The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

For this global nomad, botany buff and blossoming novelist, a picture says…

Cinda 1000 Words CollageWelcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is Cinda MacKinnon, an American who grew up overseas and is the author of an award-winning novel set in one of her former homes, Colombia. Called A Place in the World, the book was featured almost exactly a year ago on the Displaced Nation.

Cinda shoots mainly “macro” (extremely close up) pictures, a habit she developed because of her interest in nature and plants—especially wildflowers. A writer, former university lecturer, and environmental scientist, Cinda is trained in geology and has also nurtured a life-long passion for botany. It’s telling that the protagonist of her novel is a botanist!

Cinda enjoys hunting down rare plants and taking photos that show their minute details, such as the number of anthers (the part of the stamen that contains pollen), so that botanists will be able to identify them.

She now lives in northern California, where the California Native Plant Society has become a fan of her photos and sometimes asks her to supply a few of them for their newsletters and exhibits. Who knew?

* * *

Hi, Cinda. Welcome back to the Displaced Nation. I’m pleased to have the opportunity to discuss your photo-travel experiences. When I first started following your blog, I assumed you were a writer—but then was delighted to discover that you’ve also taken some excellent photos. I know you’ve already been over some of this ground in your interview with ML Awanohara, but can you tell me where you were born and when you spread your wings to start traveling on your own?
I was born on an Air Force base in Louisiana, but lived there only a week. My dad was already stationed in Greece, and my mother followed him as soon as she was able to travel. I lived in Greece and Germany as a pre-schooler and then in Colombia when my father changed his job and began working as a military attaché for U.S. embassies. Having fallen in love with Latin America, my parents retired in Costa Rica when I was in seventh grade so, happily, I was able to stay in that part of the world through high school…and beyond. After college in the United States, I moved to New Zealand with my husband (back then, they told us we had to get married to immigrate together!). We came to California when he finished his PhD. And here we’ve been ever since, although I view that move to California—I was in my thirties—as the first time I actually lived in the States. Even though my passport said I was a citizen, it has taken me a while to feel like I belong here.

You have been an expat almost since birth—what is known as a Third Culture Kid. Would you say that your wanderlust comes from your nomadic upbringing?
Once I grew up, I wanted to see more of Latin America and as a young family we could do that cheaply. Next I visited Europe to see some of the places I’d lived with my parents, but like so many others ended up falling in love with Italy and France. I think language had as much to do with it as the culture and people. Growing up speaking Spanish, it was fairly easy for me to be understood in Italian, and I found French so beautiful that I have become a perennial student. Recently, my husband and I explored Central Europe along the Danube River, from southern Germany to Budapest. That splendid trip provided fodder for at least five blog posts.

Mais oui. I have always loved the French language, too. Where exactly do you live in northern California?
We live in a semi-rural area nestled in the hills and yet are only 30 minutes from San Francisco—an unusual situation due to geography, which insures our immediate surroundings will never be developed.

“Are not flowers the stars of the earth…”—A.J. Balfour 

And now let’s have a look at a few of your shots that capture favorite memories. Can you tell us the story behind each of them, what makes them so special?
This is one of the first wildflowers I photographed and is still a great favorite of mine: a shooting star, or Dodecatheon clevelandii:

Dodecatheon clevelandii, aka shooting star. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnonn.

Dodecatheon clevelandii, aka shooting star. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnonn.

The next photo is of the odd-looking Tiburon Lily, Calochortus tiburonensis, which blooms only a few weeks a year and is quite rare; it evolved on serpentine soils, which gives rise to unusual plants that can tolerate this somewhat toxic chemistry. Indeed, you can find this little lily in only one place: on Ring Mountain (a single hill really), north of San Francisco:

Calochortus tiburonensis. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

Calochortus tiburonensis, found only on Ring Mountain. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


Another peculiar wildflower is C. tolmiei, nicknamed “pussy ears”. It is challenging to capture the tiny hairs and other features as it is barely 2.5 cm across—plus it tends to grow on coastal slopes where the wind wreaks havoc with your focus!
Calochortus tolmiei, aka pussy ears. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

Calochortus tolmiei, aka pussy ears. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


I’ve taken quite a few photos of wild flowers without having a clue what their names were. I’m getting a real lesson in flora here. Thank you, Cinda. I can see why they call botany the “science of beauty.”

“I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.”—Claude Monet

I know you have photos of scenery, too, and these next four, I believe, have a special significance for you.
I mentioned I am a bit of a Francophile and a favorite region of mine is the Dordogne Valley. This is a place with history, from Richard the Lionheart to Joan of Arc; pre-history (the Cro-Magnon cave paintings); and beauty. I talked my husband into renting a canoe and we paddled down the Dordogne River, past castles, ancient bridges and towns. This photo with the medieval Château de Castelnaud in the background is a memento of that glorious day:

Canoeing on the Dordogne in glorious weather. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

Canoe with a view, la rivière Dordogne. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


Next, I’d like to show you a photo of a very different place, in California. Actually, I can give you a choice of two: would you rather see the California desert before a rain storm or one of Arvin, a city in southern California? Arvin is interesting because it’s set in hilly grassland that half of the year is dry and dormant but explodes into wildflowers in the spring (if the winter is wet). What’s your pleasure?

Can I have both?
Mais oui! Here’s the Sierras:

The stormy Sierras. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

The stormy Sierras. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


And now for Arvin in all of its glory:
A profusion of wildflowers in Arvin. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

A profusion of wildflowers in Arvin. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

Both photos are so lovely! That’s why I decided to give you this bonus. But if I really was forced to choose, the desert before the rain is so dramatic. I think you should turn it into a photo-painting using Topaz Adjust or Impression. What’s your last shot?
Another California landscape I’m fond of is Monterey County. When I was a teenager, I read all of John Steinbeck’s novels, never dreaming I would live in California much less end up working in the Salinas Valley as a hydro-geologist for several years. On arriving I felt as though I’d been there before. The town of Monterey itself has become a tourist attraction, but if you go out into the countryside there are still scenes like this one, with the adobe house on the hill:

An enchanted realm near Monterey, California. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.

An enchanted realm near Monterey, California. Photo credit: Cinda MacKinnon.


Please God, don’t let them turn it into another orchard or development!

Here here! I noticed you haven’t included any photos of people. Do you feel reserved about taking photos of strangers?
Yes , and I don’t like portraits to look overly posed. So first I try to take photos surreptitiously. If that’s not possible, I try to be respectful by asking if it’s okay– preferably in their own language. No matter where I travel, I learn some basic phrases in the language of the country (Hungarian was the hardest so far!), but I’ve found that “okay?” seems to be a universal word.

You are right: “okay” seems to have been adopted by most of the planet, though it’s origins are unclear. One theory is that it was derived from a shorthand way foreign-born Americans in the 1830s developed for writing “all correct”—only they’d spelled it “korrect”!

“I will touch a hundred flowers/And not pick one.”–Edna St. Vincent Millay

What motivates you to record what you see through photographs? Is it the ability to capture something unique, which will never be seen again?
Hmmm… I barely think of myself as a photographer; it is one of several hobbies! But certainly, what you say is true of fleeting blooms, and photos do help to preserve memories of wonderful places, whose beauty could vanish. But I think what really led me to photography was my interest in plant nomenclature. I like to block out weeks of time every year to hike in hills, valleys and deserts and search for rare blooms. It is a bit of a treasure hunt, and my photos of evidence of the riches I uncover.

Your modesty is charming, but I think you definitely have an artist’s eye and many of your photographs could be transformed into beautiful pictures with a little more post processing. Which leads me to the technical stuff. Some of our readers may want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use, and how you handle post-processing.
I use a Canon Digital Rebel XT SLR with a macro lens when I am looking for wildflowers in the spring. But for traveling I’ve started to just put my trusty Canon PowerShot in my pocket. I usually use Photoshop for post-processing, but as you’ve pointed out, I’m not adept at all the advanced features. I use “auto” first, and that is generally all I need, except I often crop a shot and, if needed, adjust the lightning or clean up stray blemishes.

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
It is not the equipment—it is in the eye. Some of my better pictures were taken with a point and shoot. I asked a professional photographer friend if he thought I should buy some filters or another lens, and he said his best shots are sometimes with his cell phone! I guess the motto is “be prepared” for something that catches your eye—be ready for the special moment when the light is right. Make sure your subject doesn’t appear to have an antenna sprouting out of his head at that moment. Don’t use the “sharpen” feature for portraits as it accentuates flaws (unless you want that for character) and can give a severe look. And don’t make your friends look at 200 mediocre photos of your vacation—please cull out the unappealing or out-of-focus ones! (My rule of thumb for talks is 1 to 1.5 slides per minute—that’s 60 to 90 per hour—nobody wants to see more than that.)

Very succinct and good advice, Cinda—right up my street. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your fascinating story in this interview.

* * *

front-cover-place-in-worldReaders, what do you make of Cinda’s close-up photos of exotic plants and her photography advice? I find it curious that she writes about people looking for their place in the world, yet is obsessed with the kinds of flowers that bloom where they are planted. As Georgia O’Keefe once put it:

“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment.”

Please leave any questions or comments for Cinda in the comments!

Meanwhile, I suggest that you check out Cinda’s Pinterest boards for more of her botany photos. You can also get to know her better by visiting her author site and blog, and liking her Facebook page. And don’t forget to read her book if you haven’t done so yet, many glowing reviews for which can be found here.

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with Alice nominees, exclusive book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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4 responses to “For this global nomad, botany buff and blossoming novelist, a picture says…

  1. cindamackinnon October 17, 2014 at 5:47 pm

    James, I’m honored to be included in your column on The Displaced Nation. You do such a nice job with the interviews, I always enjoy reading them. Many thanks.

  2. Rita M. Gardner November 4, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    I’m pleased to have met Cinda through this very wonderful site (thank you to TDN and James King!). I just read her novel “A Place in the World” and absolutely was entranced by it. I’d forgotten she also is a photographer, so am happy to see these images. I too take a lot of photos with my trusty Canon Powershot point-and-shoot – but as Cinda says, the eye is more important than the equipment! Congratulations!

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