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Living Lightly: Life Lessons from Visual Anthropologist Sarah Thomas

Independent filmmaker and self-proclaimed nomad Sarah Thomas has spent her life traveling; documenting the lives of people and the countries they call home.

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Interior of Camel Herders Hut in Rajasthan // Photographer: Sarah Thomas

Independent filmmaker and self-proclaimed nomad Sarah Thomas has spent her life traveling; documenting the lives of people and the countries they call home. Through film, photography, and the collection of storytelling objects, she has learned the importance of the connectedness of people and the unimportance of money in achieving a full life. From a canal boat in England’s chilly rivers, using a borrowed Internet connection from the local pub, she shared her life story, and the many lessons she has happened upon throughout her travels.

At the young age of eleven, Sarah moved from her native England to Kenya.

“The house [we stayed in] had no running water, and there were regular basic food shortages… From a young age, I was introduced to a lot I couldn’t take for granted,”she remembered.

This culture shock did not dissuade her from future travel, however, and she found a deep appreciation for the traditional crafts in each country she visited.

“I just wove travel into my life where I could … Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, India, Nepal.”

Later in life, when she had returned to England, having collected beads during her frequent trips to India, she re-sold them as jewelry which she made herself.

“I’m not interested in big business. I love finding an object then relating that object to an individual. It’s so important that things have meaning.”

Her love of travel and traditional crafts made her well suited to the university degree she chose out of an A to Z book of courses (she never got past Anthropology). She specialized in Visual Anthropology for her graduate course, during which she made documentaries about the stories of objects.

“People forget the smaller stories… [These documentaries] make people remember the world is full of amazing things.”

Her graduation film was featured in film festivals across the world, one of which happened to be in Iceland.

“It’s one of those places you always wanted to go to but didn’t realize.”

Sarah and Orri Running the Shop // Photographer: Sarah Thomas

During that first trip to Iceland, Sarah met a couple that ran a shop in an old American school bus. After baking an impressive wild rhubarb pie, they asked her to stay for 3 months over the summer to help them run their shop. She returned to her home at the time in London to consider their offer. Through a fortunate stroke of serendipity, Sarah’s flat mate, whom she had found through Craigslist, had actually met the woman in the couple in Iceland, having gone to art school with her in Germany years before.

“We both went to stay. It was a big risk. When you get on that track, you trust it’s going to work out, and it does even better than you thought it would. I met my (now) husband, as he was running the shop with them. He was their nephew.”

Later, after her summer stay in Iceland, she and the couple’s nephew, Orri, found an old heritage building in his hometown that was being auctioned off cheap by the town, which had originally planned to demolish it. The house needed work but the pair was well matched for the task, as they both feel strongly about learning how to do things themselves.

“We’re obsessed about living frugally, but I don’t like that word as it denotes suffering … We’ve never had much money but we’ve never felt poor … People that have money live differently. If things break, and you don’t have money, you find a way to fix it … You have two eyes, two hands; figure it out yourself. Now we don’t feel like a house is an incomprehensible system; we now understand how it works.”

The two of them completed all the renovations themselves and with the help of Orri’s parents, having to call a professional only once or twice. A before and after of the bathroom can be seen below. Utilizing the local refuse dump, which was conveniently sorted by material, they renovated the house using reclaimed materials as much as possible. Now completed, the house is actually available to rent as a guesthouse, holding as many stories as the objects Sarah has collected on her travels.

Guesthouse Before and After // Photographer: Sarah Thomas

Her most recent collection is that of Icelandic sweaters, which she gathered over the two-year period she spent living there. She had grown to appreciate them for both their practicality and traditional craftsmanship. Upon hearing about the decreasing winter temperatures and soaring fuel and energy prices in England, Sarah realized these jumpers could be quite helpful to people there.

“I was never cold in Iceland. These sweaters have great wool; suffering doesn’t need to exist.”

Icelandic sweaters, which are typically hand-knitted and take approximately three days to complete, typically cost $200 – $300 new. She collected second hand sweaters, repairing them if need be and sold them, over the holidays, through craft markets in England. Recently, she placed a few on eBay for those outside of the country.

Gin and Tonic with 1000 Year Old Glacial Ice // Photographer: Sarah Thomas

Iceland has become incredibly important to Sarah, not only because she has built a home there, but also because of the culture. She had found it particularly interesting to live there during the financial crisis.

“The reality there is like looking at a Petri dish in the laboratory of life. Any ‘crisis’ that happens in Iceland can happen anywhere in the world on a much larger scale. But while there were many films being made about the crisis itself, there was still a dearth of material on the everyday lives of (particularly rural) Icelanders, so I decided to make an ethnographic documentary, first learning the language and then living there for two years. I want to go beyond the clichés.”

From not taking things for granted, to being careful not to use more than is necessary, Sarah has many life lessons to share. Her belief in the connectedness of people and frugality as a positive term are inspiring. When asked what her advice would be for others trying to live lightly, she stated,

“Think about exchange where possible. When you exchange, rather than buy things, you will have an interaction with other people, which may well lead to something else entirely. Money can close off that possibility for interaction. Realize that you always have something to give, even when you don’t have money … We live in a world where an individual is an island; it’s a lot of pressure. If we lived as a web, you have that support. The more you share, the more everyone has.”

For more information on Sarah Thomas, please visit her blog.

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