Finding the ways to fill the time
As some readers of this blog, or Where Next Japan, may remember, in 2012 I met and interviewed pro-photographer Akasaka Tomosaki in Osaka on how to become a better photographer. Akasaka’s advice was inspiring, yet practical – easy to adopt by amateurs hoping to become more.
Recently, I met a man who had been a National Geographic photographer from 1992-95. The epitome of a dream. An insight on the best job in travel journalism. A man who mid-way through the conversation I realised I despised, even while I admired the breadth of his knowledge and his dedication to travel.
Early on, I knew this was no Akasaka interview. This man hated everything digital, the only format I’ve ever shot in. Advice on becoming a better photographer: take good pictures. Advice on becoming a National Geographic photographer: Take photos no one has ever seen.
Photographing what white men had never seen was his point of pride. It drove his determination to go into countries, and stay there not caring if he had a visa, or the length of the ones he was given. Many of my questions about specific countries were answered with accounts of how he got in: Through Tibet by sleeping overnight in a toilet, and then by hiding with some local monks. Now no bus, they fly you to Lhasa, because nothing there to see. Through Vietnam by fighting his way onto a bus, refusing to pay the inflated tourist prices. Nothing in Vietnam worth seeing. Go to Laos. Through Bhutan under cover of night, only to be caught and put in a Bhutanese jails for 2 weeks. Bhutan people are very greedy, only think about money.
When not describing forging visas, he described the locals. His greatest disdain was reserved for the Chinese and the Turks. The former all cheat, it’s in their blood, while I can’t/won’t repeat his comments on the Turks. Tibetans he described as: animals, even worse than the Chinese. They had thrown stones at him. Why? Because I am the only one to take photos of the Sky Burial. Strange that a religious people might be antsy at a dude with a camera photographing their sacred ritual… in front of a DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH sign…
Is that what it takes though to become a National Geographic photographer? He said, how else do you get the photos? One month is not enough, I stay 12. Asking is not enough. Do these shots need to be taken, stolen? In order to get those photos, those rare ones that stop people dead, do you have to lose all cultural awareness and respect for the rules? Disregard too health and safety. Only luck has seen him still alive at 50, after malaria, mudslides, crocodiles and jail cells, after hitching hiking through Pakistan and the ex-Soviet Union, and down the length of Africa.
To have seen as much of the world as he is a worthy goal. In a way, it is better to consider travel unromantically. To be aware, and prepared for the cheats, other tourists, and the dangers or rape and robbery any country has. I can accept these exist (and take steps to avoid them) in order to visit the wealth of the world, take part in its festivities, document (digitally) and share with others.
I cannot follow his example however, for the better and for the worse. I can’t take a border by night, I can’t steal a shot of a sacred moment. Can’t overstay my visa and try and bullshit my way out of it. This probably means I won’t ever see the world as fully as he has. Maybe I will never become a National Geographic photographer.
But I think, I will enjoy it more – and love my Chinese friends, and visit the beautiful country of Turkey. I will explore wherever I am. Japan, he said, is nice, but too safe. The really interesting things are out in the world.
For me, the world is this… here, right now. Everything else is just a dream.