Brian is a working photographer living in China who has a passion for teaching photography, participating in the growing photographic community, and doing good rather than complaining in an effort to give back and when he has the chance, he helps NGO’s in Southeast Asia communicate their stories.
1. How did your involvement in Cultural/Travel Photography come about and are there certain characteristics you believe are imperative for photographers to have that are considering pursuing a career in this field?
From the beginning I really never intended to be a cultural/travel photographer. I struggle with that terminology even now despite knowing that what I do falls squarely into that category. Nonetheless, my involvement in travel cultural photography came about through a progression of a few things. All the way through college I had a jobs with design and web design, which led to an interest in photography.
The web design side of things led to a job overseas in China right out of college. I hated the job I had but loved photographing the cultures I was around. I was a little bit frustrated because I was more of a strobist at heart. Though I enjoyed the cultural photography side of things, I was forced into loving the cultural and travel side of things. Over time I feel in love with it (since I love traveling) and learned how to mix both photographic passions.
There are a few things Iʼd caution someone about before entering into the travel photography field. First, Iʼd say that you have to love traveling - months on end away from home (and a wife that supports it!). Secondly, I think you need an open mind to the cultures you are encountering.
Living overseas has really changed my paradigms about culture and how we engage culture. Overall, itʼs hard on the body and hard on the family. You have to build systems in your life that allow for this kind of work or else youʼll burn out very quickly.
2. There seems to be two school of thoughts as far as what approach is best for photographing people. A lot of your photographs feature very intimate moments with your subjects. I assume it comes to much more than just simply smiling and holding your camera up to take a shot. How do you ensure a genuine connection with your subject?
I believe in paying for photographs with time and respect. Why? I personally fell itʼs more important to value the person than the picture Iʼm taking of that person. That means spending time with them, talking to them, sharing something about myself with them all in an effort to take some of the one-sidedness of photography away. I want to know about them and share life with them before I demand they pose for a picture. I want to make sure I donʼt miss a genuine moment of human interaction because of my camera.
Because of that most of my pictures are not staged. After they know that we are both just humans they open up tons more and their entire demeanor changes for the better. I feel like I get truer expressions of who they are because they are more comfortable with me as a photographer and as a human that respected them rather than saw them as something interesting to take a picture of.
Iʼm not sure there is actually a way to ʻensureʼ, as you say, a genuine connection with the person. However, I always try to connect with them as a human before the camera comes out. Iʼve chatted with people for hours on end and was having a great time and then when I asked if I could take their picture, they said no. I might be sad they said no but Iʼm never frustrated or feel like Iʼve wasted my time. In my mind, the person always has to come before the picture.
3. I noticed you helped start a company called Plateau Photo Tours. Can you tell us more about it and how are these tours dissimilar to others especially when the ones you teach are described as “socially-conscious” ones?
In late 2009 after traveling the Tibetan plateau off and on since 2004 I decided to start a different kind of photography tourism/workshop company. Now, what does that mean? What that means is that we try our hardest to respect the cultures we enter and we try our hardest to give back to the cultures we photograph through relief work and jobs.
We want cultures to benefit from our presence rather than be annoyed by it. Because of that almost all of our employees are locals simply trying to make a living in the industry. We fall into the broad category of ʻeco tourismʼ, but Iʼm not entirely comfortable with that phrase as well.
Beyond that we teach on how to respect and appreciate the cultures we enter -how to be humans first and photographers second. We believe that concept makes for better images and certainly better stories. We want our clients to walk away remembering the actual person rather than a vague recollection based on a photograph. Itʼs about treating them with the same respect weʼd want to see from someone visiting our culture.
So much of the photographic industry is about taking - we take pictures, take stories, take experiences. Well, what do we have to give back? I believe that we should offer something in return to the cultures we photograph. Because of this we strongly advocate sharing a human connection with the people we photography. That manifests itself in many different ways. Some people share stories with their subjects. Some share prints. Some share a meal. Itʼs about respect and giving back when we can.
4. What technical aspect of photography do you find most challenging in your type of work and out of curiosity, what type of gear do you rely to tell your stories?
Where I live and work the light varies wildly - from bright wide open grassland to dim and dark monasteries. Constantly changing filters and ISO based on wildly differing setting within minutes of each other can sometimes be frustrating. Honestly, I think itʼs less of a technical challenge and more of a memory challenge to be in the moment and realize what your settings are and what filter you might have on.
I know that might sound really basic, but conditions are always changing. You could go from needing a super fast lens and a steady hand one minute to literally maxing out your shutter speed at the lowest ISO based on where you are standing.
Again for me, itʼs the challenge of staying in the moment and knowing what gear Iʼm using on the camera and at what setting.
For the purely technical, I rely heavily on my strap system. I use a Black Rapid Double Strap system which allows me to use two bodies - one with a wide lens and one with a mid range zoom on it. That kind of setup is absolutely crucial for me for a lot of reasons. Firstly, I want to be able to spend time with the subject rather than having to fiddle around with gear and so that strap system allows me to have it all ready.
Secondly, I take lotʼs of super light gear. I have a super light 3 Legged Thing travel tripod that does just about everything I could want. I always air on the side of under packing since I know I can be away from home for over a month at a time.
Thirdly, I use some strobes in my work and mix it up a little bit. I carry two light weight battery powered strobes, (usually Nikon SB24ʼs or SB 900s), two super light Manfrotto light stands, and two shoot through umbrellas with me just about everywhere I go. They all pack down really nice so itʼs not really an issue of weight or size with how mobile all those devices are. I love the whole strobist side of things, so these are a must for me.
5. You’ve obviously traveled extensively and have captured amazing stories with your work. Can you share with us a particular photograph that stands out in your mind as the most memorable along with the backstory to it?
Itʼs hard to pick one because every image comes with a story. Nonetheless, on a recent trip I was on, I was camping with some nomads. The great thing about camping near nomads is that they are always so friendly and want to hang out with you. We were there setting up our tents one evening and a few guys on motorcycles drove up to invite us to their tent for diner. We struck up a conversation and about a half hour later I asked if I could take a picture of one of the guys with his young child on board.
It sticks with me for many reasons. Firstly, Iʼm absolutely fascinated by nomad culture. Secondly, it was of a place Iʼll never forget - rolling grasslands with nomad tents everywhere. Mostly though, Iʼm proud of how natural the images came out and how I felt like I had valued the people in the images rather than forced my way as a photographer onto them. I was just happy to be spending time with them and exchanging culture.
They were ecstatic to have their pictures taken and I was happy to know their story and spend time with them. Overall though, It was a project Iʼd been wanting to start in on for a long time and it was one of those rare times where planning, preparation, and luck all come together and the creative gap is overcome.
To read up more on other photographers in the Spotlight Series, check out the dedicated page.