My Top 10 Rules of Travel Photography

I took some time to write up a list of tips on travel photography for B&H Photo’s Explora Blog. Let me know what you think.

Photography is not about the camera. It’s not even about the beautiful images we create. It is about telling powerful stories. Photography is a tool for creating awareness and understanding across cultures, communities, and countries; a tool to make sense of our commonalities in the world we share. I believe the way to find common ground is by seeing yourself in others.

A lot of my work involves traveling to foreign countries and living in remote places. My job is to become invisible and get close to people and wildlife, so I can bring their stories to life. It’s no different being in my home state of Montana than it is being in a country ten thousand miles away. For me, the intimate moments always matter the most.

Photography has been my passport to meeting people, learning, and experiencing new cultures. I want to talk about the methods and sensibilities I use to bring back powerful, story-telling images without getting hurt in the process. Here are the top ten rules that I live by.

 

1. Research

Read everything you can about the place you’ll be visiting, especially local newspapers and social media. Local stories that may not reach the large international papers give me clues about what’s really happening in a place. Establish relationships before you even get on the plane. Make a point of befriending other photographers and sources. Nothing is as valuable as another photographer who has been there. I like to use social media to meet people, or through websites such as lightstalkers.org, where there’s a forum to connect and ask questions.

In this case, the story was about China releasing the first female giant panda back into the wild. With careful planning, we were given access to create a more powerful story that showed humanity's relationship to the Giant Panda. With some thinking ahead and planning, I acquired a more unique image.
In this case, the story was about China releasing the first female giant panda back into the wild. With careful planning, we were given access to create a more powerful story that showed humanity’s relationship to the Giant Panda. With some thinking ahead and planning, I acquired a more unique image.

 

2. Go deep

I don’t view travel photography as solely an adventure. Although I get to witness extraordinary things, it’s not simply about jetting off to exotic places. The magic really begins when you stay in a place and give yourself enough time to gain insight and understanding. It requires tremendous persistence and patience, but I would rather spend more time in one place than try to see it all. One way to get beyond surface images is to plan a trip to one location, several times, if you can. Below are two anecdotes about how I gained access and went deeper into a story.

I spent a couple of days with Subita and her family. At no time were we alone; around us hundreds of digital cameras were firing away. Before dawn broke, as we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lens. The only time any of them acknowledged me was to ask me a technical question, like what ISO would work best in the stingy light.

Later, Subita would tell me how dehumanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. They made her feel like an animal―this is how she expressed it. No one even said namaste, or hello, to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing—what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt and she was simply the prize.

If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image.

 

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3. Be authentic and sensitive

The easiest way to make compelling, real photographs of people is by being authentic. Making candid images of people is not a trick. It’s a skill a photographer can develop, which requires respect for the subject and building a relationship in the time you have together. Successful pictures of people almost never happen from a distance. Put away the telephoto lens and become part of the moment.

Talk to people. Whether it’s simply a nod of acknowledgement, a greeting, an explanation of what you’re doing, or a long involved conversation, connect with the people you are photographing. Remember, we have more in common with each other than you might think. Don’t look at people as different or exotic. Rather, focus on the things that unite and bind us.

 

Children are one of the most universal themes that unite us all. This is a group of children who were displaced by conflict in the state of Gujarat, in Ahmedabad, India.
Children are one of the most universal themes that unite us all. This is a group of children who were
displaced by conflict in the state of Gujarat, in Ahmedabad, India.

 

4. Know your equipment

If you exude apprehension or tension, people pick up on it and cannot relax with the added element of a camera. Know your equipment so that you can focus on relating to your subjects. Your confidence in yourself will instill confidence in them. For me, simplicity is the key to success. I never bring new gear on an assignment or a trip, it’s always tested at home first, and I bring backups on the real trip. Simple is always better. It’s okay to use the latest and greatest technology, but know how to use it before you start your trip.

I’ve been using Nikon equipment for many years. I test my cameras and lenses thoroughly, as soon as I get them. I want to be so comfortable with them that I could operate the gear in the dark. This image of the wrestlers had beautiful but extremely tricky lighting. I had to adjust my settings quickly to capture this shot successfully before the light was gone.
I’ve been using Nikon equipment for many years. I test my cameras and lenses thoroughly, as soon as I get them. I want to be
so comfortable with them that I could operate the gear in the dark. This image of the wrestlers had beautiful but extremely tricky lighting.
I had to adjust my settings quickly to capture this shot successfully before the light was gone.

 

5. Keep good notes

You think you will remember everyone you meet, but time and age fade the memory. In the past, I used to take down people’s names and a short description of what they were wearing, or some distinguishing feature about them. I would get back home, start looking through my notes and discover many of the girls I was photographing wearing similar-looking pink dresses. Now I carry my phone, loaded with a model-release app called EZ Release, which allows me to take pictures and get their consent at the same time. I also make a habit of writing captions and labeling images right after a trip ends, and not procrastinating.

 

Use your phone to take notes, get releases, and remember the people you meet on your travels.
Use your phone to take notes, get releases, and remember the people you meet on your travels.

 

6. Dress appropriately

Fit in with the scene. Understated is always best. Again, sensitivity for the mores and norms of where you are goes a long way to being accepted. A female photographer may want to wear a scarf to cover her head in some cultures. It’s one of the most visible ways to show respect for local sensibilities. I also avoid looking like the stereotypical photographer (black cargo pants or vests with lots of pockets).

 

When the first female panda was being released into the wild, I dressed myself up as a tree so as not to scare her. The director of the panda program was touched. He came running up to me, hugged me, and exclaimed, “You get to hold two baby pandas! President Obama, he only held one baby panda." The doors opened and we got excellent access for the rest of the story, and got far stronger images because of it.
When the first female panda was being released into the wild, I dressed myself up as a tree so as not to scare her. The director of the panda program was touched. He came running up to me, hugged me, and exclaimed, “You get to hold two baby pandas! President Obama, he only held one baby panda.” The doors opened and we got excellent access for the rest of the story, and got far stronger images because of it.

Later, we all dressed as pandas so we could get behind-the-scenes access to the panda training center where they train captive-born pandas to go back into the wild.
Later, we all dressed as pandas so we could get behind-the-scenes access to the panda training center
where they train captive-born pandas to go back into the wild.

 

7. Meet the leaders

Whether you’re in a slum or a city, there’s always a hierarchy. If you take the time to explain why you’re there and get the blessings of the leaders or elders in any community, it will keep you safer than wandering around aimlessly. As a woman, I also take time to meet the women leaders in a community, too.

One evening, after photographing angry protesters, a rogue group of young men decided that they wanted to use me as an example to show their anger towards US policy. I had spent the day with the women leaders in the village, and they came to my rescue when they saw the mob scene developing around me. After that, I always spend the first day of any trip meeting local leaders wherever I’m working, and get their blessing. I’m always amazed at how quickly the news of my project spreads in a community. Everyone knows why I am there and doors open.

 

Getting close and intimate with people requires time and understanding. Building relationships is the most important aspect of what we do.  This is an image of a mother being consoled by her family at her daughter's funeral, in Kashmir, India. I spent four years documenting this culture, and because I took time and built relationships, I was invited into people’s lives and was able to reveal the sometimes difficult, yet always intimate moments.
Getting close and intimate with people requires time and understanding. Building relationships is the most important aspect of what we do.
This is an image of a mother being consoled by her family at her daughter’s funeral, in Kashmir, India. I spent four years documenting this culture, and because I took time and built relationships, I was invited into people’s lives and was able to reveal the sometimes difficult, yet always intimate moments.

 

8. Trust your instincts

I rely on the kindness of strangers everywhere I go. It is real and out there—most people are lovely and kind. It’s a wonderful world out there, but remember to be on guard, as unfortunately, bad clouds can form and tensions can escalate. Trust your instincts and don’t ever assume or be lulled into a false sense of security. Even if it feels safe, don’t let your guard down. I have found that establishing relationships in advance is the best way to prepare.

 

Just like this man built trust with the camel, you need to trust and work on the relationship on the other side of the lens.
Just like this man built trust with the camel, you need to trust and work on the relationship on the other side of the lens.

 

9. Give back

Your subjects are giving of themselves. Don’t abuse their gift of sharing their lives. Don’t treat them like models. Send back some prints, cherish the moment, and treat them well. Don’t promise if you don’t intend to deliver. In this age where many people are digitally connected, it has become easier than ever to email a jpeg to an address for your subjects to share.

 

Whether you bring back prints or simply spend time talking to people, it's important to make photography not just about taking images, but giving back, too. This is Subita and her sister as I am teaching them how to use my camera.
Whether you bring back prints or simply spend time talking to people, it’s important to make photography not just about taking images,
but giving back, too. This is Subita and her sister as I am teaching them how to use my camera.

 

10. Have fun

Yes, getting the shot is important, but be thankful that you have the opportunity to even be where you are. Pinch yourself and enjoy the moment. It relaxes everyone, and the pictures and stories are better for it.

 

Literally dive in and immerse yourself wherever you are. Find ways to connect with people. This is in Madagascar, and I'm just having fun.
Literally dive in and immerse yourself wherever you are. Find ways to connect with people. This is in Madagascar, and I’m just having fun.

 

If there is only one thing you take away from this, I hope it’s the understanding that all of us are not only photographers, but we are storytellers. There is a beautiful, universal truth everywhere and, if you peek under the veil, you’ll find a wondrous commonality between us. I hope that in your travels, you use your camera not just as an extension of your eye but also as an extension of your heart.

If there is only one thing you take away from this, I hope it’s the understanding that all of us are not only photographers, but we are storytellers. There is a beautiful, universal truth everywhere and, if you peek under the veil, you’ll find a wondrous commonality between us. I hope that in your travels, you use your camera not just as an extension of your eye but also as an extension of your heart.

Gear talk: Nikon’s Coolpix

My workhorse cameras have been the Nikon D4 and D800 but recently, I picked up Nikon’s compact P7800 Coolpix and it has reignited my passion for photography. Normally I carry big lenses and heavy gear on my adventures but have found its really not that practical in a lot of situations. For example, when I’m on horseback or on the slopes, dangling lenses can get knocked around pretty badly.  But I never have wanted to sacrifice image quality for the convenience of a small camera. Now there is a solution and the optical quality is impressive for such a small and light camera.

I’m not an engineer and can not get into the nitty gritty details of the technology but this little camera is a gem. The bright F/2 lens and well designed shooting modes make it possible to shoot hand-held in my favorite situations when its dark and moody and there is not a lot of light available.  The Nikon optics are sharp and the sturdy build allows me to take it into all kinds of crazy situations. The image quality allows me to publish these images as double spreads in magazines. Im also shooting some sweet, short videos.

Whether you are telling a story about your family, a vacation you took, a wedding or you are a professional photographer, the heart of what we do is always about story telling. And I’ve learned the best cameras and the best technology never gets in the way of great storytelling. That’s why I love this little P7800.

 

Film for Ripple Effect Images

MediaStorm  created a beautiful film about my work with Ripple Effect Images. Our aim is to tell the stories that empower women around the world. Watch it HERE.

 

For photographer Ami Vitale, the pivotal moment occurred in Guinea-Bissau.

 

It was the start of her career and she was visiting her sister in the Peace Corp. Vitale expected Africa to be filled with war, famine, plague or the other extreme, exotic safaris.

 

Living in West Africa for six months showed her not only “how the majority of people on the planet live their day-to-day life,” but that people were not as hopeless as the newspapers portrayed. There was “a great deal of joy there.”

 

It is a revelation that has guided Vitale through 80 countries and a 13-year career.

 

Her original desire to take “beautiful pictures” was transformed into a desire to do justice to people and their stories. As a photographer Vitale’s focus has centered on issues surrounding women, poverty and health. The common denominator to all of her stories, she realized, is nature, specifically climate change. And it’s women who bare the brunt of those changes.

 

But when a woman is offered the tools to improve her situation, she runs with the opportunity. She transforms communities. “It’s a ripple effect,” says Vitale.

 

It’s the desire to see change that led Ami Vitale to join Ripple Effect Images, a photography organization started by Annie Griffiths that shares imagery with other changemakers.

 

“We are telling the stories that are so important and get lost in the headlines,” says Vitale. “They are the key to connecting things and allowing people to get engaged and make a difference.”]

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National Geographic Channel in Sri Lanka

The cameras have been turned and I’m on a new National Geographic Channel tv show called “Mission Covershot” shot in Sri Lanka!  The show captures the journey of eight photographers as they compete to get the perfect covershot  and the chance of having their photo on the cover of National Geographic magazine. I had the pleasure of being a lead judge on an esteemed panel that included leading Indian director Nagesh Kukunoor and National Geographic Magazine Traveler photography editor Ashima Narain. The lovely and charismatic Shibani Dandekar joined us as the host of the show.  I hope the series will not only be entertaining but also educate audiences and aspiring photographers about what it takes to make powerful photographs and stories. It may look easy to carry a camera and make beautiful images but there is a lot of hard work behind each photograph. And most of the time, working hard is much more important than raw talent. Millions of people can take nice pictures but you need to also have intelligence, ethics, sensitivity and know how treat people with respect. So tune in on the Nat Geo channel Monday nights at 10 pm from March 25. Click HERE to see a promo video.

Workshop in Sri Lanka August 9-18, 2013

Join renowned photojournalist Ami Vitale for an enlightening photography workshop on the island nation of Sri Lanka. She just finished a ten part TV series with National Geographic Channel that is currently airing in Asia. This summer she will lead a small and intimate workshop to “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean” with its abundant wildlife and ancient culture.  During the trip, you will have the opportunity to photograph and get daily critiques from Ami as she guides you to take your passion for photography and make a difference in your life’s work.  The workshop will focus on how to take strong still images and turn them into compelling stories that make a difference. CLICK HERE for a full itinerary.

One of the highlights of the trip will be exclusive photographic access to theKandy/Esala Festival. At this impressive festival, Buddhist traditions are performed in costumes with extravagant decorations and elegant detailing. In addition to front-row views for the festival processions, we will have private access to the dancers and performers as they prepare for the festivities.

We will also enjoy  exclusiveaccess in the Pinnewala elephant orphanage. A conservation project for orphaned and injured elephants, it is the only shelter of its kind in the entire world.  We will also visit Yala National Park, undoubtedly the best place to spot leopards in Asia, if not the world. We will meet locals, visit the centuries old Dutch Galle Fort and photograph the iconic stilt fisherman that Steve McCurry made famous.

If you are a photographer interested in how to create memorable photographic stories and multimedia presentations, make sure you attend Ami’s powerful and timely workshop. The location and knowledge gained will make this a once in a lifetime experience.

The Sub-Arctic Adventure Begins

I’m off for the Thelon, close the the Arctic circle with a group of indigenous children from the Dene’ tribe and will be incommunicado except for a blog we will have on The Nature Conservancy website called Cool Green Science—check it out. blog.nature.org

Naturally, I’m very excited for this epic adventure. For three weeks, we will be on canoes and venture into unchartered territory that the tribe believes is the place where God began his work. There will likely be bears, caribou and an un-Godly amount of mosquitoes as big as helicopters but worth it for the privilege of seeing this pristine environment.

Because we have to carry everything, I’m trying to stay light but somehow, it’s never light enough. This time I’m adding the Nikkor 200-400mm for any wildlife we might run into in addition to my usual Nikon setup: the 24-70mm, 70-200mm, a couple D7000 bodies and one D3s. I know I’ll be gritting my teeth as I lug this up in high altitudes but so worth it, right?

I’m also taking the Goalzero Sherpa to power everything and already experimented with it in Africa recently. Worked like a dream and super sturdy for the kind of traveling I do. Lastly, I have a small 10 inch notebook and 2 hard drives to back everything up. Gone are the days of film but I’m embracing all the advances in technology over the past 10 years. Its nothing short of a miracle. I’ll be creating short multimedia stories and making photographs along the way.

Now, I must finish packing. Just got home 2 days ago from a remarkable trip in the Brazilian Amazon… Will blog about that when I return and post new pix from the last few months.

Bangladesh: On the Frontlines of Climate Change

I was in Bangladesh telling the story of how this country is on the frontlines of climate change. I have a feature length documentary coming out soon, but here is a short I did for Oxfam about how one village is being impacted by the changing weather and what they are doing to adapt. The full length film is showing in Portland, Maine at the Portland Film Fest, Saturday, October 4, 2012.

http://www.oxfam.org/en/grow/campaigns/climatechange/mamtaz-story-fight-for-climate-justice-bay-of-bengal

Right now Bangladesh is a catastrophe playing out in slow motion.  It may appear far away, but our planet’s ecosystem is an intricate web. Whether it becomes a model for the future or one of the great human tragedies of our time depends on the choices we make now.   Its destiny will be determined not necessarily by rising sea levels, but by the behavior of its citizens, neighbors and outside powers.   Bangladesh could be disastrous scene or it just might be a model of how humanity copes with extreme environmental changes.

The village of South Tetulbaria in the Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh, relies on fishing but climate change threatens this way of life. In November 2010 Mamtaz Begum, a young widow from Barguna, stood up and demanded justice for vulnerable communities near to the Bay of Bengal at a ‘Climate Tribunal’ in the capital, Dhaka.

The climate tribunals are developing the idea that those responsible for climate change, can and should be held accountable through the law. Specifically they explore the possibilities for using national laws to hold governments and other private actors accountable for the impacts of the changing climate on vulnerable communities.

Learn more about Oxfam’s Climate Change Campaignhttp://www.oxfam.org/climate

Over the Islands of Madagascar

These are just the first few minutes of the documentary on my work in Madagascar. It will be available in full length as an app in the Apple appstore in July 2011.

Over the Islands of Africa — Madagascar

The sounds of their names alone conjure up thoughts of pristine beaches, spices and the tales of a thousand and one nights. The five-part documentary series “Over the Islands of Africa” follows five internationally renowned photographers as they explore the islands around Africa — Zanzibar, Mauritius, Madagascar, São Tomé & Príncipe and Cape Verde.

The photographers stop at nothing in pursuit of spectacular perspectives for their aerial photographs, stories and portraits, making use of unusual means of transport, from a motorised parachute to a flying rubber boat that can land on land as well as water.

There are few women among the upper echelons of photographers. Ami Vitale is one of them. A frequent visitor to the world’s conflict zones, Ami looks for more than just beautiful motifs. She seeks out the story behind the picture. In Madagascar, she she wants to explore what it means to be Malagasy.

Ami begins her journey on the old pirate island of Nosy Bé in the northwest. Together with the French skipper Nicolas, she sails along the rugged coast to the realm of a king of the Sakalava culture. The daily lives of Malagasy are regulated by prohibitions and taboos that often remain invisible to strangers. Depending on which group one belongs to, it may be forbidden to touch a chameleon, talk about crocodiles or work on Thursdays.

Armed only with her camera and a few newly acquired phrases in the local language, she ventures into villages seldom visited by strangers. The women show Ami how to carry a bucket of water on her head, winnow grain and protect the beauty of one’s skin beneath the blazing African sun. At the Sakalava’s festival in honour of their ancestors, Ami meets the spirits of deceased villagers. She learns that chameleons are harbingers of misfortune and hears the blood-curdling nightly howls of the Lemurs. Ultimately she even gets a private audience with King Momad, one of the last kings of Madagascar.

In Diego, Ami meets the gem trader John. He leads her to sapphire mines, where fortune-hunters risk life and limb in search of the ultimate prize.

Pilot Yves takes Ami to the heart of the island, the Malagasy highlands, in his small propeller plane. The flight affords Ami the chance to take some breathtaking aerial photographs. In the capital of Antananarivo, the picture starts to take shape for Ami. She meets the musician Rajéry, who lets her in on one last secret — the sound of Madagascar, which goes straight to the heart.

Spirits, Kings, Lemurs — Madagascar treats Ami to a multitude of new impressions and spectacular pictures. Director Christian Schidlowski and his team accompanied her on her trip.

Documentary | 2011 | HD | 52 minutes
Directed by: Christian Schidlowski
Dramatization and editing direction: Verena Schönauer
Camera: Sascha Kellersohn
Music: Nils Kacirek
Production Manager: Carolin Neubauer
Line Producer: Markus Breimaier
Producer: Thomas Wartmann
Editor: Ulrike Becker, SWR

Guinea Bissau: Rediscovering the Soul of a Forgotten Land

I recently returned to the West African country of Guinea-Bissau on a generous grant from the Alexia foundation to revisit a village where I began my career as a photographer ten years ago. Young and very green, I had applied for a grant from them back in 2000, on a whim. To my delight and horror, I got it – even beating out some National Geographic photographers I heard, who had also applied that year. I had no idea what I was doing and was terrified. But the foundation felt there was something special about my proposal to document a small village in an unstable country torn apart by war. They took a risk on me back then and changed the course of my life.

Flash forward to 2011, and not much has changed in Guinea-Bissau. Bullet holes still pockmark the elegant facade of the presidential palace, its gutted interior still blackened by bombs from a civil war fought over a decade before. One aid organization working in the area has unearthed approximately 3,000 anti-personnel mines in the capital and is still digging up unexploded ordnance in the countryside. Corruption, a devastated economy and continuing instability continue to erode the urban center, while crumbling infrastructure and skirmishes with separatists in neighboring Senegal have caused thousands of civilians to flee border areas. Despite my experiences working in such places, returning felt just as terrifying as when I first arrived ten years ago.

Guinea-Bissau is a forgotten state. Few flights arrive here each week, aid agencies are scarce, and now the country is being called Africa’s only narco-state, a nation controlled and corrupted by drug cartels. As a recent U.N. report concluded, it has everything criminals need: “resources, a strategic location, weak governance and an endless source of foot soldiers who see few viable alternatives to a life of crime.” Many fear this will further destabilize the already volatile country.

Even getting a visa was a challenge. Every phone number I found for a consulate or embassy was disconnected, and flights to neighboring Senegal had been canceled for weeks due to conflict near the border. I finally came across a number in New York. The woman who answered was the UN representative, running the consulate out of her home for the last seven years because the country was too poor to pay rent for an office. After a few questions, she paused: “I know you,” she said, laughing, “You sat next to me on the plane to Bissau 10 years ago. I still have a photo of you with my daughter.” I was shocked. This was a powerful reminder that despite all the problems, it’s the people who make a place special, and it is personal connections that help me through obstacles.

Once I landed, my fears washed away. I once studied Pulaar, the local language, and now I was putting it to good use, remembering all its elaborate greetings. This was the single most important thing I could have done to prepare for my trip. It kept me safe. As I took public transport to the village, my fellow passengers stared at me with shock and delight. They were so thrilled that a foreign woman would know some of their language that I could tell right away no one would ever harass me. Instead, I was met with laughter, smiles and gracious offers to carry my belongings. The women in the village saw me first and began running to greet me. I cried, they cried, we laughed and settled in for the night. I spent 12 days there, listening to their stories and taking photos.

I learned on my first visit that every day is a struggle for Guineans, but I was mesmerized by the people who gave so much to open up my eyes to the beauty and sadness of their lives. Through it all, I was reminded of how similar we all are despite the distances between us.

On my last evening in 2001, I sat with a group of children beneath a sea of stars talking into the night about my return home. One of the children, Alio, innocently asked me if we had a moon in America. It seemed so symbolic and touching that he should feel like America was a separate world. I was able to meet Alio again this time around. Now he is a young man with a cell phone and a worldly vision. I asked him if he remembered our conversation about the moon. He laughed shyly and said, “Yes, I know now – we share the sun and moon – but here you are our guest, so we will share ours with you.” Once again I was reminded that no matter how desperate and impoverished a place may look, the truth is that nearly everyone on this planet shares the same values. I see a lot of people with common notions of kindness, peace, generosity and a sense of community, and the moon serves as a constant reminder that we are all tied together in an intricate web, whether we believe it or not.