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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Fix(er) Is In


Having a local resource to help you plan your photo travel can be a lifesaver

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Photo Traveler - The Fix(er) Is In
Nazarenes from the Brotherhood of El Santo Sepulcro make their way through the Mezquita Cathedral during a Good Friday procession in Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain.
It’s Holy Week in Seville, Spain, and I’m sardined shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people, waiting for one of the city’s famed religious processions to begin. The crowd is so tight that I’m sometimes not even able to get a full, deep breath without carving out some space for my rib cage with my elbows! This is a claustrophobic’s nightmare, and it’s no picnic for a photographer either.

My current predicament didn’t arise from a lack of planning. I arrived an hour and a half early, staked out my spot right opposite the church doors where the procession would start, and was prepared and ready. I was able to hold my ground until a last-minute crush of dozens of people just jammed themselves in between me and the church.

When the procession started, I was forced up against a garage door and reduced to shooting “Hail Marys”—no-look pictures with the camera held above my head (thank goodness for the D300’s new Live View feature)—trying to clear a crowd full of people doing the same thing with their cell phone cameras!

That’s it. I had hoped to handle this assignment by myself, but clearly, I needed some help. So through the tourist office, I arranged to hire a guide for the next night in Cordoba, a nearby city that was my next stop. I asked for a guide who might have good connections with the church or the brotherhoods that do the processions in order to try to get some easier access.

Luckily, Juan, the man recommended by the tourist board, was a friend of the bishop. So, instead of standing outside in a mob of onlookers, he had “fixed” it for me to be inside the church, able to roam and get pictures of the hooded penitents as they prepare to march and light the candles on the statues they will carry.

Professional travel photographers and photojournalists know only too well that, in order to get closer to the people and culture, you sometimes need a “fixer.” A fixer is a guide/translator/photo assistant type of person who can help overcome the barriers of language, strange surroundings and unfamiliar logistics.

A good fixer will help you track down and make much more interesting, insightful photographs. But a private guide or fixer can be expensive, and that’s why most travel, especially overseas, is done in groups with a tour guide. The cost of the guide is spread out among the group, but unfortunately, it’s also in a group where the “cocooning” of tourism kicks in.

A photo tour is a popular way of going someplace with a knowledgeable guide/photographer, and it can be a great way to improve your photographic skills, as well as get great images along the way. But a steady diet of group travel like this sometimes prevents you from interacting with the local culture—you’re eating, traveling and spending most of your time with folks just like you. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it can be a lot of fun. But I’ve found that my most authentic travel experiences, and hence my strongest travel photographs, have come when I’m on my own, or with one of my family, and working with a local fixer one-on-one.

Fortunately, there are ways around the cost obstacle besides joining a group tour. Check with the tourist board of the country you’re going to visit to see if they have a “people-to-people” program. These programs set you up with an English-speaking local who may even share your interest in photography. You usually spend time with this person’s family and visit their home. It’s a wonderful icebreaker. I’ve made several lifelong friends whom I first met in these types of programs. They also took me to places and introduced me to people in their countries that I never could have found by myself.

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