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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 Japanese geisha, Tokyo, Japan.
Some U.S.-based camera clubs and photographic associations have rosters of affiliated clubs in other countries with English-speaking members who volunteer to act as guides for visiting photographers. For instance, if you’re a member of the Photographic Society of America (PSA), it has a program called Travel Aides. These volunteer members are willing to share their expertise about their home areas, either by providing research or even accompanying you when you’re there.

Professional organizations like Editorial Photographers or ASMP with international memberships also can be mined for possible local fixers with an interest in photography. Although they don’t have an organized program like PSA, you often can get lucky just by contacting a fellow member via e-mail or phone and asking to pick his or her brain.

This is a great and very inexpensive way to tap into local expertise. The Internet, in general, has been a huge boon to international photographic relations. Become a member of one or more of the travel photography bulletin boards and forums on the Internet, and you’re already in the company of fellow shooters from all over the world. Try to track down members in the area you’re going to visit or post an inquiry to ask if anyone has any recommendations for guides or photo ops not to be missed.

The thing to avoid when doing any of this research, though, is to put the brunt of the work on the shoulders of the local. I’ve seen too many postings on forums (most with few, if any, replies) that go something like this: “Going to India. What shouldn’t I miss?” If you can’t be bothered to do more than buy an airline ticket, why should somebody else do your research for you?

So the more specific your query, the better. For instance, a question more along the lines of “Going to Cochin, India, in early April and interested in photographing Kathakali dancers. Can anyone recommend a good venue for this?” Now, it’s more of a bite-sized query, something that someone can answer briefly in an e-mail.

Some of the best “fixers” I’ve ever worked with were university students. In places from France to Japan, I’ve been able to track down English-speaking students who were enthusiastic, knowledgeable guides and worked for the price of lunch, bus fare and the chance to practice their English and show off their country. I found these students by first talking to the tourist board and getting contact information for professors in the art, journalism or photography departments of the local university. I explained my assignment and asked if there were any students who would be interested in picking up some photographic knowledge and a few bucks accompanying a photographer.

Sometimes you can’t track down a “fixer” in advance. No problem, you just have to keep your eyes open once you arrive. I usually start by visiting the local tourist office to ask about volunteer guides. But a particularly helpful bellhop or taxi driver who’s willing to work with you on his off-hours may do the trick as well. For photography, it’s not so important that your guide know all the history of the destination, but that he or she understands what you’re after and has a way with people.

On assignment on the island of Gozo in Malta for National Geographic Magazine, I went through three “official” guides from the tourist office who were walking encyclopedias of the country’s history, but were so academic and intellectual that they were unable to connect me with the real people in the street.

Finally, in a coffee shop, I struck up a conversation with Tony, a retired policeman. He was so friendly and everybody knew him. The first place he brought me was the first communion dinner of a family he  knew. It was a great photo op, and after that he took me to local bars and football clubs, where we were always welcomed with open arms, and I was able to shoot slices of real life that otherwise would have remained hidden. Another game won because the fixer was in!

Bob Krist is speaking for Outdoor Photographer with Nikon and Epson in three U.S. cities this year. For more information, log on to www.opseminar.com. For a complete schedule of Bob Krist’s workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com, under the "Teach and Talk" heading.


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