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.
|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.