Travel photographers are an intrepid bunch, and there's little chance of Al Qaeda slowing them down, according to photographer rep Danita Delimont.
In the last year and a half, the heightened threat of terrorist attacks arguably has had a chilling effect on tourism to "exotic" foreign locales-and for good reason. The same, however, cannot be said of travel photography, an industry in which danger can be found around every corner, regardless of the political climate.
I believe the inherent psyche of exotic travel photographers makes them less vulnerable to the threat of terrorism. They are risk-takers to begin with-they love the thrill and challenge of venturing into less-traveled territory. They have personality traits that enable them to penetrate remote areas and primitive cultures in a comfortable and positive way. The challenge of winning over local people and a genuine interest in foreign lifestyles are what brings travel photographers to these areas initially, and it is also these characteristics that enable them to return with compelling images that can affect our understanding of the remote and developing cultures of our world.
I suppose I first became endeared to exotic travel when, as a small child, I lived with my family in Iran. The exotic smells and curious visions of carpets, brass and copper are still etched in my mind. When I found myself working for the adventure tour operator Society Expeditions in 1980, cruising 3,400 miles up the Amazon River and its tributaries, I knew I was hooked. Now, as an agent specializing in worldwide travel destinations, I continue to see exciting work from the far corners of the globe, created by the myriad of exceptional photographers with whom I work.
Most of these photographers have continued traveling extensively throughout the world, even in light of the ongoing terrorism threats. For example, photographer Keren Su continued to lead a photo tour to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, while U.S. fighter jets were taking their places on the bordering tarmacs. Another photographer, Adam Buchanan, went to Afghanistan in November 2001 to photograph relief workers and give aid to the Afghan people. Several of my clients went to Morocco or Indonesia in 2002, even while the news reported on terrorist activities all over those countries.
Certainly the hassle of extensive security-related gear checks at airports is noteworthy, but I believe everyone feels safer and more appreciative because of it. To speed up their wait at security checkpoints, some of my clients now shoot with professional digital cameras and travel with laptops so they can edit on the road. Photographers may choose less gear in the way of lenses or camera bodies, but they won't stop traveling to destinations calling from within.
Choosing the right place
Photographers affected by concerns for their spouses and families are simply choosing to go to other areas of the world that are less vulnerable in the world's eyes. They know that once they get out into the backwaters and rural areas of remote destinations, there will be little energy wasted on fear and terrorism.
The most important consideration when deciding on a place to visit is choosing an area that is hard to find. Pose the following questions to potential photography buyers: Which exotic destinations are the least photographed? What areas are your clients looking for every year that are weak in coverage? Start with those answers and plan your trips accordingly.
Diversity in coverage is what sets a successful travel photographer apart from the pack. While in the field, a photographer needs to maximize the subject matter that he or she shoots. Don't just shoot your typical travel images; shoot them for editorial illustration as well. Think about subjects for textbooks and examples of daily lifestyles. Photograph traditional architecture, whether it's a thatched hut or a mud-brick building. Shoot the local craftspeople and artisans, and get close-up details of the artwork. Be sure to capture faces and families, but try to crop out any bare breasts, tobacco or alcohol.
Then add in the "adventure tourism" element. Put travelers in your frame and document them interacting with local people. Try to include the local guides, the vehicles used, and any rafting or boating elements that may be present. Show the destination in all its variations, including flora and fauna. Some tour operators really have a hard time finding that kind of coverage.
If you get model releases for the subjects you shoot, the tour operators will really love you, but please don't fail to take people shots because you're afraid you won't be able to get a release signed. You can always sell them editorially without repercussions, and quite honestly, I've had very few travel clients actually require model releases from my photographers.
Don't forget to experiment, too. The trendy select and blurred-focus shots you take can always be interwoven with classic travel imagery. The more diverse your subject matter and style are, the more customers there are to whom you can offer your work.
Savvy photographers know they need to find sales any way they can to make a living. While agencies take more and more of the pie, it's important for photographers to insist on nonexclusive contracts so they can place different subject matter into agencies and portal sites with different markets throughout the world. While image exclusivity is acceptable, a photographer who really wants to succeed must have many outlets in order to have a diversity of sales.
One of the biggest mistakes photographers make is having unrealistic expectations of what their images are worth. Most tour operators who specialize in exotic travel destinations are small businesses. Far fewer people take these tours than, for example, patronize major cruise ship operators. Therefore, the budgets of exotic-tour operators will be smaller.
In order to understand a client's budget for photography so you can price your images within that budget, you need to have open and honest communication with the client. You may not get the big money up front per image, but you may get quantity because you're willing to work within their budget. Additionally, they'll come back to you for the next round of destinations or next year's catalog, because they'll remember you for your willingness to work with them. That means a lot to small-destination specialists.
If you have a client who features the same destinations each year, you'd be wise to return to those areas often in order to continue providing fresh material for their projects. One of the biggest challenges for exotic tour operators is finding fresh material each year. Their usual sources dry up after a while, so if your client isn't calling you regularly, think about these issues.
Digital with a personal touch
As far as digital technology is concerned, it's here to stay. Photographers who don't set themselves up to deliver digitally or ally themselves with portal sites will miss the boat. More and more computer-savvy college kids are being hired to do photographic research these days, and like it or not, that's how they're searching for images. They're much more comfortable with their computers than with picking up the phone and talking to total strangers. If you don't have some kind of digital presence somewhere, they'll never find you.
It's just a matter of time until no one will even accept transparencies anymore. Even though editors still prefer looking at film on a light table, their researchers are providing them with digital light boxes on the screen, and that's what they're getting used to. Designers and art directors also love being able to work the layouts on their computer screens from the beginning. And if they can download low-res images for comping purposes from your website, they'll love your site even more.
With well more than a million "Stock Photography" sites listed on Google, clients rarely go to more than a few before they find what they want. Once they've made contact via cyberspace, that's the time to add the personal touch with a friendly telephone call. The personal relationships and services that travel photographers can offer are often the most valuable assets we have. Go that extra mile for the client, and they'll remember you the next time or refer a colleague to you.
I truly believe that most photographers who shoot exotic destinations will continue to do so, while choosing the areas they go to carefully. They know that life is uncertain, and they'd rather be out there doing what they love than worrying about the next bomb that's going to go off. Contemplate your options and the need for your coverage, then pack your bags and go. Bon voyage!