Who does not like traveling? Seeing new countries, meeting different people and culture, witnessing the most beautiful landscapes on Earth and the actual proofs of thousands of years of human history, just going on an adventure. Do these things ring a bell to you? For pretty much everyone it does. Now imagine that this is your job, your routine is one of the unexpected, your office changes every two or three days and you do not know if you’ll have a view over the Himalayas or the Taj Mahal while working. Still interested?
Well, I am, and I’m trying hard to make this a livable reality. Yes, it’s wonderful, I love my job even if I consider it more as a way of life rather than a “job” in the usual meaning. As someone very clever (I think it’s Alan Watts, do correct me if I’m wrong) once said, “make your passion your job and you will not ever work a single day in your life”. Recently graduated from HEC Montreal with an International Business degree and here I am, in India, on the road, trying to make a living out of traveling photography and with the NGO I co-founded; Shoot to Help. Let me tell you, it is amazing and, contrary to what the title says (I just wanted you to click on the article, seems it worked), it’s pretty hard. And pretty amazing.
I’ll leave the NGO part for now (not because it’s an easy job, it’s not, I’ll do another post on that) and focus on the difficulties of travel photography. First of all, to any beginning in the field of photography in general, it’s not a secret that success does not come easily and travel photography is no exception to this rule. One of the first difficulties of travel photography is the fact that the field is pretty vague by itself and I invite you to read more about my vision of it in this magnificent article of mine that includes pictures of me taking pictures in beautiful places (like this post), lucky you.
1. Doing something different
My goal, when I press the shutter is to tell a story through the image, my own personal story of a place. Of course I want it to be different and more beautiful than all others, what else would be the use of creating something already done? To do that, you need to see what has already been done, to know how to make something different but at the same time, you must not think too much and just take the picture in your own style, there’s a fine balance to find. You have to think when you look at a famous sight, what makes it unique today? How can I capture someone or something making my image unique? From all the possible points of view, what would be the most unusual one? If you are to recreate the exact same picture of the postcard you’re holding, don’t bother.
2. The tourists
Yes, I know, I am also a tourist but that does not prevent me from disliking the others (do not judge me). There are different kinds of problems related to the tourists. The first and most direct one is the fact that they get in your pictures. It may seem simple or childish but sometimes it can make it very hard or impossible to get a shot. It’s one thing waiting for someone to go by but when there are hundreds of tour buses and groups, it forces you to change your strategy or to simply forget a certain type of shot (read, the Taj Mahal). You also have to think creatively as I found a way to get a picture of the Chariot of the Vittala here.
The other negative impact of the tourists is quite worse and on the longer term. It is the fact that as places get popular and touristy, they change and so do the people living there. Instead of having a nice little market, you will have streets littered with tourists shops selling the same old crap. Locals will consider you as a walking wallet, happy to buy anything and gullible enough to get into any scam. It changes the places visually and also the mentalities. It also makes portrait photography from harder to impossible as people either refuse to be photographed or are used to pose (like the Fakermen of Inle) in return of money. I do not do nor encourage this. Also, imagine being the single foreigner in a street, holding a camera and looking in the eyes of a local, smiling and grabbing a shot, in return of nice smile from the local. You smile back, show the picture on the viewfinder, exchange a couple of words and leave, happy. Now imagine, there is that same local person but the street is filled with tourists. A group of 6 people take their cellphones and take pictures of the same local. How would you feel now, approaching the same man with your camera, after he’s being photographed 5 times already…it breaks the magic, the feeling of authenticity that you would find otherwise. Of course, it’s still possible to get that but you need to go further, away from the crowds, from the famous places and find your own little heavens of authenticity. Not impossible but harder.
3. The Time
I’m not talking here about trips of two weeks where time is short, of course it’s a problem, I’m talking in even longer trips of couple of months, even trips of 5 months like I’m doing at the moment. Even in unlimited duration trip (more than one year) you still care in a way about time, there is a limit of years one live. What I mean when I say that time is a difficulty is that it forces you to make choices. Even if you are in no rush and without any strict planning, if you decide to spend three more days somewhere you really like well it means that you have three less days for somewhere else. Maybe that other city will be even more beautiful but you’ll have spent those days already. Even in a single day, you have only a certain timed amount of good light and you have to make the choices of where you spend that little one hour of golden light. Time is a difficulty as it forces you to make choices and even if you have no return ticket, the simple fact that there is not enough time in a whole human life to visit every single village in the world forces you to make choices somewhere. Choose wisely young padawan.
4. The equipment
I’m not a gear maniac. I think that gear is a tool to achieve results and the important part is the skills, the knowledge, the artistic vision and just finding the right story to tell through the image. This means that you don’t need the latest camera or lens or bag, you need to know how to use what you have and what are the limits of your existing equipment. That being said, you do need a minimum of gear to get certain results and this means, weight on your shoulders, complications in packing and of course, money. I tried to travel light this time meaning only a wide angle zoom lens (Canon 16-35 F4L IS) and one standard large aperture zoom lens (Canon 24-70 F2.8L) with one Full frame camera body (Canon EOS 6D). As much as you want to carry as less as possible, you still need one camera body and at least one lens. More depending of your desired style and results. Add to that a tripod (3Legged Thing Brian), a small flash and all the damn rest you need: filters, batteries, chargers, cards, computer, 2 hard drives…
It means a lot of weight, a lot of financial risk and of investment beforehand. You have to think a lot more about your equipment if you are to carry it on your back in rough conditions for a couple of months. Once you’ve made your decision, it’s really hard to change it, it’s not like going to a concert for one night as your back can suffer for a short period of time, even if you do not end up using all your lenses. The night before leaving for this trip, I could not sleep a single minute as I was only thinking about whether or not to bring my tele-objective (Canon 70-200 F2.8L IS II) as it is very heavy, large and expensive to risk. Many photographers tried to help me, with different opinions, confusing me even more and the one piece of advice that sums it all comes from my good friend and excellent photographer Ben Von Wong; “Either way, you’ll regret it”. He was right, of course. I didn’t bring it and yes I do regret it but I would have regretted bringing it as well…
5. Reaching to the world
If you are reading this, thank you, it’s a good sign for me as one of the hardest thing is to have a reach and get your work seen. It is actually frustrating to invest so much time and effort into achieving your vision and seeing that apparently no one sees or interact with what you present but at the same time it constitutes a challenge to find how exactly is the best way to share my images to have them seen and my post to be read.
Building a community is very hard and there does not seem to be any perfect way to do it except working hard, improving his own work and trying to engage everyone. After that, you notice what works and what does not and you try to understand how to replicate it.
So please, one very simple way to help me is just to at least notify me that you, yes you dear reader, is actually reading this post. You can do that by commenting, writing to me, sharing or even just by liking the link. Anything helps and just knowing that the time I spend writing is not in vain is a huge motivation.
6. The Money
Money is far from being the most important thing in life but even if you do not really care about getting rich, you need some at least to survive. Everything in photography is expensive, cameras, lenses, bags, computer, memory, name it. I always buy the good stuff as it’s a lot riskier and more expensive on the long run to have bad equipment that first gives bad results, breaks and that is less reliable.
Travel photography is not the most lucrative field of photo either. There is no steady direct revenue such as corporate or wedding photography and you have to eat, sleep somewhere, live. Although at first it may seem more expensive to travel, it sometimes is cheaper to be abroad than home as cost of life is way lower (think India and South-east Asia). Traveling IS cheaper than you think. So yes, money is a difficulty but it’s part of the game. One thing I hear often and find quite funny is the usual “You have traveled so much and you have very nice photo equipment, you surely have a lot of money”.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite, I don’t have much money BECAUSE I’ve traveled so much and I’ve bought professional equipment over the years ;) Would I ever trade all these adventures, countries and images for double the money it cost me? Never.
7. Having access to internet
It took me a while to be able to post this one online even though it was ready a long time ago! I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing for most people to get off the internet for a while when traveling and even I do like some technology breaks but as my job for now is traveling and as I need internet to show my images, give updates, post articles and to communicate, it’s sometimes a pain not to have any connexion! It’s relatively easy to get a minimum connexion in most places. Enough to share a status or send an email but uploading images and writing and editing a blog post on Squarespace when everything crashes while not saving online, oh the frustration! At the very moment, it’s raining, so, obviously, there is no internet, obviously……
Finally glad to be able to post this one though!
8. Working space
Also, what seems like something easy to get at home; a chair and a desk, it can prove rather harder to find while on the road. Most of the cheap hotel rooms (or NGOs beds in my case) do not have a desk and sometimes a chair is considered a great luxury. If not, working sitting on a bed is quite uncomfortable and slows the work on longer period of time. You also have to take in mind the power supply as sometimes plugs are in limited number and processing pictures drains the battery of the Surface Pro 3 quite quickly, meaning that if you are in a nice little café with a chair, you can’t stay there long without a connexion. So yes, lack of proper workspace reduces productivity. At this very moment of writing these lines, I am writing on my bed, in a little village of Punjab in India, in complete darkness and only the screen of my computer lights up the room meaning that a lot of weird insects are attracted to it. I keep my mouth shut. Oh, and also, the temple next to the volunteer guesthouse (I’m in a NGO) blasts extremely loud music during the night (at least it covers the barking of the dogs!).
Far from me any idea of complaining. I’m doing what I love the most in the world, that is discovering and photographing and sharing and trying to have a positive impact it and it’s my dream come true. I have made that decision and it is what makes me truly happy, I would not change it for any 9 to 5 job, ever. My motivation with this post was rather to tell the story of the struggles behind the images, the difficulties I face everyday and to make you realize all the work there is behind these images. I would not discourage anyone to do the same, at the contrary, I think it’s good to be aware of the challenges others face to better get prepared and I would end this very long post with the piece of advice I always give to anyone, photographer or not, traveler or not that I think suits anyone at any stage of their lives; TRAVEL, as much, as far as possible, just travel. Never did it before? Travel! No money? Travel! No idea where to go? Travel! Scared to start traveling by yourself?......Travel!
Photo Credit: Vincent Simard for all the pictures of me not being a selfie