Off the beaten track: Travel tips for photographers working abroad

Since so many of our photographers have been traveling abroad lately, this post caught our eye.  While the points may seem obvious it is always great to have a reminder of  the important tips.  Even though I live and die by my phone’s GPS, I am partial to the Paper Maps Tip. Using them is really the only way I get a feel for where I am and even then I still get lost!

This article originally appeared for Strictly Business, and was written by our good friend Chris Winton-Stahle who’s work you can find on his website here. A big thanks goes out to Chris for letting us share his work!

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to shoot a big project in China and Tibet. I did some things right and I did some things wrong. Here’s what I learned.

  • Know the culture.
    No matter where you go, but especially overseas, it’s important to have a good understanding of the culture you’re going into so you can shift how you approach people to fit with their culture and beliefs. It’s so important as a photographer – especially if you’re photographing people – to meet them at their level. Understanding what’s considered rude or polite can really change how people interact with you. I’ve found that people are pretty patient and will go out of their way to help you if it’s clear that you’re giving it your best and show that you’re trying, but you need to know how to make that effort clear in a way that’s appropriate in their culture.

Cris 1Sharing your images is a great way to show that your heart’s in the right place even if you don’t speak the language.

  • Be your own pharmacy.
    There were areas I traveled to where there wasn’t a doctor for 100 miles, and that was a village medicine man. Not a place that you want to get an infection or get hurt. There are so many items we take for granted here in the U.S. like ibuprofen, Imodium, allergy and cold medications that can be difficult or even impossible to get in second and third world countries. Before leaving the U.S., I stocked up on all the over-the-counter medications I thought I might need for any and every possible emergency scenario I could think of. Be sure to check whether any medications you take are illegal in the country you’re traveling to as each country has its own rules. I also brought a first aid kit that almost got confiscated at an airport in China because it contained a pair of scissors. Thankfully, they took the scissors but let me keep the kit.
  • Paper maps still have a place.
    In this day of Google maps and smart phones, it’s hard to remember that there are places so rural that your phone becomes a brick. Having old-fashioned paper maps to keep track of where you can be really important. Before I left for China and Tibet, I had the idea that I’d be able to get maps once I was there. I looked for maps, I asked for maps but I could not get them. Luckily, I wasn’t responsible for getting myself to the right place each day but it was disconcerting to have no idea where I was and it really limited my ability to enter any kind of geography based metadata into my images. Next time, I’ll buy maps and familiarize myself with the terrain before I leave.
  • Get your Visa.
    This particular project came up very quickly and I had to have my visa turned around within a week. I found this amazing service, All I had to do was fill out a questionnaire and they took care of everything. I got my visa for China in 48 hours for around $500.
  • Know the rules for every airline you’ll use.
    Not all airlines are the same and the laws vary from country to country. When I went to China, I packed according to U.S. Federal regulations but when I got to China, the regulations governing baggage weights and what could be checked vs carried on were different, especially for domestic flights within China and Tibet.
  • Speak their language when you can.
    There are a ton of translation apps you can download where you speak into the app and it translates into whatever language you need. They speak back and it translates to English. Some are better for certain languages than others. Google Translate was great for China and Tibet. Talking to other photographers or travelers who’ve been to the country is a great way to find out which apps are best for any given language.
  • Hire a guide.
    When I was first contacted about this project, I immediately asked for a guide who could function as both a translator and an assistant. It was one of the best decisions I could have made. My guide, Tserang, helped me in so many ways. Not only did he translate and help carry my gear, he kept me out of trouble – there are a lot of rules about what can and can’t be photographed in Tibet – and helped me forge a stronger relationship with my subjects. His presence dramatically increased the amount of cooperation I got. Instead being seen as a foreigner with a camera, I was treated as an official photographer from another country. His ability to connect to people had a huge impact on the images I was able to capture. I was in some remote areas where many of the people had never seen a white person before. Add in the language barrier and it would have been impossible to connect and get the shots I wanted. I was able to get some really beautiful moments because Tserang broke those barriers for me.

Cris 2.jpegMy guide, translator, assistant, and friend, Tserang, and I on a rare break.

  • Make connections.
    Tserang and I became friends and I know that if I ever go back to Tibet, I can contact him and work with him again. Just as we build networks of photographers and assistants locally, it’s the same around the world. There’s an equivalent to ASMP in almost every country and they can help you build your network in their country. For example, the Chinese Photographers Association (CPA) helped connect me with Tserang.
  • Think about releases.
    I’m represented by Blend Images and they provided me with a very thorough release that was already translated into Chinese. What I didn’t take into account, though, was very few people in Tibet speak or read Chinese and, truthfully, not that many of them are literate in Tibetan, either. Figuring out how you can take pictures of foreign people and use them to make money in a legal and ethical way is challenging. In addition to having a translator who could explain what the release was for, having gifts that I could give my subjects really helped cement those relationships. The gifts don’t necessarily have to be expensive. I found that people really liked gifts that were representative of American culture. That and chocolate – everyone loved getting chocolate!
  • Protect your feet.
    If you’re going to be traveling for more than a week, it’s so important to have good quality shoes or boots that won’t fall apart, are warm (or cool) enough, that are waterproof and that fit you well. Adding gel inserts can also really help. It’s funny how you can plan and plan and still miss the simplest things that can make or break your trip. Shoes are one of those things.
  • Think about power.
    Obviously, you need to get appropriate power adaptors for the country you’re going to but if you’re traveling far off the beaten path, you’ll also want enough batteries to get you through power outages, brown outs or even finding yourself in a hotel room without any outlets at all.

Ultimately, people are people. Regardless of our cultural differences, we’re all kind of the same. We have the same emotions. We have the same fears. We have the same desires. If you approach people in an ethical way and treat them with respect, your experience of overseas travel as a photographer will be much more successful and the work you produce will be much more successful, too.

Chris Winton-Stahle is an award-winning photographer and accomplished photo illustration artist who sees the camera as only half of his process in creating great imagery. Chris often pulls components from multiple images and CGI when creating his work for clients in advertising, magazines and entertainment.

Thank you Jimi Stine for help with the post.

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