An enormous appetite for learning about other cultures has fueled Lindsay Hebberd's passion for photographing exotic locales, especially in her beloved India and Indonesia.
In a tiny village in the remote Ryukyu Islands of Japan, intrepid travel photographer Lindsay Hebberd is trying to communicate. She is fluent in Spanish and knows several other languages, including a little Japanese. But her attempts to convey through word and gesture that she wants to photograph local culture are met with staid looks from the villagers, who are unaccustomed to such physical expression.
During encounters like these, Hebberd always goes to great lengths to put people at ease and treat them with respect. "It's important to make people comfortable with you and your camera," she says. "You can't steal a good portrait. I always remind myself that I am a guest and, to them, I am a representative of my country."
This sensitivity toward her subjects has also made her resourceful. Somewhere in the village she finds a telephone, calls a Japanese-speaking University of Hawaii student she knows and gets him to explain her mission to the village chief. It works, and she is able to move around the village and make photographs of festivals, dancing, artwork and craftspeople.
This story, one of many she tells during a recent telephone interview, illustrates several aspects of Hebberd's personality, work and general outlook on life. "I make friends, I build bridges, I gain respect and I photograph things people are proud of," she says.
Hebberd travels to satisfy her enormous appetite for learning about cultures other than her own. Photography, she says, allows her to convey the maximum amount of information about her experiences in the most immediate way. "A good photograph elicits an intellectual and emotional reaction from the viewer," she says. "It transports and engages you."
Keeps going and going . . .
Until last year, Hebberd's normal routine was to spend six months or so in India or Indonesia and then, using an around-the-world airline ticket, photograph cultural events or places somewhere else on the globe — she estimates she's been to 50 countries — before returning home to Scottsdale, Ariz.
Once back in the States, she'd spend time with her parents and friends, edit film, check in with her stock agencies — Woodfin Camp in New York and Corbis in Seattle — and research her next trip. "I do an immense amount of research," she says. "Both of my agencies will tell you I write excellent captions." They might also tell you that the list of corporations and publications that buy her stock photos is three pages long and includes university presses, textbook publishers, children's magazines, various departments of National Geographic, travel magazines, news magazines and papers, and books and magazines covering art, history and culture around the world.
After a few months' regrouping, Hebberd would usually return to Asia, again stopping along the way to photograph more of the far reaches of the world. Her friends have nicknamed her "The Energizer" for her seemingly limitless reserves.
"If I died tomorrow, people would say Lindsay lived more in 44 years than most people do in 88," she says. "I am passionate about life, and I wake up every day enthusiastic about my work. It's not always easy, and travel poses its own challenges and is often very difficult. But when you enjoy what you're doing, it doesn't feel like work. Work and passion converge."
Focusing her considerable vigor and talent, Hebberd has concentrated much of the last two decades on documenting the cultures of two Asian countries that fascinate her: India and Indonesia. For each trip to these places, she has conducted many hours of research, planning exactly where and when she would be able to photograph fine examples of each country's treasures of traditional culture, art, history and architecture. Working for extended periods in the most remote and unfamiliar corners of these lands, she has chronicled the essence of their peoples' spirit, pride and beauty.
She describes both countries as exhaustively diverse. "In India you can go 50 kilometers and the food can change — the customs and beliefs of the people can change dramatically. It's such an ancient civilization and very complex. You could spend lifetimes just covering India." Indonesia is just as rich, she says. "Each island has its charm. I'm fascinated by the textiles, the mastery of workmanship and art, the beauty that is created."
Through Hebberd's production company, Cultural Portraits Productions, she created large traveling exhibits to showcase her Indian and Indonesian photos and educate the viewer about the countries. The shows began in the early 1990s and continue to tour worldwide, free to the public, with sponsors paying only the cost of transportation. The Indian exhibit of 70 photographs, including nine 5-foot-wide panoramics, was launched in the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and was most recently displayed at Arizona State University in Tempe.
In Arizona, Hebberd helped to organize an all-out festival of Indian culture as well, including puppet shows, drumming, music, local and touring dancing, storytelling, an Indian film series, a business and trade conference, and a children's art workshop.
The touring exhibits led to the production of two large-format books, "Cultural Portraits of Indonesia" in 1996 and "Cultural Portraits of India," published two years later. In addition to photographing, designing and publishing the books herself, Hebberd also found corporate and government clients to pre-purchase them. The Indian book alone took 10 years to complete, while the Indonesian book was a culmination of 13 years of work in that country.
People who see her work on India are often surprised, she says, because most of what they know is the negative coverage they see on the nightly news. Hebberd's images reveal the country's essence — the positive, beautiful and life-affirming aspects of its diverse culture — rather than poverty, disease and disasters.
She acknowledges the problems found in most developing countries, but she chooses not to focus on them. "The vast majority of people find the positive focus of my work uplifting and reassuring," she says. "Many people have told me that my exhibitions are like a journey to a place of enchantment and discovery, where beauty and the human spirit are appreciated and celebrated."
Shift in focus
Like many other photographers, Hebberd was forced to curtail her plans following the specter of 9/11. "I returned from India and Sri Lanka on September 10, after being gone for seven months," she says. "Can you imagine?"
Later, when she began to talk to her agencies about returning overseas, they told her the climate had changed in the publishing industry and there was little interest in foreign locales. "My agents were telling me to focus on North and South America, and my parents were leery of my long-term travel overseas," she says. In addition, the Indian economy continues to endure a slump that is worse than that of the U.S.
"But most important, it's become difficult to travel with a lot of equipment," she says. "I used to carry on most of my equipment and check the film in my suitcase. But the airlines have become extremely restrictive in what you can carry on planes, and some of the x-ray machines for checked luggage will destroy film. So [it's become] more of a hassle to travel overseas at this time."
Hebberd reassessed the situation and decided not to pursue the new book on India she had been working on, even though it meant much of the work would have to be redone. Instead, she made several scouting trips to Canada and Mexico on the advice of her agents.
On a trip to Las Vegas to see the Cirque du Soleil's production of "O," she was pleasantly surprised to find that the city had changed in the 15 years she'd been elsewhere.
"Las Vegas was like India to me," she says — a remark that requires some explanation. "In India, I found a complex and fascinating country with many positive qualities that get relatively little exposure. Its amazing cultural diversity, spirit and talent is overshadowed by sensational hard-news stories."
In Las Vegas she noticed a similar phenomenon. "When I arrived in Las Vegas I was completely surprised to see how different it was from my preconceptions," Hebberd says. She found a lively, wide-ranging city that is constantly reinventing itself, with many things to photograph beyond gambling and showgirls.
She decided to make Las Vegas her next major project. Last fall, she set up a temporary home base and began taking photos of the various attractions around the region, including Vegas' many unique hotels, amusements, entertainment productions and cultural events, as well as places outside the city such as the Hoover Dam and Bryce Canyon. Currently, she's designing a lavishly illustrated combination daybook and guidebook called "Las Vegas – Imagination to Reality."
In beginning each new project, Hebberd says, she first decides where she'd most like to go, and then figures out who could benefit from her work. She designs a dummy of the book to show to potential clients. Once she has buyers, she customizes the book for her clients, presenting them with a valuable promotional tool for their investment.
Her Indonesian book was a limited edition for Mobil Oil. Among other buyers, the government of India purchased 5,000 copies of "Cultural Portraits of India" and sent them to every Indian embassy in the world. Her Vegas book will be pre-sold to corporate and government clients in much the same way. Initial inquiries are turning up clients interested in promoting the city, Hebberd says. She plans to be on location until June and to finish her newest book in October.
Born to travel
Hebberd comes by her passion for travel naturally. Born in Calgary, Alberta, her parents were travelers, and she grew up hearing about adventures in places such as Borneo and New Guinea. Her father worked in the oil industry, and the family moved every few years. "I lived all over the world as a child," Hebberd says, including Iran and Nigeria for a short time. They settled briefly in Westport, Conn., long enough for her to attend junior high and high school.
By the time she was a student at the University of Texas at Austin, Hebberd's parents had moved to Lagos, Nigeria. She visited them there and went on a family safari in Kenya, where she began photographing the Samburu and Masai people. "I was so inspired. I felt very comfortable," she says.
When she returned to the States, Hebberd decided that her life's work would be to photograph different cultures around the world. Being in the honors program at UT Austin enabled her to develop her own collegiate program in the communications department. She put together photo projects that took her to Africa, Spain and Peru for college credit, while building a travel portfolio.
After college she made a proposal to Upchurch, a large travel corporation in Texas, which agreed to send her around the world to photograph the agency's tour destinations. "They supplied tickets and hotels, and I photographed 22 countries for them," Hebberd says. The company didn't dictate what or how to shoot, Hebberd remembers. Her instructions were to capture the spirit of the place. "It was a great first self-assignment," she adds.
She worked hard and came back with an impressive collection of travel stock. "They were very happy with it," Hebberd says. "I thought that was a wonderful way to make a living." Ever since then, she's been self-employed, traveling much of the year and creating her own assignments.
Working on long-term projects has enabled her to develop close friends and contacts who have helped her find festivals and other opportunities she might not otherwise know about, Hebberd says. And her polite and nonintrusive manner has led to many rewarding experiences along the road less traveled. "I've photographed in places where photography is very restricted, such as the northeastern Indian border," she says, "but I've been granted access because I've gained the trust and respect of the authorities. Mine is a long-term attitude — the circle of friendship and respect and commitment is what opens doors normally sealed shut."
Sometimes an assistant or writer will meet with Hebberd on location, but most of the time she hires someone local to serve as interpreter, driver and all-around helper. "We become a team," she says. "That's important for finding out what's happening and where. In some countries, there are no road signs. Unless you have someone who speaks the language and knows where they're going, you won't get anywhere."
Hebberd says she feels safe traveling alone, partly because she avoids places that are at war or having problems. "I don't put myself in harm's way. That's part of my research," she says. "I actually haven't had very many problems — never any serious problems. But I think that's because I'm highly aware of people around me and my environment, and I can sense when something's hitting off-key. And then I move quickly and get myself out of that situation."
And people watch out for her, she notes, especially the elders. While shooting in a Bombay park one day, she struck up a friendship with a group of very old Parsi men. "The youngest was 94 and the oldest was 102," she relates. While she was setting up for a panoramic shot at dusk, two young hoodlums approached her. "Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of these elderly Parsi men bolt up from his park bench and start attacking these young men with his slipper," she says. "He managed to chase away the bad guys."
Behind the photos
Hebberd considers herself a natural storyteller. "My work is content driven," she says. "I make my photographs in a way that tells as much about the people and place as possible." She knows her subjects well, whether they are people, landscapes or buildings.
Her panoramic photo of the Taj Mahal, for example, is not taken from the familiar reflecting-pool side. Her research revealed that Shah Jahan purposely built the Islamic tomb for his beloved on the banks of the Yamuna River. "When you look at photos of the Taj in the reflecting pool, you have no idea there is a river there," she points out. Hebberd's photo is taken from across the river, where the architect intended to build his own tomb.
Although architecture is one of her specialties, people remain her greatest interest. "I find them the most multidimensional and challenging," Hebberd says. "You can never get the same photo twice."
It's important to her to get to know people — find out who they are, where they come from and what they're interested in — so she can reflect something about their spirit in her photos. "I try to capture some of their energy and personality. I try to be the eyes to their voice," she explains, adding that the energy of the photographer is somewhat reflected, too.
"The camera is really an extension of myself," Hebberd says. "I never think of it as an object between me and my subjects. To me, it's the most privileged introduction. It has allowed me to travel all over the world and interact with people on all levels, from the humblest of villagers to the fabulously privileged or talented, and to share my experience with others."
Although Hebberd works hard, sometimes putting in 18 or 20 hours a day, she clearly loves her work. "When you're really happy and inspired," she says, "it transforms your life."
IN THE LOUPE: Lindsay Hebberd
Home: Scottsdale, Ariz.
Staff: She hires various professional assistants for individual projects.
Equipment: Nikon F3 and F4s; 11 lenses from 20 to 300mm; Nikon SB-25 flashes; and Gitzo tripods. For landscapes, architecture and sometimes festivals, Hebberd is fond of her Fuji GX-617 large-format panoramic camera. She also uses a Toshiba laptop for satellite links and a CD burner.
Greatest influences: Her parents; the Dalai Lama (whom she has met several times); Nelson Mandela (whom she has also met).
Clients: Air India, Bank of America, Fuji Film, General Electric, Infosys Technologies, Mobil Oil, Monsanto, Oberoi Hotels, Singapore Airlines, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Fodor's, Geographic Expeditions, HarperCollins, Oxford University Press, St. Martins Press, the World Book and many others. Her work has appeared in Discovery, GEO and National Geographic magazines. She also has produced images for the United Nations and the governments of India and Indonesia.
Other projects: Besides her book projects and stock sales on her website (culturalportraits.com), Hebberd does assignment work, sells custom photos and has worked on collaborative efforts, such as "A Day in the Life of Thailand" and "Thailand: Seven Days in the Kingdom." She also conducts educational workshops — in India, the U.S. and other countries — that encourage children to study her photographs and captions, and create original artwork inspired by what they have learned.
Future projects: Vietnam, Turkey, maybe Mexico. She also is considering writing a book of her personal stories.
Advice to aspiring travel photographers: "Treat everybody with respect. Don't have an ethnocentric, ‘us-them' attitude. It's important to show consideration, respect and appreciation for people. The more you can interact with people and tell their story, the better your photos will be."