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.
It's best to ask permission if you want to photograph someone, especially if you are working in close. Engage them before you pull out your camera. Learn at least how to say "hello" and "May I make a photograph" in the local language—just showing that you've made a little effort helps. Explain to them what you want to do and what it is about them that made you want to make a picture. If approached in an open and friendly manner, most people will be agreeable—many are flattered that someone has shown an interest in them and what they do. In places where there's a lot of tourism, you may run into people who are tired of being photographed—many tourists are not courteous enough to ask permission, and local people can come to feel abused and exploited. The only way to overcome this is to spend time with the people or to go to parts of the place less frequented by tourists.
Above all, work the situations over. Never be satisfied with your first view of a place or the first frame you snap. It's always possible—and usually likely—that you can come up with something better. Why else would painters make sketches? Get closer, then get closer still. Try different angles, different lenses. Wait for the light, wait for the crowd, wait for a bird to land on the tree branch. Never be in a hurry to get somewhere else. Tell yourself that nothing is more important than getting the best you can get out of the situation you are in. Once you've exhausted every possibility you can think of, you can start working on the next one.
So, if travel photography as a traditional career is dying, than how are these people making their money? Well, I wish I could give you the answer to that question, but I can’t. These days, everyone has a different method of money-making. All I can do is tell you my story, and how I manage to keep from sleeping under a bridge every night — though barely.
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.
Whether at home or abroad, when you know the ins and outs of a particular location, you can provide photography tours and location-specific workshops to serve both tourists and serious photographers. In Greece I found a professional photographer offering pricey photo tours in Santorini, a popular island with stunning viewpoints that are difficult to locate. Part of this photographer's service was to unveil these secret locations. Back in Holland, photographer Michiel Buijse offers nighttime photography workshops in Amsterdam, helping photographers shoot stunning long exposures along the historical canals. Consider what you can offer in a location you know well.
As travel has become more accessible, more and more, the genre is opening up to amateurs and professionals alike. Amateur Travel photography is often shared through sites like Flickr, 500px and 1x. Travel photography, unlike other genres like fashion, product, or food photography, is still an underestimated and relatively less monetized genre, though the challenges faced by travel photographers are lot greater than some of the genres where the light and other shooting conditions may be controllable. Traditionally travel photographers earned money through Stock photography, magazine assignments and commercial projects. Nowadays, the stock photography market has collapsed and more and more photographers are using more innovative methods of earning a living such as through blogging, public speaking, commercial projects and teaching.
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.
If you’re interested in a professional mentoring program, I offer monthly subscriptions that include creative challenges, assignments and feedback in order to improve your photography. Mentoring also includes direct access to ask as many questions as you want about anything related to being a travel photographer. Email me at [email protected] for further details.
Tewfic El-Sawy is a New York based freelance photographer specializing in documenting endangered cultures and traditional life ways of Asia, Latin America and Africa. His images, articles and photo features have been published in various international magazines, and his travel photographs are published in guidebooks and adventure travel catalogs. He also organized and led non-traditional photo expeditions and workshops. He is passionate about documentary-travel photography and produces multimedia stories, merging still photography and ambient sound. He enjoys mixing Asian fashion, culture and history into “photo films”. He recently increased his focus on South East Asia and China. He produced a well received photo book Hau Dong: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam; documenting an indigenous religion now recognized by the UNESCO, and is currently working on a voluminous monograph tentatively titled ‘Chinese Opera of The Diaspora’. He is a faculty teaching member at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, and a jury member at The Travel Photographer Society’s Photo contests.
On the two recent occasions I was in Shanghai, I was thrilled by the abundance of candid street photography opportunities that presented themselves in its old neighborhoods. The narrow lanes crisscrossing these neighborhoods are called lòngtáng (弄堂) or alternatively, lilong (里弄), where whole communities live and sometimes work. The Shanghai lòngtáng can either refer to the lanes that its houses face onto, or to a group of houses connected by them.
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.
Chinese opera has a long, rich history that dates back to 200 A.D. Over the centuries, a handful of styles of opera emerged — each with its own distinct makeup, music, and acting traditions — reflecting the eras and tastes of the changing dynasties. Sichuan opera is the youngest style, emerging around 1700 in Chengdu, Sichuan province, where it is still performed today by a dwindling roster of troupes.
Make use of people to give your images life and scale. If the facade of a particular building appeals to you, the picture may be that much better if you show people walking in front of it. They will give it scale and also let viewers know what sorts of people live there, how they dress, and the like. An outdoor café may be more interesting crowded with people than empty.