourself with positive people and experiences.
Happiness is always being open to the possibility of something positive and something good. I can be a very negative person, but if you go into everything with a positive approach and an open mind then nothing but happiness can come from it, even if it doesn’t bring you what you thought it would or it didn’t turn out exactly as planned. Happiness is the result of learning and social interaction and ambition and positivity.
Good answer. So what advice would you give to yourself at sixteen?
Firstly, I’d say relax because I was always completely stressed. At sixteen I was about to take my exams, the whole world was open to me but I was in this complete stress bubble and everything seemed unachievable. I’d say, ‘Relax, enjoy yourself, it’s all going to be ok and it’s going to be nothing like you imagined it to be.’
It’s not a man’s sole purpose to be a father and I don’t think it’s a woman’s sole purpose to be a mother.
And what would you say to a group of women similar to yourself, what would be your message to them?
I would say always be true to yourself. Be strong because ultimately you are the only person you can rely on. I don’t mean that in a negative way. That’s true for men and women. You can only rely on yourself and hold yourself accountable for your actions and the results of those actions.
Have you ever had any negative experiences because you are a young ambitious, intelligent female?
Well I think most women have had those experiences. I have to say that as an au pair often when you meet people they assume that you are an au pair because you want to train yourself for your future motherhood! They assume that motherhood is your sole purpose in life. Whereas I don’t think that’s anybody’s sole purpose. It’s not a man’s sole purpose to be a father and I don’t think it’s a woman’s sole purpose to be a mother. We have so many dimensions and possibilities.
I have to say though that some of the negativity that women experience often comes from other women. I think we are our own worst enemies as well as our best supporters. Certainly I’ve heard a lot as the au pair when I’m picking the children up from school. I’ve heard the mothers talking and they all have an opinion on you—whether you should be there, what your role is.
Some of the things I’ve heard there are the kinds of things that would have seemed old fashioned for a woman to say in the 50s. That’s not just here either. I’ve heard it in Germany, Italy, in the U.K. It’s the aggression of the views that I find sad. We should all be able to choose what we want to do. I don’t believe when having a child anybody should be doing it because they feel, man or woman, that that is their social—or biological—obligation.
It’s very difficult for a successful woman.
Having a child, creating a whole other person is a big deal and it is a big achievement. It’s also a choice. Women can be so insecure in their own decisions that they feel the need to put other people’s down. If you choose to have it all, then more power you. But there are other women who want to focus on one thing at a time and maybe have no interest in a career, or no interest in a child, or no interest in travel, or whatever. I think respect is the key aspect and that respect has to come from everybody. Men might cat call women in the street but there are plenty of women who also judge a woman and say something about her appearance when they see the way she’s dressed.
That’s true. There is a tendency to tear other women down…
It’s very difficult for a successful woman. She’s half praised because she’s worked really hard but then there always comes this moonlight monster when, maybe, people feel threatened and think, ‘If she’s doing that, then why aren’t I?’ Well, maybe it’s because that’s not what you want. I think people need to realise that someone might be something or have something and you might think that’s really cool…but that’s doesn’t mean that you have to have it as well or even that you actually want it. I think it’s hard to separate those things sometimes.
So very true and so very relevant! It is incredibly hard to differentiate what we actually want from what we think we want. So as a final question to wrap this wonderful interview up, what do you think we need to talk more about?
The art of conversation. I am a self confessed chat-a-holic! However, go into a cafe or restaurant and I guarantee you will see a large amount of people totally absorbed in their smartphones or leaping to reply immediately to a Whatsapp message, even though their friend is sitting right next to them. Whilst being permanently “connected” to others via social networking sites like Facebook, it seems we are becoming more and more disconnected from the people around us and our surroundings. Not only that, but our vocabulary is rapidly shrinking!
Things I Love
Roughly translatable as the feeling of being alone in the forest. I have never claimed to be an outdoorsy type. I am much more at home in a comfy armchair with a cup of tea and a book. However, since living abroad and especially since moving to Freiburg and having the Black Forest on my doorstep, I have really come to appreciate a long hike, bike ride or a dip in a lake.
I think everyone should go to more exhibitions. Getting lost in another person’s interpretation of the world can only broaden your horizons and strengthen your own beliefs, regardless of whether you like the work or not.
Shortly after graduating, I set up a regular bake date with a friend who was feeling a little down in the dumps. It gradually petered out, but I have continued to bake every week. Baking gives me the opportunity to relax, completely immersing myself in the act of measuring and mixing. Then comes the best part …the sharing. As an avid teacup and saucer fan, nothing beats having friends over for tea, chats and cake!