Photographing indigenous cultures for National Geographic publications has taken me to some of the most exotic and extreme regions of the world. Since “chance favors the prepared mind,” as they say, I take certain steps to increase my chances for a successful trip.
I always maintain a low profile and keep my gear to an absolute minimum. I bring a couple of rolling Pelican cases—imbedded in heavy-duty burlap travel bags, which are well worn, so no one suspects what’s inside—and hire lots of porters along the way. I also work with a ground operator who knows the people, geography and culture, so I have a crew waiting for me when I get off the plane.
Whether I’ll be away one month or six, I pack two of everything—duplicate camera bodies, lenses, media storage cards and viewers, lighting gear, tripods/monopods, etc. Having backup equipment ensures that I don’t come back from an assignment without the images I need.
It’s really important to go over the gear in advance just for that reason. I inventory and test all of my gear before each trip. Minimizing variables and risks, especially with equipment, is critical because I’ll have enough risks without the added fear of equipment failure.
For most assignments, I bring my Canon EOS 1D Mark II. Because of my background and training—I was Ansel Adams’ assistant from 1980 to 1985—I think in terms of natural light. I bring along a small lighting kit that helps supplement the natural light and lends a magical realism to my images. The lighting setup includes a Chimera softbox, Norman 400B system on a Gitzo carbon-fiber monopod, and a PocketWizard wireless radio slave, so I don’t have to be connected to the flash.
For even the largest assignments, I’ll bring four Kingston cards—two 2GB and two 4GB CompactFlash cards. I hardly ever need to use all four memory cards because I have a real simple system for transferring images off the cards, but I always take along more than I expect to use. Unlike sports photographers or photojournalists, who could shoot hundreds of images in a short period of time, the images I’m looking to capture require a lot of planning and are always dictated by either early-morning or late-afternoon light. Every evening, I download my images onto my Epson P-2000 Multimedia Storage Viewer—which is also my way of previewing the images—where they remain until I return from my trip. I eventually download all my image files onto my Mac, where I review them more critically, clean them up as necessary, and deliver hi-res files to my clients A digital workflow has definite advantages, especially on international trips. My Kingston CF media cards take up a lot less room than the 200-300 rolls of film I would typically bring on my long-term assignments, and I can avoid the airport hassles you can expect with film. Digital’s speed and efficiency are invaluable, especially when I’m covering hard news stories.
Since most of my travels take me to harsh jungles and deserts, I never bring a computer with me and minimize the amount of mechanical or digital devices I do bring. When I get back home, I download my images to my Apple Mac G4 laptop or G5 Dual Processor, work on the files in Photoshop, burn images to a CD or Kingston DataTraveler USB Drive for clients, then store and archive the files in my Apple system.
Creative State of Mind
Once my camera equipment is set, I can concentrate on being creative and completely attentive to my subjects and environment. It’s like driving a car. Once you have a tank of gas, your seat belt is fastened and your mirrors adjusted, you’re able to maintain focus on the road ahead.
I always bring a journal for taking notes about my sensory experiences—sights, sounds, touching, feelings—which I later incorporate into my books to give viewers a greater sense of “being there.”
I also sketch out images in my mind, pre-visualizing what I hope to replicate with my camera. After a day of shooting, I compare what I photographed with what I visualized. If they match, I move on. If they don’t, I go back the next day and try it again.
I conduct enough research on my destination that allows me to be there at the right time of year, during the right festival or cultural celebrations, but I don’t overanalyze or over research. Too much research limits creativity. So much of what I’m trying to photograph is not the literal, but the metaphorical. It’s good to be realistic, so you don’t get yourself shot, run over, or miss your plane. But it’s difficult to photograph metaphorically in a literal state of mind.
Safe and Sound
I’ll arrange to have local guides escort me around and introduce me to the local people I need to see and photograph. Beyond that, most of my communication with locals is non-verbal. Some of my most extraordinary moments have occurred when no one spoke a common language, other than a gesture, respect, or body language.