"The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page."
Mantra of the modern travel photographer? No and yes. The words are those of religious philosopher St. Augustine, recorded in the fifth century. They're also a favorite inspiration for the husband-wife freelance photography team of Dave Houser and Jan Butchofsky-Houser.
The circumstances following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, have affected the lives of all travel photographers, and the Housers, based in Nogal, N.M., are representative of most. In the aftermath of this American tragedy, they've reflected on personal and professional reactions to the nation's tragedy and plan to continue traveling, albeit closer to home. Most importantly, with a steady hand on the wheel, they're steering their own courses into the future.
Jan Houser says that the 9/11 terrorist attacks have added fear to her travels and destroyed her peace of mind. "I had enjoyed years of carefree travel and always liked photographing in a street atmosphere among large groups of people, where pickpockets might be the worst threat," she explains. "Now that there are real fears about terrorism everywhere, I've become resentful that some of my freedoms have been taken away."
Believing that her confidence will eventually return, Jan is also optimistic about how the attacks will influence her work. Noting that events have made people more thoughtful and inclined to reach out to others, she says, "I want to make my photography even more intimate, and bring the world closer with my pictures."
The Housers wanted to capture the destruction at Ground Zero and had invitations to go to New York, but Jan says their stronger instincts were to stay close to home.
Robert Mizono, a San Francisco commercial photographer who has lived in New York City, says, "I wish I could have been there shooting, but I would probably want to put down my camera and do something more for those people—maybe fix meals." He did corporate photo work in the World Trade Center a year ago and ironically recalls that it took an hour to get through security to go to the upper floors.
Robert Holmes, a British citizen who lives and works in San Francisco, believes the attacks affected Americans more than non-Americans. An editorial photographer since 1979, he grew accustomed to the constant threat of terrorism throughout the British Isles in a previous career. He has also worked in Pakistan and lived in Kabul, Afghanistan, for several months prior to the Russian military campaign, witnessing political factions and much civil unrest there as well.
Holmes, the first person to receive the Travel Photographer of the Year award twice from the Society of American Travel Writers, says he had no desire to be at Ground Zero himself because he doesn't do that type of photography. He admires the images captured by Newsweek's James Natchway, one of the first photographers on the scene after the twin towers collapsed. In Natchway's work, Holmes sees a strong sense of composition that doesn't sacrifice content.
Vietnam combat experience has colored Seattle travel photographer Cliff Hollenbeck's professional philosophy. "I saw the war firsthand, but I also saw the beauty of Thailand and the Vietnamese countryside," he explains. "I abhor war zones and have even more desire to keep shooting pretty scenes since the media coverage of 9/11." Also twice honored as Travel Photographer of the Year, he prefers shooting the beauty of Mexico and Hawaii.
Hollenbeck says he knew people in the World Trade Center and had been in the complex many times himself. He once did a night shoot on a top-level floor from one tower to the other and remembers that the buildings swayed slightly at that height.
Having spent 26 years as a news photographer for the Portland Oregonian, David Falconer, a freelance editorial photographer since 1979, says the attacks have made him think a little deeper now about his craft. He is becoming more observant of simpler things, and has been depicting the nation's recovery process by telling the story with "images that celebrate life," he says.
"For years I've walked my dog every morning down the same dirt road, past a neighbor's maple tree," Falconer says, "and for eight falls I've never paid attention to that tree until the owner started flying an American flag in September." Taking note of how the turning leaves formed an exquisite background o the banner, he took his camera on the next walk and captured the scene "to illustrate that seasons change and life goes on" amid tragedy.
Post-9/11 airport security
As the nation went into high alert following the September attacks, traveling photographers began finding vast inconsistencies in security between airports and airlines. This unpredictability, they complain, is frustrating and makes their jobs more difficult.
The Housers' carry-on luggage has been acceptable on a post-9/11 El Paso, Texas, to Portland, Ore., flight, but on a Napa Valley assignment, flying through San Francisco, there was considerable aggravation over bringing aboard the same cases. Wary of this experience, the Housers chose a slower "puddle-jumper" route for a January 2002 trip to La Paz, Mexico, on a series of Mexican airlines to avoid the hassle of U.S. air travel through a major hub, like Los Angeles.
"All this adds to the anxiety of travel, even though we have tried to reduce our equipment as much as possible," says Dave, who is also a travel writer. It's a challenge, he adds, because photographers these days must carry laptop computers and reference materials in addition to their heavy camera equipment.
Holmes bought a Leica M6 for its compact size and ease in carrying. He puts all his cameras and 200 rolls of film in a roll-on suitcase. Some tripods and long lenses may go in checked baggage. He says short flights are not worth the time-consuming trouble, and adds that he's not finding the great travel bargains advertised. "It's a myth that you can find cheap fares, especially for three-day tickets," he says.
Having taken 12 flights since Sept. 11, Holmes says every experience has been different. The "unbelievable hassles" he has experienced have mainly involved long lines, some requiring an hour-and-a-half wait. He describes arbitrary security systems on a New Orleans trip that were dramatically different when arriving and departing. Similarly, before a flight out of San Francisco, he had to empty his entire case and send each item through the scanner separately, but when he was returning home, nothing was opened or checked by security. He finds this irritating and adds, "I don't see that it has any benefit. I don't feel any safer."
Mizono encountered security problems a month following 9/11 when traveling with about 20 cases of equipment. Agents went through everything. He prefers not to ship his camera equipment ahead but says he may have to consider it.
"Our world has changed," Hollenbeck says. "American freedoms have been changed." He has worked in third-world countries and says he knows how we Americans will miss our freedoms. "Now we are more conscious of what can happen."
The increased airport security in the U.S. is a positive development overall, Hollenbeck says, noting that airport security has always been strict in Europe and Asia and adds. "I've always appreciated it for obvious reasons," he says. "I'm more paranoid than most people."
However, increased scrutiny in baggage handling has upset Hollenbeck's usual arrangements with the handlers. When traveling outside the US, he routinely carries 30 or more cases with him and always negotiates special handling to get equipment on the plane and retrieve it directly from the baggage area at the destination. While he'd like to continue this practice, he laments that the current emergency situation "has virtually eliminated my ability to bribe airport and customs officials to get equipment moved."
Having traveled to Israel and a divided Germany, Falconer is also not alarmed to see armed guards at airports. "I became used to having guns pointed at me in Korea," he says, "and won't be surprised seeing them at our domestic airports."
Closing in on nearly 50 years as a professional photographer, Falconer recalls the good old days when he and his colleagues received preferential treatment on assignments. He used to be "treated like royalty," and was automatically bumped to first class when agents learned he was a travel photographer. Now he flies coach class and stands in line with everyone else.
Falconer has also traveled in another class few have enjoyed—on Air Force One for a White House assignment covering President Gerald Ford. Photographing in the Oval Office and with proximity to the chief executive, Falconer experienced security at a higher level than most of his peers ever have. Secret Service agents would not only look at his camera but also ask him to work it to prove it was safe. He expects that airlines will soon do this as well.
Having seen at all air traffic yield when the President's plane tk off or land, Falconer says, "Once you know about the special protocol a president enjoys, it's interesting to see it from the other side."
Through a longer lens
Other than increased stress in traveling, the Housers say they have not seen much change in their livelihoods—"yet," they add with emphasis. "A year ago we had plans for 2001 all laid out with confidence. Now we're more uncertain about 2002," Dave says. He expects the travel industry (which provides about 40 percent of the couple's income) to slow down early in the year, which will have an impact to be reckoned with. Noting a cutback in newspaper travel sections, guidebooks and other publications, he predicts a challenging first quarter of 2002.
A year ago Mizono was working on a client's ad campaign, but now the client is talking about using those same, older photos rather than doing a new shoot. He bid on six jobs recently, and although three of the clients said they liked his work, they are not yet ready to go forward. "A lot of clients are reluctant to pull the trigger," he surmises. "They don't want to spend the money right now."
Mizono, who has an impressive range of creative advertising work, also notes another change in the protocol of getting jobs. "It's become a high priority to explain who I am and how I would approach the job," he says. Recently, he had to write a proposal explaining how he would do an assignment, adding that it was the first time his portfolio alone did not sell the client.
Until Sept. 11, Falconer was averaging two freelance assignments per month for Northwest Airlines' World Traveler, but since then the in-flight magazine has put his work on hold. Listing other publications that have slashed their budgets, he says, "My gut feeling is they are all using the tragedy as an excuse."
Noting a change over the years in corporate spending, Falconer says freelancers once got a week of per diem to do an assignment, with travel days built in. Today they get only a couple of days because the client wants the job done quickly and inexpensively. He also thinks publications are increasingly using file photos and working stories around them to save money—a trend he laments. A picture is created to illustrate a specific story, he adds, and "you can't rewrite a photograph."
According to Holmes, "Foreign travel has dried up, but that started before Sept. 11." After Holmes photographed half of a Traveler's Chile Companion in 2000, the publisher decided not to go forward with the project, a decision made in January 2001. "The market is flooded with travel books," he says. "You have to be quite unique to get a publisher."
Holmes is content to do local work and build his California file for now, adding that he has little free time to take on new assignments. "It's a nice break, even if [it's] a forced situation at this time," he says. He expects to eventually resume foreign assignments but notes, "Travel on your own isn't as much fun as people think."
Stock sales are a large share of income for the Housers, and they have vigorously worked this market during the past few months. "Since 9/11, I've been living on the phone, talking with clients throughout the country to see how this was affecting them," Jan explains. "We've done an active marketing campaign, asking our clients how we can work with them." They've picked up surprise orders from some who canceled contract work and opted for stock instead.
"We saw a similar situation during and following the Gulf War days, when assignment work dropped but stock sales were up," Dave adds.
Falconer is also paying more attention to selling stock photos. "I've bonded with my light box these days," he says. While continuing to look at smaller publications and textbooks as outlets for his work, Falconer does "show and tell" slide presentations at camera shops, teaching amateurs how to get better shots of people. To update his skills, he learned to send pictures via e-mail and plans to take writing classes to sell more photos with articles.
As for expectations in 2002, Dave Houser says it depends on how well the U.S. government is able to deal with international terrorists. "With another such attack, I wouldn't give you 10 cents for the travel industry," he says. Though he feels that the slow return to normalcy after 9/11 is "tenuous and perilous," he's also hopeful that "maybe we're on the road to a more peaceful world."
"You can't stop living and you can't sit on what you did yesterday," Mizono says. Photographers, he says, have to keep thinking like they've just started. "I'm going to keep climbing the mountain, keep carving a niche for myself," he adds.
Hollenbeck says some of his clients in Tunisia have put off jobs for now, but he has an ongoing contract for Crystal Cruises, doing Mexico and South America this year. With his wife, Nancy, he runs several enterprises, including "how-to" photography book publishing and video production.
"Companies that survive are like photographers who survive," he says. "When things seem to be at their worst, they go out and do their best."As for whether the national crisis is affecting his own livelihood, Hollenbeck's defiant optimism seems to sum up the views of many intrepid travel shooters who've seen and weathered their share of global conflicts.
"I control my destiny," he declares. "I don't quit. I'm not going to let a few terrorists spoil my life or my work."