It may be borderline pretentious of me to be offering words to “aspiring” travel photographers, since until pretty recently I was only “aspiring” to do this thing myself. The reason for the post is a question, which I have received numerous times over the past couple of week, in various forms:
How does one become a travel photographer and go on to make enough money in this profession?
At first the question makes me laugh. Who the hell am I to be giving people advice on anything career-related? I’ve never had much of a plan and I always considered that a lot of my success was a result of pure luck. Regardless of whether I’ve changed from an “aspiring travel photographer” to whatever else, I have realized that I am now doing something that many dream of - I travel, take photos and mange to “survive” off the income generated by these photos. On second look I think that there may be reason to my “madness” and perhaps my own story can be useful to other young people starting out. Here it goes.
To “become a travel photographer” I worked all sorts of shitty jobs, occasionally committed intellectual and creative suicide by shooting what I consider trash, I used every opportunity in sight to get on the road. There’s an interesting concept I heard somewhere on the net (probably Brooks Jensen’s podcast) – you need to dedicate 10,000 hours to something in order to become proficient at it. Sounds like a fair assumption. That’s basically what I did without realizing. I never quite thought of it as a 10,000 hour thing, but I did know that to be decent at shooting particular themes I needed to shoot them for an extended period of time and so I totally immersed myself in doing just that, while I went off on trips that ranged from six weeks to seven months.
After my third India/Nepal trip (the seven month one) I felt that I really had an idea of what I was doing and incidentally that’s when other things started to click. I began to get published in magazines, had an exhibition and made print sales (more though magazines then from the exhibition). As much as everyone today says that print media is on its last legs, I’ll say that it’s pretty important to get your work published. There’s just a certain type of validity that comes with having your work in print. It means that someone at least thought enough of it to spend their money on the required paper and ink.
With the publications, I saw that my work had some value and I asked myself this question: How can I generate a more regular income from my photos? I looked at image/stock agencies. Got a contract with Lonely Planet Images (on my second attempt), but terminated it before long – this isn’t the place to go into the details, Lonely Planet make great guidebooks… and let’s leave it at that.
I still wanted to have my photos represented by an agency, those who are seriously working with the big name agencies know how important they can be and so, I went on a search. A bit of luck, weeks of waiting, empty phone calls and emails, weeks more of being bounced around and I finally managed to get in with Getty Images – everyone’s “favorite” stock selling (not so gentle) giant.
This brings me to How do you make enough money? part of the question. Well, it all depends on what you want enough for. A comfy life in inner-city Sydney? There’s a very slim chance that your travel photography will generate enough income for that in the first years. But having your images make you enough to travel and live around the cheaper parts of the world? Very possible, that’s what I do.
After a couple of years of very intense photographing and relatively recent, almost equally intense attempts at finding ways to make money from it, I have to say that I’m still very very far from striking it rich. Every month Getty sells some of my work and probably makes me enough to get by in most of Asia. I am still submitting to magazines and looking for alternative incomes from my photos, I’m even still willing to sell my soul, to shoot what I don’t love every now and then. However, importantly I no longer have to do what I don’t like, my images are finally “working” for me. Even more importantly I don’t have to work in retail, restaurants or wherever else just to save enough for the next journey.
But still, in all honesty, the way that me and Tanya (my wife) live is not for everyone. Certain comforts must be forgotten, while you’re on the road with a limited income, you simply can’t afford them.
Of course much of the beautiful, amazing things associated with travel are completely free, but if you ever compare your experiences with those of a friend, who may have traveled the same route as you during his four-week annual holiday, you realize that the pleasure you get out of traveling is very different to his. Your pleasure has a perverted twist. While he enjoys sipping cocktails on a luxury boat-cruise, you jump on a ferry packed with goats, chickens, furniture and dry fish, with lovely fellow passengers who chain-smoke and continuously spit on the floor. The journey exhausts and frustrates, and by the end you reek of that damn dry fish and your own sweat. But you’ve made new friends, learned words in a foreign language and have one heck of a story to tell when you get home. The pleasure comes from the experience and from the fact that you survived it. Your friend didn’t “suffer” on the luxury boat, but nor did he experience the ‘realness’ of actually being in another country, among regular people from a different culture.
If your cup of tea is the ferry ride and you’re really into your photography, then perhaps things don’t need to be very complicated.
I’ll borrow words from Chase Jarvis. He’s not a travel photographer, but unlike me, he really knows what he’s talking about.
There are two things you need to succeed: to be undeniably awesome at what you do, and to persevere.
Applies to everything, even travel photography.
(The confused character with ski-goggles above is none other than me. I used to wear the ski-goggles when riding the motorcycle. In this image I’m riding in the back of a bullock cart during an early morning in Rajasthan’s, Bundi District. Didn’t get a good picture, but the ride was kinda interesting.