So You Want to Be a Travel Photographer, Part 1

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Some people think that being a travel photographer is a glamorous life, and why not. You get to travel to all parts of the world, meet interesting people, shoot in exotic locations and stay in wonderful luxury hotels and eat foods some of us have never even heard of.  Well let me give you some idea of what really happens on some of these trips.  I was contracted to do an advertorial job for a magazine based in San Francisco and paid for by the tourist board.  Sounds great, fly to SF, meet he people at the magazine then onto Taipei for 10 days of traveling around the country taking wonderful photographs of Taiwan.  I’ll have a writer with me to keep all the information straight and all I have to do is come back with great photos for an upcoming issue.  No problem. I’ve shot thousands of travel photos and nothing about this job seemed unusual a couple of weeks before I was supposed to leave.

Then I saw the itinerary that the tourist  bureau thought that I should follow and what they thought might be interesting in Taiwan to photograph.  From the minute I landed and one hour after check-in, I was to start shooting and it wasn’t to stop until I left for home 2 weeks later.  A new location every 1-2 hours.  That’s asinine, at least if you want good photos.  That’s almost 39 hours without sleep.

First let me tell you about the people who read the travel magazine I was shooting for.  They are well educated, travel a lot and hate with a passion guided tours and especially tour buses and gigantic chain hotels, preferring small boutique hotels and a travel itinerary slightly off the beaten path. I had to keep that in mind while I was shooting and who was eventually going to see the pictures I shot.

Back to the itinerary, I was to leave NYC at 9:45 am and arrive in S.F. for a 2:30 meeting. Then go back to my hotel room I had rented for a couple of hours to try and get some sleep.  I was up at 5 am.  You know, get to the airport at least 2 hours before flight time. Isn’t air travel wonderful these days.  To make things a little more uncomfortable Continental flew myself and approximately 150 others to SF on a small 737. That’s a commuter plane, not be confused with a 777 or 767 or even at 757.  That was 6 hours of the most uncomfortable flying I have experienced in a long time.   Seats that hardly reclined and a hot dog for lunch.  I didn’t know if I was on a plane or a ride at Coney Island.

My flight on EVA, the national carrier of Taiwan wasn’t to leave SF until 1:40 am the next day and arrive in Taipei at 6 am.  I left on the 23rd and arrived on the 25th.  A friend of mine told me to take an Ambien and I would sleep for 4-5 hours on the plane, but he said always wait until the wheels are up before popping that wonder drug in your mouth, just in case they call the plane back to the gate and you have to be carried off.  Strange as it seems I had never had to use any sleep aids in all the miles I have traveled and besides that I don’t like to take any drugs.  I want to be somewhat awake when the emergency slide opens and I have to go down it.  Before I used it on the plane I thought I might want to give it a go at home so before I left I took 10 mg a couple of days before I left.  I’ll make it short.  Ginny had to carry me to bed and I didn’t remember a thing.  Great!  I’ll probably step off the place in Taiwan trying to remember why I’m there.

Mr. Wang, lantern makerThe EVA flight turned out to be a dream with the widest economy seats I have flown on and absolutely quiet, no screaming kids.  Thank God because the flight was 13 hours to Taipei and 6 from NYC to S.F.  It turns out I didn’t need the sleep drug. I was so exhausted after a few hours flying and the quiet on the plane that I fell asleep naturally for 4-5 hours and landed without incident to start the job.

If you’ve never been to Taiwan the only way to describe it is it’s Chinese but clean and efficient all thanks to the Japanese, but boring.  The scenery for the most part is industrial in the cities and not very inspiring outside in the countryside.  Don’t rush to plan your next trip here.  The locals are quiet, reserved but well educated.  Tourists are mainly from mainland China and Australia and now I have to make this place look enticing to the Afar reader.  After 4 days I had seen exactly 3 white people outside the airport.

The guide we are using is a freelancer who was hired by the Tourist Bureau with the same itinerary notes as us and was determined to try to follow their instructions.  We have managed to persuade him that we will get much better photos if some of the silly locations they have listed that would only appeal to other Taiwanese or mainland Chinese on tours be eliminated.  He has come around in the last few days and we have given him the official photographer and journalists title of “fixer”.

There is virtually no indigenous culture left in Taiwan.  What is left to see are at cultural centers that are a cross between Disneyland and the Mohican Sun gambling complexes, only on a much smaller scale.  We nixed those pretty fast on the second day after seeing multiple tour groups being paraded through the cultural center souvenir shops by young girls who couldn’t even remember how to wear their ancestor’s clothing.

By the third or fourth day all began to improve as I began photographing things that would more likely draw people to Taiwan.  It has unbelievable street food, some of the best I have tasted and great night markets that are teaming with people.  Yes Erin, I did stay up long enough to make sure the sun was down and I could say I photographed the night markets.

As we traveled south on the east side we had the Pacific Ocean on our left and it did remind me a little of California.  Only 5% of the 24 million Taiwanese live on the east coast.  The mountains are right there and are quite high.  All the roads in Taiwan are great but the speed limit is 50 mph.  Patience is definitely a virtue when driving here.

An amazing thing happened the other day and shows how far Richard has come as a guide.  Remember, he had never worked with any photographer or writer, his main clients being Taiwanese or mainlanders over 50 wearing those goofy hats with the sun visors built in.  I gave him a lead about a very famous sword and knife maker I read about on the Internet.  This guy made the swords for the Hidden Dragon/Crouching Tiger movie and is revered in Taiwan as a national treasure.  I gave him the city and low and behold he cancelled some more of the locations scheduled and we found ourselves barreling over the coast mountains to the west side, an almost 6 hour drive.  Oh, did I mention that the temperature everyday has been between 92 and 98 with humidity that makes NY seem like the Atacama Desert.  Try carrying a camera bag loaded with gear all day in those conditions.

Anyway Richard found the small town and we found the sword maker behind a shop that sold fish parts.  How convenient, as he makes knives also.  We photographed him with his famous swords for over an hour in his shop.  While photographing him making one of his swords and getting closer that I should have been, sparks flew off the sword he was pounding and a small piece of metal landed on my foot, or should I say the open part of my sandal. I didn’t want him to feel badly for me so I kept on shooting as the small red hot piece slowly burned a hole in my sock and then my big toe. After I was finished I went to our van to check the damages and now have a ½” blister on my toe, but it was worth it, as he gave the writer and myself one of his knives as a gift.

The Taiwanese are known for their wonderful teas and have some wonderful tea fields that we photographed, including some amazing great grandmothers, you heard that right, GREAT Grandmothers who are tea pickers.  We also shot people working in the rice paddies as we started up the west side of Taiwan.  All in all a good 2-3 days.

I’m usually up at about 5 am to do all my file downloading and camera checking.  I don’t do it at night, as I am too tired and we all know what an incorrect keystroke can do to a photo file. I don’t finish shooting until about 8-9 pm at nights as we are covering some of the restaurants that we are eating in.

As I finish this off and look out the window from the 66th floor of the Splendor Hotel in Kaohsiung City, in a room that my whole apartment in NY could fit in, maybe this travel stuff isn’t so bad and I’m getting paid to boot.

Now where did I put that happy ending room massage voucher?

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One Response to So You Want to Be a Travel Photographer, Part 1

  1. Diarmuid says:

    Thanks Maynard, that was an honest and open expose of your travel/job! I’m impressed that you were able to dictate the pace of your photo touring, and didn’t allow a person with a different agenda dictate the itinerary. I’ve just returned from SE asia-Thailand -and was very impressed with how receptive the people were to being photographed….can’t wait to go back ….
    Thank-you

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