ASMP: How long have you been in business?
Glen Allison: I began my freelance photo career in 1971 after spending a year as a draftsman for Craig Ellwood, a well-known architectural designer in Los Angeles. I have a degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. Photography had become my hobby, and I soon found ways of making money as an architectural photographer, at first by shooting Ellwood’s awesome architectural masterpieces — efforts that quickly launched me into international publication. I soon expanded into a lucrative career during my first two decades as a photographer. I’m self-taught, with no formal photography training.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
GA: I can’t remember exactly, but I must have joined about 30 years ago.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
GA: In 1990 I shifted from shooting architecture to travel photography with a primary focus on capturing the world’s travel icons in dramatic light. During the past couple of years, I’ve put more emphasis on using portable strobe lighting in the field and have added fine art photo endeavors to the mix.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?
GA: My favorite tool is Adobe Lightroom, primarily because of its extremely efficient modules for importing, cataloging, inputting descriptive metadata and manipulating images, not to mention its numerous other remarkable features all in one central software package. Directly from Lightroom, I can then immediately upload my developed DNG raw files to my PhotoShelter online backup storage for protection in case I ever lose my original copies on the road.
ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?
GA: My favorite lens of choice is Canon’s image-stabilized 24-105mm, which for a zoom is very sharp and relatively compact with a variable focal length that covers a wide range of subjects. I often wander the backstreets of my travel destinations with only this one lens when I’m trying to stay as incognito as possible with minimal gear in hand. I wind up using this lens for about 70 to 80 percent of the imagery I shoot.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?
GA: My focus has always been to study each travel subject with a tight eye toward creating the most graphically composed, iconic representation. I’m not a prolific shooter, and I almost never shoot wild or rapidly. This approach originated back in my 4x5 view camera days as an architectural shooter, which by its very nature mostly involved static views using a tripod. Even today, I ponder each shot thoroughly and take my time.
A powerful photo usually involves at least three main elements: dramatic composition, impactful lighting and what I call “the least of all the evils.” Many scenes have distracting aspects that must be minimized or eliminated to enhance the primary focus.
Wherever I travel, my goal is just one great marketable photo per day, which allows me to zero in on a subject’s essence and distill the most important characteristics into the final image.
ASMP: Can you paint the scene of what transpired to thrust you into an unexpected side venture of shooting body-painted fashion models in Thailand?
GA: I was more than two years into a nonstop, marathon journey crisscrossing the globe as a homeless-by-choice, vagabond travel photographer. My travels had taken me to Bangkok where I encountered an unexpected mishap.
On a bold leap from an erratically bobbing public transport boat on the Saen Seap canal, I lost footing and unceremoniously slammed my upper body into the concrete pier looming toward me from below. The result: a dislocated right arm yanked completely out of the shoulder socket, which left the arm dangling and me in excruciating pain. During the fall, I had instinctively slung my camera bag over my left shoulder to spare the camera impact. My body served as its cushion.
By necessity, I needed to take a break from my relentless sojourn for several weeks of muscle repair and daily physical therapy.
By chance I was soon to encounter the incomparable Hilde Marie Johansen from Norway, a marvelous makeup artist/fashion stylist working in Bangkok. Together we dreamed up a personal photo project for me to shoot body-painted fashion models to keep me from getting fidgety while parked in this bustling, sometimes decadent city of millions.
My normal photographic fare was shooting the Taj Mahal reflected in the sacred (though highly polluted) Yamuna River in the misty morning dawn or undulating, verdant rice terraces in Teggal Lalang, Bali. At the moment of my Bangkok impact my camera’s CF memory card was laden with images of gilded Thai Buddhas in temples throughout that sprawling city. I figured that shooting half-naked, body-painted fashion models for a few weeks would be new, and a lot more exciting for me, until my arm recouped…or maybe till forever.
During the weeks of my recovery I converted my hotel room into a makeshift mini photo studio. Using my good arm, I flipped the bed up against the wall before each shoot. Assuming an innocent demeanor, I nonchalantly tried to sneak lengthy seamless background rolls plus an endless array of newly acquired light stands, beauty dishes, soft boxes, boom arms, sand bags, reflectors and numerous unwieldy props through the hotel lobby, hopefully without my arm in a sling being noticed.
This being Bangkok, I assumed the occasional beautiful young lady coming up to my room wouldn’t draw much attention.
What unfolded during the next few weeks was a sometimes quirky, often surreal photo series of blue-painted girls, orange-painted girls and black-painted girls, many of whom were sprinkled with glitter as they teased the camera with their iridescent lips and wild feathered eyelashes. Some flaunted and taunted by wearing little more than exotic, bigger-than-real, glitzy jewelry — all provided by Hilde the Amazing.
One glowy girl was moodily decorated with fake doves in her oversized hair, another donned tribal war paint with tall feathers rising above and one was graced with colorful polka dots painted across her body. Other than those dots delicately placed in strategic locales, her only attire was an airborne headpiece of color-matched spheres. This was fun.
Each morning I had to stash all the lighting gear under the bed and attempt a quick cleanup of glitter-gone-astray and a rainbow of body paint smeared around the bathroom…before the room maids came. Maybe I’d never shoot travel photos again.
ASMP: How did you come up with the name Stroborati for your series?
GA: My best friend, Greek photographer Giannis Angelou, suggested the name Stroborati during one of our many brainstorming marathons. He’s absolutely brilliant in these pursuits. To me, this name was the perfect blend to illustrate the exciting world of portable strobe lighting while at the same time connoting the flair visualized by the word glitterati, which my dictionary defines as “the fashionable set of people engaged in show business or some other glamorous activity.”
Besides, Strobist was already taken.
ASMP: How do you get your extensive gear kit into remote locations, and how do you travel with this type of gear?
GA: I’ve been using Bangkok as a hub off and on for the past couple of years during my SE Asia shoots, so most of my new lighting gear was purchased in Thailand. Some oddball items had to be FedExed from the States. We’re talking about relatively small lighting accessories and modifiers, many of which can be attached to Speedlites with Velcro. Grip gear is also small, since Speedlite units have minimal weight. Soft boxes and reflectors are collapsible, and Chimera now markets an amazing collapsible beauty dish.
So my essential lighting gear, including four flash units plus a couple of tiny stands and monopods, fits into a small camera backpack. Now that I’m back on the road again, a budding photographer friend in Bangkok watches over and plays with the excess lighting gear in my absence.
In the field, I frequently commandeer curious onlookers (and often my driver) to handhold Speedlites for me, which I usually attach on one end of a small monopod so the light can be easily extended and/or quickly repositioned as the model turns.
ASMP: In your Stroborati blog
GA: Everyone is curious and enjoys seeing the behind-the-scenes prep for magically lit images, and I’ve never been a proponent of concealing trade “secrets,” which don’t really exist anyway. No need to be insecure. What you give out, you get back. My original goal for the Stroborati blog was to reveal all the details and tell an intriguing story about the shoot to make it more engaging in an effort to draw more viewers.
ASMP: You manage three separate blogs: a Stroborati blog, travel blog and fine art blog. Most photographers have one central blog for their professional and/or personal photography. Why have you chosen to create three distinct blogs? Have you found this to be an asset, a hindrance or both?
GA: Well, it’s a hindrance in terms of the time it takes but an asset in that I have three distinct portals drawing different categories of viewers to my Web site.
Like most photographers, when I first decided to start blogging, one main goal was to enhance my Web site traffic and thus boost my Google ranking in an effort to expand my e-commerce results. Also, my commentary for each of the three blogs is different, and it seemed the best approach would be having three distinct blogs.
Initially I had only the travel blog, which provided a venue to engage a broad cross section of viewers while giving me a platform to tell exciting stories without technical jargon, while also allowing me an avenue for an expressive writing style. I figured that a large segment of lay viewers visiting my site would have little interest in the actual lighting setups, the techie gear descriptions or the Photoshop strategies used to create the images.
When I incorporated more portable lighting into my work, Stroborati was born. Here I could share the lighting details and provide e-commerce gear links with the side benefit of generating additional passive sales income through my affiliate relationships at Adorama and Amazon. Stroborati would be directed to photographers. So from time to time, I could also reference my own custom-designed and highly exaggerated GASP Photoshop actions that I often use for enhancing my images — and which I also sell from my Web site — thus another source of passive income.
But photographers don’t often buy another photographer’s images. So when I added fine art into my repertoire, this third blog was created. Here I could target art buyers, interior designers and the lay public with e-commerce links to RedBubble, where they could purchase prints, posters, greeting cards and so on. This segment of the audience generally has little or no interest in the production details.
For a while, I had three Twitter accounts for targeting these three audiences, but that soon became an insane endeavor to maintain, especially with the snail-paced Internet speeds I encounter on the road in Third World countries.
ASMP: Your Web site includes many instructive elements: details of your photo shoots, quotes, interviews, your favorite photo gear and photo books. Have you ever taught photography in the past? Do you feel that photo education is an important or significant skill or sideline for professional photographers to cultivate in the current business climate/media landscape?
GA: Over the past four decades, I’ve taught a smattering of photo workshops for UCLA and several private ventures. I’ve guest-lectured for various international cruise lines, and I’ve had numerous speaking engagements at PhotoPlus Expo and for several professional photo organizations. In 2004 I spoke at a bevy of local ASMP chapter functions throughout the United States during a four-month, 50-city nationwide bookstore tour to promote my love-story novel and my travel-narrative book, both of which had been published earlier that year.
I thoroughly enjoy sharing all the “insider” photo details and entertaining stories. Yes, in today’s business climate, conducting photo workshops is a great way to provide another revenue source for accomplished photographers seeking to augment their income. But my primary goal has always been to inspire others.
ASMP: You describe yourself as a “vagabond travel photographer.” How long have you identified yourself as such? What compelled you to live a life unmoored? What are the pros and cons of living life on the road?
GA: During the ’70s and ’80s, my architectural photography business was based in Los Angeles, but that segment of the profession dried up during the global economic downturn in 1990, when California’s real estate market collapsed and most of my architectural clients disappeared, which ultimately forced me into bankruptcy — a woeful state to go through after earning close to a million bucks in the previous boom market. Nevertheless, I used the experience to reinvent myself and reignite my dream to roam the globe as a vagabond travel photographer. By its very nature, the bankruptcy had purged my life of obligations and many of my possessions, so I was clear to go.
At the time, however, figuring out how to get started with absolutely no money in my pocket was the biggest challenge. World travel is expensive. I was living in my van and delivering pizzas for a brief stint, with the state of mind that I’d be the absolute best pizza delivery boy ever — at age 45. I didn’t let myself wallow in suffering, and as a result, my tips were huge.
As the weeks unfolded, I found ways to start traveling. Eventually I stayed on the road continuously for almost a decade, homeless by choice once the stock photo income started rolling in, but mostly because I was having so much fun. I decided to reinvest every incoming dollar back into the business for a few years until my foundation was solid. Plus, there was a lot of world to see.
Initially, my photos were represented by After Image in Los Angeles, which became the first international acquisition of Tony Stone Worldwide in the U.K. A few years later, Getty came on the scene and commenced gobbling up the other major global stock photo agencies. So by chance, I had landed in a venue where my imagery would get major international distribution. In about a decade, my photos were published more than 70,000 times, which generated plenty of surplus income to feed my newly acquired travel habit.
It was during this period that wanderlust seeped into my veins and permanently reoriented my life’s direction. Yes, there are plenty of pros and cons to consider when living as a vagabond. But for me, the pros far outweigh the cons.
I’m not the type of person who gets lonely, and I can easily make friends anywhere. I simply love being able to change my mind, and direction, on a whim without being constrained by others’ demands or needs. Long ago, I had experienced life in marriage and having a child. So during my midlife crisis, I wanted to thrill on having absolutely no obligations whatsoever. That’s the primary reason my bankruptcy didn’t devastate me, although I lost almost everything during that process. But now I was totally free. No house. No mortgage. No car. No debt. No TV and no coffee pot. No goldfish or cute little puppy dogs depending on me. Plus, I could find a girlfriend in every port.
Every day I’d be on permanent vacation seeing the world from a creative vantage point through my viewfinder. Gee, what a killer job! And the expense of it all would be tax deductible.
ASMP: You describe yourself as a photographer and writer, and indeed you have published fiction, nonfiction and photo-based books. Please tell us about the relationship between these two mediums, writing and photography, and how you have utilized them in you career.
GA: During my first extended vagabond global sojourn during the ’90s, I encountered numerous rather dicey and sometimes rather humorous situations, as you might imagine with being on the move 24/7/365 and so many countries under my belt. My friends suggested I write a book. But I didn’t know how to write. So during the next couple of years, I read about 200 novels in an attempt to learn the craft. Then I wrote my first draft…but it had 200 different writing styles.
Luckily, I soon encountered a fabulous editor, who spent six months teaching me to find my own voice and the fine art of rewriting. It was as though I were embracing an intensive crash course for a university degree in creative writing.
In 2004 my love-story novel, The Journey from Kamakura, was published. It’s a tale about a travel photographer on a global quest to live life on the edge, including a near death drowning in Mexico and being buried alive by an avalanche in Tibet. Along the way, he grapples with internal demons that eventually drive him into the pit of despair. But with the chance encounter of a mysterious young woman, he’s led across the globe toward profound realizations that no photograph could ever portray.
Though the story was drawn from real-life experiences, I blurred the lines between fact and fiction to embellish the drama and intrigue. The book won second place at the Benjamin Franklin Awards that year in the category, Best First Book Fiction. Then I went back to my day job as a vagabond travel photographer.
A big bonus — I had also laid a fantastic foundation for creative blogging.
ASMP: Your images are licensed through several stock photo distributors and your bio mentions that you are the original founder of the Stock Artist’s Alliance. Please share your thoughts about the past trajectory and future potential for licensing imagery, either through a distributor or independently. What, if any, additional avenues do you pursue for licensing your work?
GA: The former SAA executive director, Betsy Reid, wrote an article a while back for the British photo organization AOP. Her piece was titled, “Stockpiling Trouble: How the Stock Photo Industry Ate Itself.”
Well, that pretty much sums up the past corporate mentality of greed and the resulting cannibalistic trajectory in the stock photo industry as we have seen it unfold. As a result, the future potential for licensing imagery may look extremely bleak in comparison to the heyday of the recent past when I and numerous others were riding high on the stock photo bandwagon, many earning millions in the process.
But all is not over.
Case in point: Just last month, Getty licensed one of my Akha hill tribe photos (rights managed) for almost $20,000 for an extensive advertising usage to an Asian client in Singapore.
Shooting that photo in the remote reaches of northern Laos was a thrill. At the time, my driving impetus was to implant heart and soul into my work. Little did I realize that particular image might garner such huge sums in today’s money-crunched stock photo marketplace less than 12 months later.
Here’s my strategy at the moment: Since I’m not a prolific shooter, it’s difficult for me to generate enough different images to submit to several stock photo distributors, though I’ve tried to do that in the past. So my main distribution choice at this point in time is primarily Getty, since they are the “friendly” behemoth on the mound with the most extensive market reach.
Note that the latest iteration of Getty’s most recent contract gives them the right to migrate an RM image into RF if that image hasn’t licensed in three years. But we contributing photographers profusely bitched and moaned, ranted and raved, and finally convinced the Getty powers to alter some of the outrageous clauses of their contract, thus enabling us to restrict a limited number (not specified) of our unique RM images to never be migrated into RF per our individual choice.
For a nonnegotiable contract scenario, this was a miraculous achievement for us.
Perhaps Getty hadn’t forgotten the ruckus and uproar (and all the bad publicity they received) from SAA’s resolve more than a decade ago to stand up for the little guy. Or maybe Getty didn’t want to see the likes of me and a posse of extremely strong-willed rebel comrades going on the warpath again.
Writers often wield their pens for justice. David always draws empathy in his battle against Goliath.
As the next short years unfolded, the stock photo marketplace radically altered, and big business proceeded to cannibalize the industry with lowball prices in a strategy to gain more market share. Of course, many other factors were at play. The ever-exploding overabundance of microstock and RF imagery flooding into the marketplace didn’t help.
Thus, little by little, SAA’s membership dwindled as stock photographers the world over started losing hope. The global economic crash of 2008 left buyers with minuscule stock photo budgets, and huge numbers switched to purchasing microstock as a result, which proceeded to completely devastate the stock photo royalties for most previous contributors, thus making the scenario even worse. The SAA organization terminated its existence a couple of years later.
At any rate, when I submit to Getty today, I separate out my best (and my high-production-cost) imagery to be designated as RM only with no future RF migration. The strategy works. Most of my Stroborati body art images were selected by Getty’s editors for their premier Stone+ collection — images that garner the highest licensing fees in their system. For other, less unusual images, I might submit them as RM with the possibility of RF migration later on. And with some submissions, I might allow both RM or RF according to Getty’s whim if I think that particular batch of photos might best be marketed either way. I’ve noticed that Getty’s editors have a keen eye in choosing the best venue for each image based on its strength, marketability and the extent of saturation an image type might already have in their vast collection.
I might change my strategy tomorrow. Much depends on future unforeseen developments in the industry and on Internet technology progress regarding universal marketing possibilities. Meanwhile I keep uploading new photos to my e-commerce Web site powered by PhotoShelter, and I keep making frequent efforts to enhance my Google rank and subsequent market reach.
I’m eager and ready for the future, whichever way it might unfurl.
ASMP: In addition to stock photography income, do you pursue assignment work during your travels or have other photography-related income streams to help finance your adventures?
GA: I have no desire to pursue assignments, nor do I wish at this point in my life to embrace the involved process of finding and nurturing clients. I did that for the first two decades of my career as an architectural photographer during the ’70s and ’80s, and I vowed I’d never return to that type of endeavor.
Though the current global economic crisis (plus downward industry shifts) devastated my stock photo royalty income by about 80 percent, I’ve still chosen not to pursue assignment work to supplement my revenues. Instead, I’ve structured my career and my lifestyle to function on passive income, which allows me to remain footloose and fancy-free, answering to no client demands or time pressures.
There are four main elements of my future passive income stream, the first two of which are photo related: 1) stock photo royalties from various distributors, 2) my own Web site e-commerce that includes stock photo licensing, fine art prints, Photoshop actions and various affiliate links to photo-related products, 3) my U.S. Social Security pension, 4) an interest-bearing income stream from nonrisky investments, primarily time deposit accounts. I might also teach photo workshops in the future as opportunities unfold.
If I have great stock photo income during any given period, I can choose to embark on wilder and more costly photo expeditions for the fun of it, or I can choose to stash the extra income for upcoming new photo and computer gear. I could also add that cash to the interest-bearing passive income stream. Many southeast Asian banks still pay four to six percent interest on time deposits. Though that might not keep up with inflation, at my age, my underlying focus for the next three decades or so will be on having easily accessible cash flow while at the same time entertaining nonrisky investment opportunities with the excess capital I generate.
During slimmer times, I’ll shoot in the less expensive countries and expand to the more cash-hungry locales during periods when I’m flying high.
Yes, my vagabond lifestyle wouldn’t suit everyone, but it allows me the utmost flexibility.
Each of us makes our own choices based on past trajectories, present needs and existing commitments. But the fact that I don’t live in the expensive West and don’t need a car, have mortgage payments, refrigerators, TVs, kids in university or marriage commitments, supports my modus operandi — freedom. Besides, a major portion of my life-maintaining expenses are tax deductible as business travel expense.
If I need a breather every once in a while, I can park myself for a brief stay in exciting locales, then shift to new locations on a whim whenever boredom sets in. Right now I’m in Dharamsala, India, doing a month’s Photoshop work on recent images. Dharamsala is a hill station village located in the Himalayan foothills with numerous exiled, purple-robed Tibetan monks on the street, and of course, the Dalai Lama lives nearby. This month, my total lodging expense (a room with a great view and nice balcony, cable TV and free Wi-Fi) plus all food expenses is setting me back less than a thousand bucks. And this includes food and drink three times a day at nifty restaurants overlooking the valley with snow-capped mountains unfurling beyond.
I remain ecstatic with this kind of life.
I’m convinced the main key, however, for maintaining economic stability is for one to establish a debt-free existence and to pay cash for everything. That includes big-ticket items like cars or houses (if that desire ever strikes me again), as I did in Bali a few years ago. If we don’t maintain mortgages, banks can’t foreclose when the economy turns sour.
ASMP: According to your bio, you carry only one camera, a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and five lenses on your intrepid journeys. Why don’t you find it necessary to bring more backup gear? What about gear such as batteries, memory cards and the like? How much of a supply do you have on hand at any given time, and how do you replenish this during your travels?
GA: There are several reasons for my traveling with limited gear. I’m not an “action” shooter and most of my preferred subject matter lends itself to thinking things through a bit before I shoot. So typically I don’t need multiple camera bodies hanging around my neck with different lenses attached for speed in capturing various focal-length compositions on the fly. My primary lens of choice, a 24-105mm zoom, has a nice range for many subjects, so using just one body suits me fine in most cases.
Another big concern is weight, since I want to travel as light as possible. When you add in the necessary computer and lighting gear required, excess weight becomes a massive concern, especially for a solo traveler like me. Since I don’t shoot assignments, if my one camera were damaged or lost, I don’t have clients screaming down my neck. I’d simply take a few days break and have a new camera FedExed to me wherever I might be in the world. FedEx is virtually global with an extremely efficient operation.
Waiting a few days for camera replacement would be only a minor inconvenience in most circumstances. I’d view it as a great opportunity to acquire a brand-new, unscratched piece of gear. I’d kick back for a few massages, piña colada in hand, and catch up on a backlog of Photoshop work. In 40 years, I’ve only lost equipment once, when I inadvertently left my camera bag inside a taxi in Sumatra. So my gambling that minimal gear will be OK has worked out.
Rechargeable batteries, memory cards and backup pocket drives are relatively inexpensive and able to be formatted. They’re small and can be held in abundance — no problem there.
ASMP: The places you’ve worked cover the globe. What kind of language skills do you have? Besides the spoken word, what other types of communication do you find are most essential to making progress in your work and building trust?
GA: I speak a bit of French, Spanish, Thai and Bahasa Indonesia, which is very similar to the language spoken in Malaysia. However, since English is the global language of travel, just about everyone I encounter on the business side of the industry speaks enough English for me to get things done. But the most fun aspect is trying to communicate with the locals who don’t speak English at all, whom I encounter every day. The key always lies in extending oneself in an effort to eliminate the “barriers,” and I’ve found the best way to launch my body language endeavors is with a broad smile, a warm heart and a deep respect for the other person, no matter their status in life.
Today I encountered a young man sitting in the drizzling rain along a road in Dharamsala. It was his overwhelming smile that drew me to him. I grabbed his hand and started talking to him in English, hoping he spoke a bit, but he didn’t.
Almost instantly, another local approached to translate my words into Hindi. I told the young man how amazed I was by his life condition. He beamed even more. Earlier I had seen him dragging himself along the muddy road with his hands, his lifeless and shriveled legs limply following along beneath him. But now I didn’t even notice his physical deformity…I stood there marveling at his exuberant life state.
Truth be told, however, deep inside I was questioning whether I’d be consumed in a state of extreme complaint if I were in the same spot — most likely. Such an overpowering lesson he was teaching me. In just moments, we had made a profound connection far deeper than the words being translated.
ASMP: Do you work with fixers and/or translators in your travels? If so, could you share any tips on how to find reliable resources for such services when traveling from one place to the next?
GA: A good source for a fixer or a translator can actually be your driver. Unlike most places in the West, in much of the world, drivers seem to always be hanging around tourist sites and hotels looking for work. They usually have great connections and know where everything is located. Once I discover someone I think I might enjoy spending time with, I first try him out on a couple of one-day excursions. It’s on these little forays that I teach him how to hold my remote and radio-triggered Speedlites and to help me direct non-English-speaking subjects with a prerequisite of getting model releases, of course. If he seems to be working out, he gets hired, and he gets an extra tip for extra effort.
Last year in Rajasthan, I met an amiable, energetic young man working in a hotel, and he hated his job. So I hired him to travel with me for three months. He was only making a hundred dollars a month at the hotel, so I doubled his salary on the spot, and he was ecstatic. The cost for his food and lodging were relatively inexpensive by Western standards, and I wound up with a great assistant I could trust who could not only do the translating for me but could tote my lighting backpack along the way.
ASMP: The work that you do must require significant preparation on all fronts, from background research to technical aspects to logistics. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced when traveling?
GA: Actually, I execute surprisingly little advance prep for most trips. Since I don’t work under the pressure of assignments or limited time frames, I can usually spend the necessary efforts figuring things out once I arrive at a particular destination. Typically, about all I might do in advance is make sure I’ll be visiting during the best season or when colorful festivals might be happening. But usually I read the guidebook after I arrive in a country. I do, however, book at least the first few nights’ hotel before I arrive, mainly to keep touts from hassling me at the airport.
Since I’m continuously on the road, packing too much advance info into my mind would result in brain overload. I’m a seasoned traveler, and I really enjoy the thrill of winging it on the fly. Of course, if I were heading into a really, really remote area with little electricity, Internet or accommodations, then I’d have to put on my planning cap and figure out logistics in advance.
In most cases, when I arrive in a new country I’ve just finished shooting in another the previous day, which leaves me with a ton of catch-up Photoshop work. So I dive into this and commence new research at a modest pace while leisurely soaking up the new culture’s vibes, learning the ropes before I start rolling.
The most preplanning I ever did was in 1994, when I scheduled my first yearlong around-the-world jaunt. My goal was to shoot at least one iconic photo from each of the world’s most important cities in one year so to quickly add global coverage and powerful imagery to my stock photo portfolio and thus lay the foundation for significant passive income. So I scheduled 100 international flights that year, most with short duration, since I was only jumping from one major capitol to another next door. That’s one flight every 3.65 days — a bit grueling but fun.
ASMP: In regard to being prepared, what are your most essential recommendations to someone embarking on an undertaking along the lines of your extensive travel projects for the first time?
GA: The first thing I’d advise is to “chill out” and download your preferred destination copy of Lonely Planet into your handy iPad prior to departure, while you still have a speedy Internet connection. LP pretty much covers the globe, and they’ve done a relatively marvelous job of rediscovering the wheel for us. And I wouldn’t advise tackling the most remote destinations first.
There’s a plethora of exciting places to shoot where you can get your feet wet, locales that might seem quite off the beaten track. But scads of amazing, relatively remote destinations are easily accessible these days as viewers can see from the many photos on my Web site. A case in point are my images of the Naga tribal headhunter warriors from the far northeastern reaches of “untouched” India near the Burma/Bhutan border, which I shot for my Stroborati blog series last year.
In this lifetime, these guys have collected heads from their victorious battles to decorate the rafters above their celebrated porches. Yet, today one can hire a taxi to transport you near enough for short-trek access. Find a driver to do the translating.
My overriding concern was to keep the warriors happy, so we established a proper remuneration prior to the shoot — otherwise I feared my mug might later become part of their collection. No problem getting model releases. Money talks when language is a barrier. These guys had already been around the block a couple of times and were eager to dress up in their Sunday feathered best when they spied the wad of cash in my hand.
By the way, most tribal photo subjects couldn’t care less about the wordy legalese in the model release, which they couldn’t possibly comprehend in their wildest imaginations — that’s only for the screwed-up mental state of the litigious corporate Western mind.
ASMP: Do you have any suggestions for other photographers who may be faced with electrical power issues in remote places?
GA: Make sure your charging units work on a range from 120 to 240 volts if you don’t want them to blow up. Then acquire a variety of universal plug adaptors and charge up amply.
ASMP: Are there any international travel horror stories that you don’t mind telling, now that they’re over?
GA: In the mid-’90s there were scary reports of Russian Mafia figures stealing passports from tourists after beating them up. I decided to sign up for an adventure tour to simplify my efforts in shooting potentially dangerous places on my must see list. But, all the other potential passengers for the Russia trip must have been too scared, as well, and the tour company cancelled the excursion at the last minute. Despite this delay, I eventually made it to Moscow, where I did indeed have a tussle with one of those scary Mafia types trying to steal my passport even though I’m usually very wary of getting myself into dangerous situations.
I had been shooting near the Kremlin, when I suddenly experienced one of those brazen attacks from a band of renegade amoebas gone wild inside my lower intestinal tract. I had to find a WC fast or my life would quickly be in a very big mess. Up ahead I spotted one of those mega-monster, ’50s-era grandiose Russian hotels. I figured I’d be safe there, so I started running. The humongous marbled lobby inside was almost empty, since the Russian economy was in a shambles after its recent fall and since tourists were too scared to visit.
I spotted the WC sign pointing downstairs. The place was huge and there must of have been at least 50 empty toilet stalls to choose from inside. The first several stall doors were in a state of disrepair with broken latches. Obviously the establishment didn’t have enough resources to keep things in tiptop shape. But, my situation had become extremely urgent, so I blasted inside the nearest stall before disaster struck.
After a brief moment of explosive relief, I heard another gentleman enter the room, but by then the broken door latch was the least important thing on my mind. Suddenly this goon of a man burst inside my stall and dived for the pockets of my trousers, which at that moment were draped around my ankles. In a thick Russian accent he kept yelling, “Passport, passport,” however mine was safely stowed in a money belt at my back.
In a frenzied lurch (and a state of half undress), I spontaneously leapt to my feet screaming at the top of my lungs and started bombarding his head with my fists. No way would this guy get my passport, and certainly not my cameras. Eventually he dashed from the room without his bounty. Maybe it was the odd odor lingering in the air that scared him off. He had certainly scared the wayward amoebas outta me.
This little story was featured in my 2004 travel narrative Penis Gourds & Moscow Muggings, tales about my humorous encounters — well, in retrospect at least.
ASMP: Your current Bangkok portrait series was born from an unfortunate travel mishap, in which you dislocated your arm and shoulder. Given this occurrence, what kind of protections, coverage and/or resources do you have in place in the event of serious medical, health or safety issues? What kind, if any, insurance do you carry for health care and/or your camera gear?
GA: Accidents can occur at the most inopportune times, like my little mishap in Bangkok. These days I take a rather radical approach to health-care coverage. My first line of defense is not to live in the United States where the simplest of medical procedures can attain astronomical cost proportions. Bangkok, on the other hand, has some of the finest state-of-the-art medical facilities in the world, and you wouldn’t believe the extremely reasonable prices.
Think again if you think the U.S.A. medical industry might be on the cutting edge.
The resetting of my dislocated arm plus three X-rays and painkiller medication cost me a whopping $67. And my subsequent three visits to the orthopedic doctor were $15 each. Oh yes, I should mention that the hospital tacked on a nurse’s fee of 50 cents per visit. I’m not kidding. And my hour-long physical therapy sessions during the next several weeks set me back $14 per visit. So it pays not to have accidents or get sick in the U.S.A.
For protection of my camera gear, I maintain a policy through Fireman’s Fund in the States, but I’ll soon switch to the ASMP alternative. For medical emergencies, InterGlobal in the U.K. offers a great insurance package for travelers and expats. The rates are expensive for my 67-year-old age bracket, so the best choice is a high-deductible plan with the thought that at least there would be coverage for catastrophic circumstances. Otherwise, I’d hightail it back to Bangkok if I could.
ASMP: What is your favorite among all the places you’ve worked? What places do you find to be most threatening?
GA: Typically, I completely avoid the most threatening locales. You’ll never see me in Iraq or Afghanistan or Somalia.
My favorite destination is always the next one. Seriously. I’m convinced that “heaven” or “hell” can exist wherever we might find ourselves. Our life condition at any particular moment and our overall perspective on life determine how rich our experiences will or will not be. Nevertheless, I’m still not going to extremely dangerous places. That’s why I try to avoid trips to the U.S.A.
ASMP: Your Web site describes a Lotus Villa estate on the island of Bali, which you list for sale. Is this villa your own architectural creation? When was it built, what factors governed the decision to build it and why are you looking to sell it now?
GA: First of all, I should clarify that I’m selling the house not the island.
Yes, with my degree in architecture as a background, the design of this amazing Bali retreat was my own creation. It’s a bit over-the-top, with six inverted pyramids rising from their points from 21 levels of cascading water on a two-hectare site. I also functioned as the 24/7 job supervisor and general contractor during the three years of construction that started in 2006, a period during which I ceased my travels and shot no photos.
At the time, I was flush with cash, mostly from my Getty stock photo royalties. In this new digital age, I now needed a base where I could return after my shooting forays to spend the necessary downtime doing Photoshop postproduction on a super, mega computer workstation with a cutting-edge big-screen display. Laptops at the time didn’t reach muster. So why not pick paradise?
I could live anywhere in the world, and prices were extremely reasonable in Indonesia. Bali was the most exotic island I could find that had an abundance of infrastructure and building construction resources. The going salary for staff persons at the time was less than four dollars a day. So Bali seemed like a place I could go wild with my design dreams and still stay within budget.
Notwithstanding such factors, eventually the overall cost of this Bali project represented an absurdly extravagant cash investment from my pocketbook that ultimately exhausted most of my reserves, which I hadn’t originally planned to let happen. The design was a work in progress, and it just kept getting wilder and wilder as construction costs kept skyrocketing, ultimately with a 100 percent increase over budget.
Insanely, I even added an underground river with stepping stones that would serve as the art gallery in my paradisiacal abode. By then I had sunk way too much money into the venture, and it still wasn’t completed. Why had I allowed myself to embrace such complexity? At one stage, I was managing 120 construction workers living on-site. But there was no way to stop at that point.
When the unexpected 2008 global economic crash devastated my relatively sizable stock photo income almost overnight, and with my reserves already depleted, I suddenly found myself unable to finish construction. I hadn’t been wise. Artists are rarely good business persons.
More importantly, however, this economic crash refocused my priorities — I had never really wanted to be a full-time contractor and certainly not for an unforeseen three-year duration. Besides, once I regained my senses, I realized I wasn’t the kind of person who wished to be ensnared with obligations to keep the necessary full-time staff of ten happy plus the extensive daily requirements to perpetuate such an operation.
At least I now had a sizable fully paid asset, the eventual proceeds from which could be added to my passive income stream for the future.
I decided I needed to relaunch myself into the world of photography. So I commenced a second ten-year travel marathon, another nonstop vagabond photo adventure that would get me to age 75. Why not? Hey, I’ve always thrived on extremes, although this time, I’ll challenge myself to embrace an abundance of common sense.
By 2009, laptops had been radically enhanced and the nonglare displays on 17-inch Apple MacBook Pros were now marvelous for doing Photoshop editing with a massive 8GB RAM capacity in the newest units. This meant I no longer needed a mega computer station parked at a base in Bali where I needed to return for pixel crunching. Now I could easily do all this from the road while not incurring roundtrip airfare expenses and wasting energy retuning to a base. So it was time to take flight and to reinvent myself yet again as a vagabond.
In conclusion, I might add that no matter one’s present circumstances (or the state of the global economy), it’s crucial we find ways to keep pursuing our dreams. To not do so will ultimately imbue our photographs with an aura of stale enthusiasm.
The old adage of always shooting what you love will forever be true. But due to the oversaturation of imagery in the marketplace (and today’s massive competition), it behooves us to pursue our photo endeavors in ways that add a unique twist embodying our own personal flair with efforts directed toward a niche not occupied by many, especially for stock photographers. Stroborati is one avenue that opens new doors for me in this exploration.
There’s been so much talk of doom and gloom in the stock photo industry during the past several years, but my recent $20,000 Getty license proves that amazing possibilities still exist.
Notwithstanding the occasional huge license fee, however, my key has been to structure a lifestyle and flexible career approach that can be lived dependant only on passive income. While I’ve encountered ups and downs along the way, my foundation was launched decades ago. Even today I keep adding bricks to that endeavor, all the while being able to do so from interesting locales and in the context of a relatively unrestricted existence. Opportunities always abound even during bad times.
The onus lies in our finding exciting ways to keep the dream alive, despite our daily realities.