I never get much sympathy from people when I’m out on a travel assignment.
No matter how much you try to explain the complex logistics, the feeling that you’re always in a hurry and 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 constantly stressing about the light and waiting for a cloud to move out of the way, or to roll in and soften things up, and how 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 keep telling you you’ve got a dream job. 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.
Working an assignment for a large media outlet, especially one as well-known and venerated as National Geographic, gives you an incredible amount of access. It’s like having a key that unlocks the world and lets you in for free. In Italy, working on a food assignment, I found it impossible to pay for anything. The restauranteurs would just hold up one hand while I was reaching for my wallet, shake their heads, smile, and refill my wine glass with the other hand. In Hawaii, two barefoot jungle rats refused to let me take their picture, because they were hardcore anti-western society types and rejected just about everything about modern culture, especially having their picture taken; but when they found out I was on assignment for NatGeo Traveler, they totally changed their tune and posed for me with their best jungle-rat faces. In the Cayman Islands, I was ushered through barbed wire to get access to the red-footed booby preserve on Little Cayman, and was left alone for half an hour to photograph a rare blue iguana in a restricted area of the Grand Cayman Botanical Gardens.
The fact that I work for National Geographic Traveler, and not the actual National Geographic Magazine–which is a major distinction within the organization itself–seems to fall on deaf ears. These days it seems, the first thing that comes to mind for people when you utter the magic words is National Geographic Television. Which is pretty frightening, considering that NatGeo TV is one reality show away from destroying the credibility of the National Geographic brand. I mean, really–how many shows do we need of people in prison? And “Doomsday Preppers?” Really?
But I digress. My intention here, having just returned from a 2-week assignment in the Caribbean, was to try to inject a little dose of reality into the whole “travel photographer” mythos, and explain that as glamorous as it may sound, it’s really a fairly grueling job, and when you factor in all the time spent on an assignment before (phone calls, planning, buying things you need, organizing a schedule, figuring out transportation and accommodation, consulting with the editor, 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, etc)…your pay probably comes in somewhere around $10-15 an hour, more or less. Which certainly isn’t terrible, but probably much less than most people would imagine. And that, of course, doesn’t even take into account 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.
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, there really is no other job I would rather be doing. Being sent 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 represent both yourself and a highly respected organization to a people and a place that you hope to represent to the rest of the world with photographs that do them justice in all their beauty, history, and soulfulness…well it honestly doesn’t get any better than that. And I hope I have the good fortune to continue doing work like this for years to come. I just wish they would give me more time!
There were a great many people who helped me out on this trip, and once the story is published I’ll write a second post and mention them by name, but I can’t let on too much more about the story, for non-disclosure purposes and all that.
Tomorrow I leave for New Orleans, then to Miami, then back home to the OBX mid-December in time for the holidays–but sometime around the holidays I’m going to start editing the pics from the trip and will be posting a few fun ones on Traveler’s Instagram feed, tag name natgeotraveler. So check ‘em out. The story itself probably won’t be out for another six months or so, but I’ll post when it goes on the shelves. Happy Holidays to all!!
Underwater photo by my dive buddy, divemaster Michelle Davis, who had my back as I darted around using up air looking for the right angle, and grabbed me as I passed the 100′ mark on the Bloody Bay Wall, again, trying to get a better angle…