The following text is from a blog post I wrote some time ago on the perceptions and realities of being a photographer on a travel assignment, inspired by a conversation I had on a plane with someone during this particular job. For the accompanying article that was originally published with these photos, please see Charlie Kulander’s text on the National Geographic Travel website.
You never get much sympathy from people when you’re on a travel assignment.
No matter how much you try to explain to the guy in the airplane seat next to you – or the couple at the bar, or the guy who’s picking you up at the airport – that shooting a travel assignment is about as far from a cushy gig as they can probably imagine, they’re not going to hear you. No matter how hard you try to convey the feeling that you’re so focused on getting the right shots that you don’t really have time to relax and enjoy whatever beautiful place you’re in; no matter how much you try to explain that you’re on permanent red alert over the changing light, waiting for a cloud to move out of the way and brighten the scene, or to roll in and soften things up, or for the sun to dip down a little lower, or not to go down too soon; that you’ve got a list a mile long of phone calls to make and appointments to keep; how you’ve got to listen to some old guy tell his life story when you’ve only got fifteen minutes to take his portrait; that you’ve got to figure out how to make a good picture out of terrible lighting conditions because you won’t have time to come back later when the light is better; no matter if you tell them you’ve got a hundred tiny pieces of gear that are really easy to lose and each of them is somehow essential to the assignment: a tripod head, a screw that attaches a plate to the camera so it can fit into a waterproof housing, O-rings, polarizers, colored gels for flashes, batteries, transmitters, fifty Compact Flash cards that you absolutely CANNOT lose–the list goes on and on–it doesn’t matter. People are still gonna say, “wow, what a great gig!” And on a beautiful day in the Caribbean when the sun is out and you’re swimming in crystal clear waters photographing divers and stingrays, well, it’s hard to argue with them.
Yes, it’s cool. And yes, you get to see a lot of things you probably wouldn’t get to see otherwise. And as much as you may dutifully protest and try to assert your journalistic ethics, you get a lot of hookups. Shooting haunted houses in Louisiana, you will be offered the pimped-out garçonniere behind a stately southern mansion and a guided tour of the grounds, gratis. Shooting food in Italy, you will find it next to impossible to pay for anything. The restauranteurs will just hold up one hand as you reach for your wallet, shake their heads, smile, and refill your wine glass with the other hand. Explaining to your hosts that the magazine is paying your expenses, and that you really must insist that you pay, would deflate the magnanimity of their gesture and quite possibly offend. And so you roll with it.
But with these limited perks come no small quantities of stress and obstacles. Gone are the days of month-long travel assignments that your uncle who did a few jobs for Life Magazine in the ’60’s used to wax nostalgic about; these days you’re lucky to get ten days, and that’s for the good jobs. So you learn to act fast, to flash your kings and aces at the get-go and get things rolling rather than waiting for the decisive moment. The decisive moment was three weeks ago when you agreed to take the job. State your mission and the name of your big-shot publication, and tell them with a smile exactly what you need. You’ve got a schedule to keep. Which is not an easy thing to do if you are shooting anywhere in the Mediterranean, or in Latin America, or in the Caribbean, or, say, most of the world’s top destinations. You’re the only gringo in town who’s not on vacation, so nobody’s gonna stop the mañana train for you. You just have to adapt. Smile and look like you’re totally chilling, while you tick off the minutes until twilight. Work the light as best as you can, do your research, ask every question you can think of beforehand, study the maps to see how the morning and afternoon light will be striking cliffs, mountains, harbors, and manor houses; and be willing to throw all your timetables and appointments out the window if something really cool starts to happen. You can always make up for your lost time on those two unpaid days you built into your schedule, for “relaxation”. And bank on the fact that your most random afterthought of a shot will get run double-truck while the one you worked three days to get will run at a quarter-page, if it runs at all. And bank, too, on the fact that you will one evening find yourself looking wistfully out of the window of a passenger seat at the most spectacular sunset of your entire trip while your host-for-the-day speeds you in the opposite direction, insistent on showing you some farm or building or tree that is not only completely irrelevant to the story and totally void of any real visual potential, but is also covered in darkness by the time you get there. Does this sound like fun? Damn straight it’s fun!
As glamorous as it may sound, travel photography can be a fairly grueling and sometimes maddening job, and when you factor in all the time spent on an assignment before (research, phone calls, planning, buying things you need, organizing a schedule, figuring out transportation and accommodation, consulting with the editor, packing, re-packing, making lists, etc), during (getting from point A to point B, packing and unpacking and packing and unpacking, rushing to airports, picking up and dropping off rental cars, waiting for someone to show up, waiting for the light, working from dawn to the late hours of the evening, getting lost because you’ve never been here before, trying to ingratiate yourself with total strangers in five minutes — oh yeah, and taking pictures) and after (downloading and backing up all your 30,000 photos, organizing them and re-naming them, making your selections, tweaking the ones you like the best, sending off a hard drive to the editor, consulting with the fact-checker about caption information, providing some sidebar information, organizing receipts, filing expense reports, invoicing, writing thank-you emails to helpful parties)…your pay probably comes in somewhere around $10-15 an hour, more or less. Which puts your average travel photographer at around the proposed new minimum wage for unskilled workers. And that, of course, doesn’t even take into account all the screaming babies you had to photograph to pay for your fancy gear and all the time and expense of the projects that you worked on independently to generate a reputation strong enough to get hired in the first place. With any luck, after a few travel assignments — which these days are as rare as dragonflies in amber — you may just end up in the black.
But who’s complaining? Not I, not I. Hell, hand me a ticket to anywhere. My bags are packed already. For all the logistics and the hurry and the hassle, you never feel more alive than when you are wheels-down on a travel assignment. Hopping on a plane to a place you’ve never been before–never even thought much about – and suddenly having to crack it like a nut to extract some kind of essence, spirit, or true color, is an exhilarating challenge; and as a photographer it is one of the greatest privileges of the profession. To be taken in so warmly by complete strangers and put your all into to producing photographs that do them and their homelands justice in all their beauty, history, and soulfulness…I can’t deny it. It’s a pretty good gig if you can get it. Expense reports excluded.