Yes, I know that’s a fairly meager living. Especially when spending $2,000 of it a month. But, how many people can say that they get to travel every day of their lives? Sure, I’d love to be making more, but I have no complaints. On a daily basis, I get to see places and do things that people spend their lives saving to enjoy. I wouldn’t trade my career for anything at this point.
So, if travel photography as a traditional career is dying, than how are these people making their money? Well, I wish I could give you the answer to that question, but I can’t. These days, everyone has a different method of money-making. All I can do is tell you my story, and how I manage to keep from sleeping under a bridge every night — though barely.
Long gone are the days in which being a travel photographer simply meant you shot photography for a certain travel magazine or newspaper. The world isn’t that simple anymore, and the level of competition in the photography world has never been higher. But still, I’m fairly sure there are more “travel photographers” on the planet now than there ever were — just check your Instagram feeds.
When you travel, saving money is often the exact same as earning. Quite often, exchanging a couple images with a hotel for a free room or a tour company for a free tour is totally worth it. In fact, when I was in Southern Africa, I did this a lot. Safaris are expensive, so I’d create a couple images for a company to use for their marketing purposes in exchange for a free safari. It really is win-win.
The patrician-looking (and rather taciturn) sadhu in the top photograph did tell me that he had a family, had held a managerial position in the Indian Railway from which he earned a pension (now paid to his wife), but had decided to detach himself from temporal life and was currently studying the Vedas. These are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. He was the embodiment of a real sadhu who had really espoused the Vairāgya, and was far different from the "sadhus" I encountered on the ghats of Varanasi (below) almost 8 years later.
A pretty picture is not enough. It needs to be high quality and it needs to be original. For magazines, you need to consider issues such as leaving space on the image for word placement, positioning your subject off-centre so it doesn’t fall down the page join, and possibly placing the subject on the right-hand side of a landscape shot for maximum impact.
"Back when we started Wanderlust, we would invite photographers in with their portfolios. Nowadays, although we do commission some work, we increasingly use online stock libraries to find images for this website and for our magazines. On the one hand, they libraries have a wide range and make it very easy to search. On the other hand, we can find ourselves wading through pages of very average shots that don't offer anything different or fresh. And, so often we struggle to find what we need due to poor tagging by the photographers."
Embarking on such photographic projects make me look for relevant snippets of history, social mores and art (for example, the occupation of Shanghai by the Japanese in the thirties, the Chinoiserie fad of the 18th century, fictional stories similar to that of Madam Butterfly et al). I also learned the aesthetic of the cheongsam (aka qi pao) in its various forms, and the beauty of Chinese calligraphy. I also scoured the internet for Chinese legends, poetry and songs/music that inspired the 2-3 minutes plots of my photo films; as I call these audio slideshows.
Zackham got fascinated with manatees while he was writing a screenplay about dolphins. He learned it’s quite easy to swim with the so-called sea cows, and took his family to this spot north of Tampa, where manatees congregate during winter. “To be able to jump in the water with something that big with your 5-year-old? It’s amazing,” he says. discovercrystalriverfl.com
This is my biggest source of income these days. I have one company that has me on retainer for $1,000 a month for a year. They get the pick of a couple images each month that they’ll use for social media and marketing purposes. They have a specific style of image that they want, so I spend a good part of my time trying to create those images for them.
In March 2018, I traveled to Shanghai to give a lecture and a street workshop at Imaging Group, and recall doing some location scouting in Laoximen with Tamia Tang (my assistant). We met an elderly resident who had lived in her small rooms virtually all her life, and had been told that she would have to vacate them soon. She claimed satisfaction that the city would be offering residents alternative housing or monetary compensation as the weather in Shanghai was too cold for her.
Another place to capture expressions are the subways; either on the platforms or in the cars themselves. My favorite images are the one of a young woman avidly watching a movie on her smartphone, while wearing a single hair roller to tame her fringe....and of the young girl who appears to be viewing a smart phone screen on an ad on a subway platform while her mother is busy texting on her real phone.
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Readers of The Travel Photographer blog know of my current long term involvement in documenting Chinese Opera of the diaspora; an involvement that will culminate into the production of a coffee-table book bearing the same title. It is for this reason that the blog has been recently populated with posts with excellent work of Chinese opera by travel and documentary photographers.
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