The Restless Wanderer
Samira Sukhija speaks to traveller, writer and photographer Steve Davey on how he successfully created a career from a lifestyle.
This story was originally published in September 2009.
Tibet has amazing landscapes and cultures. Ethiopia is one of the most fascinating countries and “much maligned by people who think it is a watchword for famine and disaster”. India has truly colourful festivals. The Easter Island in Rapa Nui is a “remarkably interesting and hauntingly remote island”. Jungfrau in Switzerland is beautiful and accessible and the “Alps are stunning as a whole”. Svalbard, an archipelago in the Norwegian Arctic, “is a tremendous place for seeing polar bears and deserted locations”. When Steve Davey reflects back on his personal favourite travel destinations as a photographer, the mind reels with just how many places there are in this world—only waiting to be discovered by the camera. Read ahead to be inspired by the author of Unforgettable Places To See Before You Die, Intrepid Journeys, and the recently launched Footprint Travel Photography.
“A Constant Restless Spirit”
Steve has been into photography since school, and has always been interested in travelling. When he left college he “just started mooching around taking pictures”. The twist in the tale came when he travelled to some great places and tried to sell the pictures—he realised he needed words to go with them. “I developed my writing skills. I always read a lot, and was telling stories to people all the time. It seemed like a natural progression”, he elaborates.
“I get bored photographing endless monuments. I am more interested in people and how they interact with places.”
Most of Steve’s time is spent on the road; though it varies with the kind of assignment he is on. “If I am shooting a major book like the BBC’s Unforgettable Islands it can take as long as eight months to a year”, he says. It was during the making of this book that he and his partner conceived their first child, Amber Sashi, and since then he has cut back on travel to some extent. Earlier, it was a chance for his partner to have some time to herself. “Now when I am away, she is a single mother, which is always tough! But, Amber has just turned two, and is beginning to get old enough for travel to be an adventure rather than her just being baggage!”
Travel and Photography
Steve says that he is not a good sightseer. “I get bored with having to photograph endless monuments. I am more interested by people and how they interact with places. I love seeing the mechanics of how a place works and also the chaos when it doesn’t, or almost doesn’t”, he elaborates. “I do a fair bit of research into a place to help with shooting, but I have learned not to have too many preconceived ideas. Places never match up to these ideas. And sometimes that can come between you and the enjoyment and appreciation of a place.”
Steve also explains that the kind of photographs one gets depends on the photographer. “I have a low boredom threshold and I love the thrill of new places, people and things! If you are the sort of person who likes spending time in a place and can be meticulous, then arrange trips that give you more opportunity.” He recalls how he once teamed up with a friend who had a private pilot’s licence, and they hired a beaten-up wing plane and flew around five countries in Southern Africa, for assignments for a range of magazines.
The two biggest challenges of travel photography, according to Steve, are the weather and getting your gear into the right place at the right time. He adds that both can be mitigated with experience. “Firstly, you get tough over the years, and get used to a lot of travelling. You build routines, and kit lists are honed over time to be comprehensive as well as compact”. Weather can also be dealt with by using a shooting style that develops with experience. “If you have the skill then you can still come away with good shots, whatever the weather. Like for the UK cover of my first book was shot on an overcast day in Rio! I used a telephoto lens, shot into the light, and came away with a great image!”
Clichés and Personal Style
It is hard to avoid the clichés when doing travel photography. But it is probably tougher to be original. I asked Steve about what makes a photograph a ‘Steve Davey photograph’? “Clichés can be valuable images to capture as well. When I lead photo tours, I always tell people to not avoid the classic shots. It would be dumb to go all the way to India and miss that classic shot of the Taj Mahal. But, what you should try to do is to take a different shot of it as well. I guess this is a part of how I get shots that are more than clichés—by trying to!”
For Steve, a great travel picture happens when one rises above the purely representational. It should be original; something people would not have seen before, just as long as it does not look contrived. He enjoys interacting with people on his travels and approaches them so that they relate to him and who he is. “Combining objects or people in the frame gives a greater meaning to photographs”, he elaborates.
“One way to rise above the purely representational is to combine objects or people in the frame to give a greater meaning.”
New Experiences, New People
Steve shares that some of the most beautiful moments happen on the road. Sleeping under the stars at the remote Kubu Island in Botswana, an ancient granite island on the Makgadikgadi Pan, looking around for polar bears in the snowy wasteland of the high Arctic are experiences he is not likely to forget. The people he has met on the road have also provided him with amazing memories. He remembers the land divers in Pentecost Island of Vanuatu who jumped from high towers secured only by vines tied to their ankles. “It would be a brave thing to do anywhere, but doing it many hours from the nearest hospital is incredible.”
A Complete Package
The growth of the travel photography industry has been huge, also because digital photography has taken off in a big way. “Unfortunately people’s knowledge lags behind their equipment. They get frustrated as to why they are disappointed with their pictures.” This prompted him to write Travel Photography, which he pitched to Footprint Publishing. He is also putting together a range of travel photography tours in conjunction with Intrepid Travel (the co-sponsors) and setting up a companion website to go with the book.
“The real thing is to have a good idea. It sounds obvious, but it is the idea that will sell anything. Ask yourself why anyone would give you work. If you can’t think of a reason, then why would potential clients? Unique Selling Point (USP) has become a bit of a buzz word, but in truth, you really do need one!” The success of Unforgettable Places is also a great benchmark—the UK edition sold over 300,000 copies, and there are 30 overseas editions. “It was actually BBC’s concept. They were looking for someone who could write, take pictures and had the links with the travel industry to pull the job off. There are probably better photographers, certainly better writers, but few people can do the whole package so well.”
Tips by Steve
• Stop and think. Do not just be blown away by a place.
• Do not rely on your camera to think for you. Use technical knowledge to make your pictures stand out.
• Be critical of your own work. • Enjoy what you do. Your thirst for life will show in your pictures.
London-based Steve is insanely optimistic and believes that the best of life is always in front of him. His next dream destinations are Bhutan, Ladakh and Antarctica—a list that will probably change soon! He has authored several books and his work has been published in magazines and newspapers all over the world.