Robert in La Paz, Bolivia
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“Well to me, photography is about what I see more than what is there. So if someone looks at a photograph of mine and his comments even hint at what I was going for when I captured the photo, I know I hit the mark.”
You’ve visited and documented more than 30 countries since 2005. If you were able to spend 2 weeks in one of those 30 countries, which one would you choose?
That’s an extremely difficult question! This would be all expenses paid or not?
All expenses paid : )
Brazil then, definitely. Although Brazil isn’t my very favorite of the countries I’ve visited, I would love more time to enjoy it without dealing with its exorbitant costs. Brazil was more expensive than anywhere else in Latin America by a long shot and as an independent traveler, high costs limit what you can see and how much you can do.
With two free weeks there, I could much more easily gain an understanding of the country than I could on my own, at this stage.
What are some things you would do/see during those 2 weeks?
Well, I would head up to Salvador along the northeastern coast, somewhere I didn’t get visit the previous time due to logistics. I’d also head to the Amazon Basin, having already gotten Rio and São Paulo out of the way. If I had time I’d probably also visit the capital of Brasilia, known to be one of the best-planned cities in the world thanks to its having been built mid 20th century.
When and where did the travel bug bite you?
As an adult, it happened the first time I was in India, in March of 2009. The U.S. was still reeling from the first stages of the recession and being unemployed myself (I traveled there on savings I luckily had), I was reeling too. In any case, I often climbed up onto a cliff face at the north end of Palolem Beach in Goa state. One night I climbed up there, and something about the rhythm of the tides coming in made all the imagined bullshit of the real world fade away the whole time I was watching and listening.
Wow…must have been a moment you will always remember.
Yeah! It was very profound. It calmed and comforted me in a way even my closest loved ones couldn’t.
Although I’d taken a few trips to Europe before then, it wasn’t until I started craving conscious serenity and transcendence that I knew I needed to roam the world.
But to be honest I flew on a plane before my second birthday and had lived in four houses by the time I was 10, so I’ve been wanderlusting almost my whole life.
In addition to being a travel writer, you are also a photographer. What is your favorite subject to photograph?
That’s difficult because as anyone can see viewing my photos, I photograph just about everything. But if I had to narrow it down, it would be people and children, specifically. While adults tend to put on a “Facebook” face and be super aware when they’re being photographed — more so in the developed world but increasingly in other countries — children are generally more expressive and real and often not even conscious of the camera. I practice photography to capture the present moment as accurately as possible, and human children are by far the most present and conscious creatures in the world.
Right before you take a photo, what are you usually thinking?
Well, it depends. If I am shooting a landscape or something that is otherwise still-life, I’m extremely conscious of the composition, how I’m framing the shot and the lighting aspects of the shot. If someone or something is moving past me, I think about what shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings I should use, very haphazardly adjust them and get immediately to capturing the subject, knowing that I can always tweak technical problems, but I can never re-capture something once it’s already passed.
So I guess the long answer to the short question is: “What am I photographing and how long do I have to photograph it?”
“I can never re-capture something once it’s already passed.” A good thought on really living..
What to you makes a photograph special?
Well to me, photography is about what I see more than what is there. So if someone looks at a photograph of mine and his comments even hint at what I was going for when I captured the photo, I know I hit the mark. I also have a soft spot for photos that portray motion, emotion and ordinary people living their daily lives.
Best meal you enjoyed while traveling?
You are a tough interviewer! The 33-course, home-cooked dinner extravaganza I enjoyed at Yu’s Family Kitchen in Chengdu, China, without a doubt. Although individual meals I’ve had may have been tastier or more enjoyable, I have never experienced anything of such a spectacular scale elsewhere, food or otherwise. Selections included both traditional Chinese fare like Peking Duck and regional Sichuan specialties, as well as Yu’s signature puff-pastry-and-pork “paintbrushes,” which were delightful. It was difficult for my dining companion and I to even walk to the taxi waiting area, but totally worth it.
I could see why!
Yeah, it was uncomfortable. I imagined it was what a pregnant woman must feel like.
What were the desserts like? As far as ingredients?
Very much like the main courses — a mix of traditional Chinese elements as well as some Western. I was pretty dazed by the time dessert rolled around — I was drinking tea, mostly — but I do remember a red bean dish and one with cold, white rice and a sweet, colorless gel on top.
The desserts certainly weren’t as show stopping as the mains — and they probably don’t spend as much time on them knowing most people will be too full to enjoy them
What’s a travel memory that you have, that to you is a good example of why you love to travel?
I visited Israel in September 2010 and I’m not going to lie: It was a terrifying experience. I will leave my personal politics out of this interview, but let’s just say that I felt pretty attacked as a solo, male, non-Jewish traveler, being held up by the border and questioned almost everywhere. To make matters worse I got to Jerusalem so late at night that the hostel I’d booked was closed for the night and I couldn’t find any others with open reception. So, I took to the streets and began taking photos. After a few hours of that I found a spot to sit near Jaffa Street, the city’s main road, and got to writing. A young woman passed by me a few times and eventually came back and asked me what someone like me was doing on the streets. I half-expected her to report me to the police but instead, she invited me to her and her boyfriend’s apartment, made me a ridiculous quantity of food and allowed me to shower, all while telling me about her life and how she views the world. If it hadn’t been for this girl, whose name was Nilly, I’d have written Israel off entirely. This situation illustrates one of the most important lessons I’ve learned on the road: travel is about individual experiences more than it is grand trips. And more about people than about governments, ideology or borders, something I also learned while traveling through Israel’s neighboring Arab states, favorite targets of the American media.
What would you say to someone who really has a passion for photography and is just getting started?
Buy a DSL-R. The camera you use isn’t everything, but being able to shoot in manual mode gives you a level of control over photographs a point and shoot never will, which allows you to impose your perception onto your subject — and hopefully onto your viewers. Beyond that, I’d say photograph everything and take your camera everywhere. Don’t be afraid to photograph people as they pass by and even if they’re not looking. Learn photography by photographing and you will gain an intuitive knowledge of what actually makes photos good, rather than what the textbook consensus on what a good photo is.
Don’t get delusional and think everything you shoot is good, but don’t be afraid to show off your best shots. Learn to differentiate quickly and easily between good and bad shots. And to drive the point home: Take as many photos as possible of anything and everything you see.
How you portray something is way, way more important than what you’re portraying.
A good photographer should be able to make a piece of white paper look interesting.
Robert in Singapore.