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Week Seven – On Assignment II

“The endless fascination of these people for me lies in what I call their inward power. It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life’s work to try to capture it on film. The mask we present to others and, too often, to ourselves, may lift for only a second–to reveal that power in an unconscious gesture, a raised brow, a surprised response, a moment of repose. This is the moment to record.”

– Yousuf Karsh

The Bitter Sweet Pill – GMB Akash

Jill Greenbberg

Martin Schoeller

Tim Walker


Paolo Pellegrin

Henri Cartier-Bresson

The Silence of Others (Bharat Choudhary)

Sebastiao SalgadoVivian Maier




We’re all travel photographers.  No matter the genre the best photography transforms the commonplace into the exotic. It reveals the world in new ways. Images take viewers on a journey into previously unseen places – real or the product of the photographer’s imagination. Every shoot should be an adventure, a process of discovery — even in your own backyard. We’re all travel photographers.


Today lots of pro/am photographers have good equipment. Many understand the basics of composition and how to get a solid exposure.  Some can create dazzling effects in Photoshop. Yet, their images are bloodless. So what makes some travel photographers better than others? Why do some images of far-off places never achieve an effect more than amateurish travelogue and others transport us to the edge of the banks of the Ganges during a water festival or allow us to feel the speed of record-setting jet car races at the Bonneville Salt Flats or the spiritual cycle of life through images of the rice harvest in Cambodia?


To begin with there is a lot more to being a professional photographer than just being a good shooter. Top editorial photographers aren’t just good with the camera. They are also good businessmen and women, effective managers, social scientists and on occasion a conman or con-woman. For even an experienced pro shooting on location and often on deadline so much of what happens is out of his or her control. Equipment fails. The clouds roll in. Schedules change. People flake out. Top editorial photographers need to be good problem solvers.


Top photographer have something else to, something less tangible but every bit as important.  They believe deeply in the work they do.  A few weeks ago we looked at the work of Bruce Davidson. Davidson has had a remarkable career. As he talked about his early work following a circus, his work covering Brooklyn gangs, the Civil Rights movement and documenting the New York City subway system, one thing was very clear: he believed that his work was important and throughout his career he worked tirelessly to improve.


We are all travel photographers. From portraits to landscape, to night photography, aerial, food, street photo and social documentary, it all fits comfortably under the travel photography umbrella. The ideas and practical tips presented below in the context of travel are essential no matter what kind of work you do.


I am a believer in making your own luck. In photography that means lots of research, planning, preparation and being ready to adapt to problem. Editors don’t care that you’re sick (unless you are REALLY sick). They don’t care that the guy who promised to escort you into the private part of the temple never showed. They don’t care that your $3000 camera suddenly stopped working. You need to be prepared for all of this.


For many photographers becoming a globe-trotting travel photographer is the fantasy. I am lucky and lived that fantasy for several years covering news.  Ultimately I decided to return to New York and work on stories here. More on that in the weeks to come.


“I’m a big fan of planned spontaneity. Planning ahead of time allows me greater spontaneity while I am shooting, and it relieves some of the stress inherent in wandering a place looking for something to shoot. Before leaving on my around the-world trip, I made a shot list for each city, culled from watching Lonely Planet videos, reading guidebooks, and asking other traveling photographers for ideas.


Early in the planning, I look for generalities, not specifics. I look to identify my preconceptions, uncover things I hadn’t thought of, and begin to let the ideas incubate. The goal is not so much a shot list as a thought list. This applies to shooting at home as well as to traveling–in fact, sometimes more so, as we tend to take our hometown for granted.”

— David duChemin


Below is a case study on preparation for a trip to the Republic of Georgia in 2003.


Why The Republic of Georgia? Because I’d been there before. In 2001 I went to Georgia to shoot and to teach journalism for a month through a program run by the International Center for Journalists. Like many former Soviet Republics following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia was opening up to the West and in desperate need of help developing the core institutions of civil society – uncorrupted courts, independent banks, and a free press.


I’d made contacts there, spoke a bit of Russian (unused, and now mostly forgotten), had a sense of what was going on, and, best of all there was to be a presidential election in the fall of 2003, important because of its relationship to Russia and oil producers in the region. Georgia was in the news.  Georgia is also great wine country and boasts some of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.




I pitched the stories to my editor atSIPA but not before I’d done a ton of research and made some preliminary contacts. I did not want to pitch stories on which I could not deliver.


No matter the assignment research is key. It is essential to identifying what – exactly – you plan to shoot. To be sure, not matter where I go I shoot assorted street portraits and well-known events or landmarks, which I will address below, but in the editorial world editors want the more. They want high-quality work that tells a distinct story in new or unusual way.


So what if you don’t have an existing relationship with a news outlet or publication? We’ll talk more about this in week 13 when we talk about the professional marketplace, but there is nothing to prevent you from pitching stories to local newspapers or websites. Assuming the idea and pitch are well-crafted, there is no downside to  a publication agreeing to work with you ‘on spec.’ This means they work with you ‘on speculation,’ which is another way of saying they may give you feedback along the way and will publish the work — and pay you — if they like it.  Spec work is often the first step in building a relationship with an editor and publication. Even if they don’t publish your first submission, you will likely get invaluable feedback and begin to build a relationship.


What did my research involve?

  • RSS feed about Georgia – Any kind of online news alert about the destination will do. The point is to inform yourself. Even if your interest is strictly travel rather than news, updates are valuable. Maybe it’s an alert about weather or a social issue that could effect your shooting schedule or travel plans. It’s always to god to know what’s in the news.
  • Travel & Historical books on Georgia — From the Frommer’s guide to scholarly books, I needed to learn as much as a could about the history of Georgia and its more recent politics.
  • ProfNet (and nowQuora) — Both are online services that put you in touch with experts. ProNet was originally designed to put reporters in touch with academics.  There is no such thing as too much information. ‘Live’ conversations allowed me to ask questions that perhaps books and online resources could not answer.
  • NGOs and Aid Organizations – Depending on where you’re traveling a variety of organizations may be at work. If your interests are strictly travel, there is nothing to prevent you from calling travel companies or the national travel boad or office of tourism.
  • Journalists who’d travelled to Georgia – In my case it was important to talk to other journalists about the realities of coverage in the country, from access requirements to national press freedom issues. Simply talking to other photographers can be tremendously helpful to give you a sense of how people generally respond to photographs or other insights.
  • Photographs of Georgia – Some photographers do not like to look at the work of others on the same topic because they fear it have an unconscious influence their own work.  I don’t share this concern. More information is alwasy good.




A travel assignment is not a vacation. It’s a work trip – and a hard work trip at that. One reason that so many travel photos are so amateurish is that the photographer  never get off the beaten path, the tourist routes. Another is that people are working to make images haphazard and part time.  The schedule needs to be defined by the photography.  I learned the hard way that to try and combine a work trip and vacation trip with my wife never works well (though sometimes she would meet me after I’d had finished my work).


There is nothing more frustrating on a photo assignment than not being able to shoot because of bad weather and either poor or no planning. Simpling ‘winging it’ rarely pays offs. Rather, it leads to a lot of precious time being frittered away in hotel rooms and cafes. You need to think through and plan a few key stories to shoot based on your research.


Time of year is an especially important element of planning and scheduling. Most importantly it dictates weather, which controls a lot more than just temperature and cloud cover. In most cultures the seasons also define the calendar of important holidays and events like the harvest. Photographers sometimes plan story ideas around seasonal events.

  • A General Schedule – Inevitably schedules change when you are on the ground. Still, it’s important to identify a handful of events, locations or issues you wish to shoot. Among the biggest challenges to working overseas is planning local travel. As mentioned above, one of the key elements to better travel photo is getting off the beaten track. In many countries like Georgia poor roads means a 50 mile trip by car our truck could easily take nearly a full day. You need to plan your assignments and shooting schedule accordingly. Do not schedule things too tightly. Give yourself some wiggle room. Planning accommodations can be challenging too. If the area you are travelling to is especially remote, be prepared for a few bad meals and cold nights.
  • Contacts –  Local contacts are essential. Friends, friends of friends or professional relationships can make the differences between your wasting time trying to navigate basic problems or moving quickly to shooting. A big part of planning is about reaching out to these people via phone or email. For me in Georgia is was mostly local journalists I’d met on my previous trip. Often these relationships become one of the most enjoyable parts of the job. NOTE: always get contact information for your national embassy in the country to which you are travelling and have a plan and contact information in the event you need medical care.
  • Access Issues –  Public events such as festivals or locations such as monuments are generally easy enough to bring a camera to, but private locations such as wine vineyards or private events such as a wedding require permission. A big part of planning is arranging access. Your local contacts can be a big help with this. Letters, phone calls and emails are part of the game. You need to think through and prepare what you are going to say or write.  In Georgia I asked contacts to look into these assorted access issues.
  • A Fixer – A fixer is a person who works as your social planners, translator, driver and all-around trouble-shooter. For serious travel work a good fixer is essential. There is no substitute for local knowledge. When talking to other journalists or native contacts about a destination, one of my top questions is always a recommendation for a good fixer. Depending on where you are going, your skill with the local language and the kind of assignment you are shooting, you may not need a full-time fixer. You can sometimes depend on your contacts or others to work as a tour guide as needed. David Nozadze was my fixer every trip I made to Georgia and we are still friends. He is the brother of a journalist with whom I worked. David was tireless, he could charm even the most stoic checkpoint guard and, best off all, he could keep his 10-year-old,  Russian-madeNivarunning with a hairpin, some chewing gum and a rubber band.





So now you’ve researched your trip, selected some stories to shoot and worked out the general logistics for getting your assignment done and done well.  Now you need to prepare for the trip.


Preparation is largely about worst-case-scenario thinking. What if my camera craps out? What if  there is no Internet? What if I get sick? You need to gird yourself against any eventuality.


Below is a general list of what I carry. I try and pack items in Ziplock bags or in compartmentalizes diddy bags. It helps me keep organized. I also bring a small backpack for day trips. It’s never a bad idea to buy gifts to give along the way – chocolates or New York City chotchkies work well for me. In the days prior to my trip I make a check list and set up a ‘stage area’ in my apartment.

  • Gear – In week two I talked about my equipment and what I carry. I can pack it all into a photo backpack and carry-onPelicantravelcase. Below is my typical travel kit:

○      Two camera bodies (and maybe a Hassleblad medium format camera)

○      An assortment of lenses:

○      17-35mm

○      Fixed 35mm and 85mm lenses

○      35-70mm lens

○      80-200mm lens

○      2 flash units

○      A TON of batteries (unless I know Duracells are readily available)

○      A flash-head soft box

○      8 2GB Lexar CF cards (and now three 16GB cards for video)

○      Two extra camera batteries and two camera batter

○      Small Gorillapod

○      Clear shower caps (great for covering a camera in the rain)

  • Tools, technology and  & communications – You need to be as independent as possible when traveling. You also want to protect yourself from lost work, so backing up images is important. Never put yourself in the position of being dependent on a single piece of electronics.

○      Laptop

○      A mobile phone with local SIM card (I have a Siemens exclusively for travel)

○      Flashlight (the electricity goes out so frequently in Georgia that I bring a battery powered miner’s lamp to wear on my head)

○      Shortwave radio (only in very remote places)

○      Leatherman pocket knife

○      External hard drive

○      Power converters and outlet converters

○      Gaffers tape, waterproof markers, clamps and a small combination lock

  • Documentation – Much of the world requires that people carry identification. If you are a foreigner this means a passport (or copy). You may need additional documentation as a foreigner to take photographs in some locations. Letters (with letterhead) from American news organizations, local governance, or NGOs can be very helpful. Some cultures are oddly bureaucratic and local police or military don’t even care what the letter says, they simply require a letter from some perceived higher authority. Be prepared.

○      Passport (and several printed paper copies of the photo page. You don’t necessarily want to carry your passport with you)

○      Letters mention above

○      English-to-local language dictionary

○      Receipts, insurance documentation or some ‘official looking’ list of your camera equipment

○      Depending on the region you may wish to have a letter (in the national language) which states your blood type and any medical issues that might effect treatment.

○      Paper and pencils (pens don’t write in the rain)

  • Personal items and health – I will assume you can call dress yourselves. However two notes about clothing. I have a travel wardrobe. These are close that I do not care about. If they are lost stolen or destroyed, no big deal. As warm and as functional as my Northface coat is it stays home. They are also clothes that have a more ‘international’ look than a clearly American look. I want to blend. Working in the Middle East I will grow a beard and wear aKeffiyeh. Working in Georgia and the Caucasus I would never wear shorts because adult men in the region do not wear shorts (though tourists do). This is really about learning and respecting local customs – invaluable as a travel photographer.I will not list health items here but I carry — and have used — just about every topical and over-the-counter oral medication available. I also am sure to get the recommended vaccinations/inoculations for my travel destination. You have to assume you will have a few bad days. Depending on the region, some journalists will carry a couple clean syringes — perhaps a bit extreme. Laundry detergent for an occasional sink wash and some rubbing alcohol can help keep things clean and hygienic.