Why I’m Dropping Everything to Photograph a River

Fishermen prepare to offload their catches onto waiting trucks in the village of Kampong Luong.

Fishermen prepare to offload their catches onto waiting trucks in the village of Kampong Luong, Cambodia.

“When you work fast, what you put in your pictures is what you brought with you — your own ideas and concepts. When you spend more time on a project, you learn to understand your subjects. There comes a time when it is not you who is taking the pictures. Something special happens between the photographer and the people he is photographing. He realizes that they are giving the pictures to him.” – Sebastiao Salgado

The last four years have been a slow, single-minded journey as I worked to establish myself as a photojournalist. While I am, in the grand scheme of this industry, still on the lowest rungs of an endless ladder, I can’t pretend that I haven’t accomplished more or less what I set out to do –  support myself as a professional storyteller. Yet at some point during the desperate battle to stand out from the legions of others trying to break in to the market, and the thankless quest for professional validation through publication, I lost sight of why I wanted to do this job in the first place.

Since nearly every photographer of note has at some point been quoted as saying “photography has been my passport to the world” (or something along those lines) I will spare you the cliche, but photography, for me, has never been about the desire to create images. My decision to drop out of a post-graduate program and pursue documentary photography full time was motivated not by a lofty artistic vision about light and tones and textures, but by the rather selfish desire to see interesting places and meet people.

Though I wish I had some prodigious story of learning to develop prints in my father’s darkroom as a young boy, in reality I had already been traveling for nearly half a decade before I learned how to properly expose an image.  Photography, and its ability to communicate the unknown to a far away audience, appealed to me more as a convenient way to support a nomadic lifestyle than a creative calling.

In my naiveté about all things photographic, I assumed that as long as I bought an expensive enough camera and brought it with me as I traveled in Africa or Asia, good pictures would come – followed inevitably by fame and fortune. I vividly remember the feeling of confidence I had after submitting head shots of Himba tribespeople in Namibia to National Geographic that were, in retrospect, nothing short of a disaster. When it became clear the editors were not planning to respond, it started to dawn on me that perhaps I would have to put some effort into developing my craft before anyone started taking me seriously.

And to my credit, I did start to apply myself – so vigorously in fact that I spent my life savings twice before seeing a single one of my pictures in print.  I went from being someone who travelled with a camera to someone who travelled for my camera, so determined was I to break through the barrier separating amateur from professional. Though it seemed utterly hopeless for nearly four years, when I did finally catch my big break things suddenly began to move very quickly. I found I had more work than I could sanely handle, and I was getting relatively high paying international jobs for clients I was proud to have my name associated with.

Yet somewhere along the way I discovered that, while I had achieved more than I really expected in a professional capacity, I lost sight of the amazing opportunities photography provides to learn about the world. It got to the point that if I didn’t think I could sell a story, I wouldn’t bother exploring it. I began to think of my work in terms of a marketable product that had little value if it did not add to my tear sheet collection, which in turn led to pursuing fewer and fewer personal projects – ultimately culminating in the least productive period of my photographic career. Over a few short years I had somehow gone from taking pictures seven days a week, simply for the sake of engaging with the world, to sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.

Exasperated and terrified by my own stagnation, I wracked my brain for a drastic solution to break free from this toxic creative cycle. Several weeks later, I arrived at an unorthodox conclusion: I should buy a boat and drive it through the interior waterways of Cambodia.

Reactions from my colleagues were mixed. While some supported the idea for what it was (a boyish journey for adventure’s sake), others quietly doubted the rationale for investing a large sum of money into something with little commercial appeal. Since I would not take a translator with me, they reasoned, how could I hope to accurately craft a journalistic narrative that would find a home in the international media? And while my detractors were actually right (I never did sell a single image from the trip), I stuck to the idea until I found others who were either bored or stupid enough to come with me.

I already wrote about the experience of finding and buying a boat, as well as a short recap of the trip, so I won’t go into much depth about the trip itself here. I will just say that it was exactly what I needed at the time, and it reconnected my photography with the innate wanderlust that got me into this profession in the first place. Though I took an average of less than 20 picture per day over the three week trip, they were images that I enjoyed making – the first such images I had produced in far too long. For me, that was the win. Beyond that, I was quite content for the pictures to occupy a small space on my personal blog and nothing more. I pitched no one and expected nothing in return. For all intents and purposes, the voyage had served its function as a creative catalyst and I was ready to move on.

Months later, however, while on an unrelated assignment documenting maternal health initiatives in Nepal and Bangladesh, it came as quite a surprise to find an email in my inbox inquiring about the possibility of a partnership for the project. The message was vague, explaining very little about what exactly this partnership would entail, and in honesty I was too skeptical to be very excited. Realistically, I reasoned from experience, requests like this most often do not develop past an individual or organization asking to use material for free in exchange for “exposure”. So I responded politely asking for more information and put the idea out of my mind as being unlikely to amount to much.

But when I received a reply almost immediately asking to arrange a time to speak on the phone to discuss possible contractual details, my interest piqued. People who want something for nothing generally do not bring contracts into the equation. Or pay for long distance phone calls.

Over the following days our correspondence continued, erratic and fragmented as it was by my hectic production schedule, exacerbated by South Asia’s often unreliable internet connections and power outages. With each passing email, my excitement grew and I started to send a barrage of online messages to the boat’s co-owner and co-pilot, South African photographer Gareth Bright, hinting that something might be happening.

As I write this, more than a month after that first email, it has become clear that something is indeed happening – and it will almost certainly become the most important undertaking of my nascent career.

I’m intentionally leaving the specifics of the project unclear, as it will be the subject of dozens, if not hundreds of upcoming posts, but in a nutshell: Gareth and I will spend virtually all of 2015 documenting the entirety of the Mekong river, from Vietnam to China through Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). I plan on setting aside time for a select few clients, but otherwise the entire year belongs to the river. As flexible a project description as I could ever imagine, we have been given complete freedom to form our own itinerary with zero obligation to highlight any cause or agenda other than telling the river’s human stories with honesty.

In the spirit of how this project got started, we have elected to spend the entire project budget on travel, only paying ourselves enough to cover rent and utilities. Though we may curse ourselves for this decision when we are financially unable to treat our girlfriends to dinner, we both agree that the spirit of the project is one of creative exploration rather than monetary gain. We bought the boat to recapture something we had both lost during the hustle of trying to carve out a niche in the professional photography world, and I don’t think we could have faced ourselves in the mirror had we sold that out.

While the administrative tedium associated with researching, budgeting, and organizing a project of this scale has been an exercise in patience, the idea of recapturing the essence of why I wanted to become a photographer in the first place has been more than enough to make the headaches worthwhile.

In the words of Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, “The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong.” Here’s to not belonging.

Production of this project will start in March, 2015. We will start releasing preproduction material in the next few weeks, as well as launch the official project web site. Stay tuned.

– LF. Phnom Penh, 2015.

This entry was posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River and tagged , , , , , , .

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