Nomadic Existence Leads to World of Adventure
Restlessness and patience may seem like conflicting traits, but for Nevada Wier they are driving forces behind a successful travel photography career.
"I travel to have experiences, and the photography aspect heightens that, because the camera forces me to come in closer, become involved and notice what people are doing," says Wier. "I'm trying to capture on celluloid one instant or feeling or action or moment in their lives that has to be fairly poignant."
From a 1978 Nepal trek to a 1999 river expedition on the remote Blue Nile in Ethiopia, Wier has been journeying to obscure places and soaking up their cultures. Back then, she took snapshots as a hobby while leading Outward Bound tours. For the December 2000 issue of National Geographic, she captured the people and places along the wild African river on an expedition she planned and pitched to its editors.
Wier continues the dual focus of guiding and photography today, but has merged them into one business. When she's not taking photographs for publication, she might be leading photo tours or workshops. And as a hobby -- she travels.
When she began her photography career, the equation was reversed. "In 1978 the Outward Bound program asked me to guide in Nepal, to run their trekking program," she recalls. "Photography was my hobby. I originally started with black and white, then moved to color. When I traveled to Nepal I'd always take my camera and photograph people." Eventually, studying foreign cultures and capturing them on film became more important than guiding.
Patience in action
It takes a particular type of person to enjoy the lifestyle of a travel photographer, make a business out of it and, most importantly, capture those poignant moments and enjoy doing it.
"I think the most important thing is feeling comfortable with the actual act of photographing people," she says. "I've found, in teaching, that often people feel shy or intrusive, or that it's rude. -- In order to photograph people, you can't feel that way.
"I sincerely believe that photographing someone is a compliment. It's a sign that you find someone interesting."
That philosophy opens the photographer to personal experiences, the Holy Grail of tourism. "I sat down next to this woman at a festival and realized she was incredibly dignified and poised," Wier recalls. "At first I didn't ask to photograph (when I ask, it's nonverbal--I lift my camera, or smile and nod). But when I grabbed my camera and started photographing, then she grabbed me and we went back to her house and got drunk. An old lady--probably 80 years old! We were drinking out of eagle claw mugs." Wier has had many such personal interactions.
But the travel photographer must create something beyond snapshots that jog memories, she says. "I think the successful photographers are the ones who consistently are allowed to penetrate into the intimate parts of people's lives."
Don't project how you might feel if you were on the other side of the camera, advises Wier. "It's completely about me and my camera and very little about the other person, because I can't pretend to know what they're thinking." If she tries to connect with the person and gets rebuffed, she moves on.
She’s been on the convex side of the camera lens herself, however, and says some negative reactions can be a response to a previous experience with a photographer. "Once I was in the Kashmir in western China, and there was an Asian tourist -- I was sitting and he started photographing me." Wier tried to play along, looking up to see if he wanted her to do something in particular, like gesture or talk to someone. "He never, ever looked at me, and eventually I turned my head away and didn't want to be photographed. I sometimes think cameras should be licensed.
"Sometimes people think they're allowed to be rude because they have a camera and can travel someplace."
Wier has a motto, "Move in slowly and work quickly," that bridges her attitude toward her subjects and her technical ability to get the shot. "You're paying attention to someone; you're moving in slowly because you’re allowing a relationship [to develop] -- and as soon as you decide that you want to take a picture, you have to do that fast."
"I've seen a lot of photographers lose the person because they photograph too slowly. You spend time with your camera in workshops or at home or whatever. The camera should ideally become an extension of your arm."
Just as good photographs don’t complete the travel picture, neither do they guarantee success in business. "I've never made the assumption that people are going to give me assignments," she says. "You have to put yourself in editors' doors." Next to carrying all her gear, the biggest weight around Wier's neck is the desk work she must do to get assignments.
Her photography has opened doors for her to many different media. She's a regular on the Travel Channel and has appeared on ESPN's Canon Photo Safaris and in a Northwest Airlines ad campaign. She has published two books, The Land of Nine Dragons: Vietnam Today(Abbeville Press, 1992) and Adventure Travel Photography (Amphoto, 1993), and participated in two more, A Day in the Life of Thailand (Collins, 1995) and Planet Vegas (Collins, 1995). She’s currently working on a book on India's Ladakh region, and considering a revision to her volume on adventure travel.
Wier is a member of two agencies, Corbis and Image Bank (now part of Getty Images). She's appreciative of the Corbis approach to usage rights. "A lot of the traditional stock houses are exclusive. I don't have the original in my files anymore, and even if I did I wouldn’t have the right to use it. Corbis created an alternative to this [sharing the rights], which I think in many ways is very beneficial to photographers."
She sees electronic access to her photos as mostly positive, too. Web access to her photos -- through her website, and through agencies -- has made it much easier for publishers to review her work.
Wier tries to keep up with technology. She studies each new version of Adobe Photoshop, "not to become an expert, but to speak the language." She adds, "I don't have a problem with a computer being used as a darkroom tool." She's tried digital cameras, but doesn't use them. "I don’t need that instant replay, and they're technically much more difficult to work with in the field. It's more practical for me to use film and then [digitize an image] if I need to," she says.
When not on assignment, Wier is often researching her next pitch. Fortunately for her, to research her stories, she must travel. (Unfortunately, it's often on spec and must be followed by much desk work.) She began 2001 in Myanmar, backing up her research trip by guiding a photography tour.
Although she enjoys her guide experiences, she cautions that a photographer-guide won't have time to build a portfolio of work from the trip. "Even though guiding was a tremendous experience, I couldn't put all my focus onto photography. There's a tremendous amount of compromise. What I would do is tack on another trip, because then I could completely photograph at my own will." If that's not possible, work photography time in around the edges, she advises. "Find a festival you can go photograph, or choose your moments, staying up late, getting up early."
Living an unencumbered, traveling lifestyle provided her photography business a great boost. "Because I had a very low overhead when I started out and was good at living an unconventional lifestyle, it was OK. I don't have a family, [I'm] not married -- [and I] didn't get caught making a living to support a lifestyle. I was able to practice while I was being paid, and that's a very unusual situation."
What makes this world traveler even more atypical is that she "didn't even get off the asphalt until I was 17." She grew up in Washington, D.C., and was interested in politics and intellectual pursuits. "There was no way that anyone would have fingered me for doing adventure travel." When she went away to school at Prescott College in Arizona, "everything changed," she says. "My freshman orientation was an Outward Bound course." She moved to Santa Fe to begin working for Outward Bound after college.
Today she still lives mostly out of a duffel bag and doesn't see the New Mexico skies more than four months out of a year.She's "living off the grid of what most people do. It's one of those things that sound glamorous, but really isn't if you sit and look at it."
While she doesn't always carry a camera, her traveling and outdoor pursuits blur the lines between life and work. "I like what I do so much, it's the ultimate hobby." She prefers long projects that allow her to really experience another culture, and plans to keep at it. "I really don't see what I'm doing changing in the next 10 years. That'll get me close to 60; then we'll worry about it."
Gems among the stacks
Wier finds interesting locations by digging through bookstores, surfing the rare-book stores on the Internet and poring over maps. A hobby and research tool is reading journals and historical travel accounts. "I don't believe there are many places Westerners haven't been, don't believe there are many firsts. But there are places that have been overlooked."
She admires the explorers of the British Empire. "They knew how to travel! I mean, there's adventure these days, but it's not like you could just go away and walk off the face of the earth." Other influences include photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White and Alexandra David-Neel, the first woman to become a Tibetan lama.
In 1984, Wier discovered a book in a Hong Kong bookstore that was written by a British consulate officer and included a map of the Kashgar area in western China. Following the map, she and a friend "got hopelessly lost" but had a great trip.
She returned with a group to go climbing, but skipped the climb to spend 10 days with the local people, the Kirghiz nomads. "That was a pivotal moment. The first trip was about adventure, and it started to evolve into a photo project." She's been there four times so far, and created a slide presentation, "Adventure in the Pamirs," that has been widely seen. "In my mind I'd like to go back one more time. I'd like to present it, probably in a book form. That's probably the one adventure, or series of adventures, that documents the kind of changes that have happened to me in the last 15 years.
"I'm more willing to come in closer, more willing to just stay put. Not as impatient. If something’s not happening, I wait," she explains.
"I think photography is hard, and it's one of those lifelong pursuits that I still find challenging. There's always a new way to look at a subject. -- I'm not jaded by travel, but I'm not seduced by exoticism. I don't photograph something just because it looks different to me. I have to find the right way to make it hold its own as an image."