Yes, I know that’s a fairly meager living. Especially when spending $2,000 of it a month. But, how many people can say that they get to travel every day of their lives? Sure, I’d love to be making more, but I have no complaints. On a daily basis, I get to see places and do things that people spend their lives saving to enjoy. I wouldn’t trade my career for anything at this point.
My work as a freelance travel writer has remained sort of a back-up source of income for me since moving into the photography world. I really only do it when I feel like money is tight — so, yeah, I basically do it every month. Most of the travel writing clients these days are online, and they don’t pay like they used to. Still, I make enough in writing to help pay some of the bills. I’ve averaged about $400 a month so far in 2015 through freelance writing.
The other challenge is to scout for and find the locations for the photo shoots; locations that provide a "badge" of authenticity to the resulting photo films. In the the case of The Girl of Nanjing, it was the water town of Qi Bao near Shanghai....and in the case of The Legend of Hua, it was the water town of Xinchang' at some distance from Shanghai as well...while the backdrop to The Songstress of Temple Street was Hong Kong's famous Tin Hau Temple and the Canton Singing House.
Finally I promised one little girl, who made a long journey to see me and prefer her request, -- and she is a "Dorothy," by the way -- that when a thousand little girls had written me a thousand little letters asking for the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman I would write the book, Either little Dorothy was a fairy in disguise, and waved her magic wand, or the success of the stage production of "The Wizard of OZ" made new friends for the story, For the thousand letters reached their destination long since -- and many more followed them.
I think that there are more people wanting to learn photography than there are people that want to buy images. And for that reason, teaching has become a major source of income for a large number of photographers. In fact, some of the world’s highest earning photographers aren’t always the most talented, but the ones who can teach effectively. Lots of photographers sell books, video tutorials, and host workshops to help supplement their income.
Some of these 'singalong' parlors still exist, faded and tired but otherwise unchanged, offering a taste of popular and cheap entertainment from a past era. How these survive in anyone's guess. The parlors usually have an organist (who can also play a guitar) and a handful of habitual customers who sing Cantonese songs...and occasionally Western oldies such as "Sealed With A Kiss" by the Canton Singing House organist.
Setting goals and thinking about the reason you want to be a travel photographer sounds like a pretty easy step to skip but believe me, you want those goals to look back at one day. When you’ve had a bad few months without work, when you’re knee deep in mud because you took the term ‘getting the shot’ a bit too far…you want to be reminded of why you’re doing it.
To be honest, I do not think I will ever make it as a travel photographer. I love travelling and I love capturing my adventures in pictures. And I know that I have some decent ones, but selling them seems like a daunting task. I think I might be better off as a travel journalist, to be honest, if only because that’s an area where I am more confident (and in a way, this article applies to becoming a travel journalist as well). I have, however, tried selling pictures through microstock sites. Getty Images, Shutterstock and Adobe Stock are the ones I have uploaded the highest number of images to. From my experience, these websites require you to spend a long time creating hashtags and correctly labeling your photos for very little reward. It is great because once the work is done, you can earn money forever. But chances are high that you will only get a few cents, if any at all. I think if you are serious about being a photographer, this one is not an option to consider.
Get out there. The only way to discover the rhythm of life in a place, and so figure out what to shoot, is to experience it. Many places, particularly hot ones, are active very early in the morning and late in the afternoon but rather in a lull around midday. Get up early, stay out late. If you are on a tour that is scheduled to leave the hotel or ship at 9:00, get up well before dawn. Wander around before meeting up with your companions. If the tour goes back to the hotel or ship for lunch, don't go with them. Rather than take the bus back at the end of an afternoon tour, hang around until after sunset and then take a taxi. Use any spare time to get out and look for photographs. Besides availing yourself of more opportunities, time spent discovering the place will enrich your experience.
My still-embryonic idea is to enlist the help of a local acquaintance who would wear a cheongsam (aka qi pao), and take the role of a sing-song girl. The photo shoot would take place in the streets of Yau Ma Tei, and in the parlor itself. Whether the parlor would allow it or not is an open question that will be answered when I'm there. The owners and clients seemed very laid back when I made these photographs.
Long gone are the days in which being a travel photographer simply meant you shot photography for a certain travel magazine or newspaper. The world isn’t that simple anymore, and the level of competition in the photography world has never been higher. But still, I’m fairly sure there are more “travel photographers” on the planet now than there ever were — just check your Instagram feeds.
Readers of The Travel Photographer blog know of my current long term involvement in documenting Chinese Opera of the diaspora; an involvement that will culminate into the production of a coffee-table book bearing the same title. It is for this reason that the blog has been recently populated with posts with excellent work of Chinese opera by travel and documentary photographers.
Despite that previous statement, I do believe that the travel photography community is stronger than it has ever been. Yes, traditional forms of income-generation are dying, but the evolving world has opened up a thousand different doors for those willing to take the risks to make it in the industry. And, yes, there is a lot of competition out there in the travel photography world, but the community is strong and the amount of camaraderie rather than jealousy in the business absolutely floors me nearly every day.
The truth about travel photography in 2015 is that the quality of the images produced is often less important than the person that shot the images. You could say, and many people do say, that the travel photography world has been sold out to the highest bidder. Many of the world’s top travel photographers are no long exploring, no longer searching for new and exciting places to shoot, but going where the money is. As such, many “travel photographers” have now become “corporate/marketing photographers”.