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.
The third image is of Jinru Lee; a student and part-time model in Georgetown (Penang Island, Malaysia). It was made in late August 2018 under the sweltering sun of Penang, and inside the Cheah Kongsi Clan House Temple on Lebuh Armenian. I was in Penang to photograph the various Hokkien operas during the Hungry Ghost festival, and took the opportunity to set a photo shoot in its streets for a forthcoming audio slideshow (aka photo film) titled "The Phantom of the Opera".
The deeper you travel into distant lands and cultures, the more varied the people you'll encounter. It can be fun and intriguing to meet people of vastly different cultures. It can also be alienating and even dangerous. I've seen women treated poorly, child labourers hard at work, and helpless animals suffering in the streets. Tolerance for other cultures is necessary to access these places and document the realities within them. Our job as photographers is to observe, with the hope that our images may influence positive social change.
Besides the travel publications like National Geographic Traveler, Conde Nast Traveler, etc., the demand for this genre exists in industries like Travel, Photo Education, etc. Many travel photographers are today leading photo-tours through companies such as Intrepid Exposures, utilising their knowledge of unique travel locations, experience of working as professional photographers and using this to help travel enthusiasts take great travel images during their trips. Many others are doubling up as educators in the field of ambient light photography. Some of them are doing assignments which intrinsically use their strengths, e.g. shooting exteriors or interiors of buildings for architects and interior designers. Photographers like Steve McCurry are often commissioned to shoot commercial advertising work using their skills from travel and documentary photography to produce powerful advertising images.
When you travel, saving money is often the exact same as earning. Quite often, exchanging a couple images with a hotel for a free room or a tour company for a free tour is totally worth it. In fact, when I was in Southern Africa, I did this a lot. Safaris are expensive, so I’d create a couple images for a company to use for their marketing purposes in exchange for a free safari. It really is win-win.
Get lost. Wander down alleys. Sit in cafés and watch life pass by. Don't eat where the tourists do, but where you see locals. Just set off down a street and see where it leads. Look around the bends, over the rises. Get away from the crowd. I find that if I meander away from the tourists and tourist sites, away from what is too familiar and comfortable, it's much easier to adapt to the rhythm of a place, and to be more observant.
It was in 2006 when I traveled to the sacred city of Varanasi for the third or fourth time; this time in search of real sadhus rather than those I encountered on the ghats of the river Ganges. The more photogenically flamboyant of those would "earn" a few rupees from tourists and photographers who sought to augment their inventory of exotic portraits of these characters; perhaps paying them a tidy sum if they agreed to be photographed in a rowing boat or next to a temple.
I have found Alessandro Bergamini's China gallery to hit all the right notes in that regard. Most of his images were made in Guizhou; a province located in the southwestern part of the country, and well known for its traditional rural villages, inhabited by minority groups like the Miao and Dong. Other images in the gallery were made in Guangxi , another autonomous region bordering Vietnam, and home to the famous cormorant fishermen of Guilin. I haven't been but I read that even though the water is too polluted now for fishing to be sustainable, these fishermen are catnip for many photographers, and earn their living in that fashion.
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.
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.
Tip from a pro: To work with the big brands, you need to market yourself in a way that will appeal to these types of clients. The kind of architectural or food photography a hotel chain needs is very different from what a tour company that specializes in extreme travel. Don’t try to work in all genres and styles. That’s a good path to becoming an inadequate photographer. Focus only on the genre and style you love and put all of your heart and effort into it.
I don’t do a lot of big stock photography, but I do stock images with TandemStock and they have done quite well for me. I haven’t been stocking with them for long, but I do leave a lot of my adventure and outdoors style photos in their hands. I earn about $150 a month with them for now, which doesn’t sound like a lot. However, they have made some high-profiles sales for me. For example, I was the background for Bing. I love TandemStock, and I hope they start to grow a bit.
My personal opinion -after having met many such characters- in India; either in Varanasi, Rishikesh, Vrindavan et al, as well as at the Kumbh Mela, is that the majority of them are fake in the sense that they're not dedicated ascetics, but individuals who are adopted a vagabondage lifestyle, begging for alms and food...under the guise of being holy and religious.
There's much more to becoming a travel photographer than exploring exotic destinations and clicking your shutter. Getting up at stupid-o-clock to catch the perfect sunrise, carrying a camera that’s heavier than four backpacks, skipping meals in the quest for perfect light, and missing out on the travel experience because you’re too busy taking photos, are just a few of the downsides.
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.
In 2014, I worked with a major car brand, a rental car company, and a couple tourism boards. So far, in 2015, I haven’t worked with anyone, though it’s mostly because I’ve been off doing my own thing. There’s a balance here between going where you want and where the money is. Unfortunately for the weight of my wallet, I’ve always just gone where I want and only take on clients like this if it’s convenient.