In March 2018, I traveled to Shanghai to give a lecture and a street workshop at Imaging Group, and recall doing some location scouting in Laoximen with Tamia Tang (my assistant). We met an elderly resident who had lived in her small rooms virtually all her life, and had been told that she would have to vacate them soon. She claimed satisfaction that the city would be offering residents alternative housing or monetary compensation as the weather in Shanghai was too cold for her.
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.
I left home in 2009 with $500 to my name, a point and shoot camera, and a desire to spend the rest of my life exploring the planet. Looking back, I was beyond naïve. However, without that naivety, I would have never made the first step towards chasing my dreams. Today, I struggle to get by. In a heart beat, my income streams could all dry up. But I don’t worry anymore, I just take pictures and love every minute of 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.
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.
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.
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.
After spending the last 6 years fiddling and learning photography, my wife and I are about to move to Cambridge, UK from Melbourne. We are planning to post and write about our European trips in a capacity that is more than just telling our family what we are doing with the goal of allowing our work to eventually pay for our travel. Our first real post will be up soon, looking at our short weekend trip into the Wimmera/Mallee to visit the new Silo Art in the region. My Wife is a much better writer than I am and is currently editing!
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.
Long-haul flights are brutal to your body, and jet-lag can cripple your productivity while you acclimate to your surroundings. I was practically giddy this week when I found a flight to South Africa a mere 36 hours long — 12 hours shorter than I had anticipated. After spending two or three days in transit, it typically takes me a day to feel functional again, and a week to feel normal.
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.
We are unlikely to long remember the smell and buzz of a flower garden in spring, the awe of gazing for the first time at the mountain we intend to climb, the caress of a tropical breeze, the thrill of a huge roller coaster, the wonder of our first wild bear, or the adrenaline of rafting white water. Our photographs need to bring these and other sensations back, to trigger our memories, and to communicate how we felt to others. To do this, we need to think and feel as much as look when setting out to make photographs.
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.