It’s critical for a photographer’s long term success and passion to shoot outside of their paid work. One of the best ways to do this is to go somewhere you’ve never been before. For me, this was going to India for a month with only a Canon 5D Classic.
Right before we started down the path of having kids, Robin, my wife, and I, along with one of our good friends headed to Mumbai, India, with literally no itinerary except a return date. Upon landing in Mumbai at midnight, we were immediately thrown into the sights, sounds, smells and masses of people at and around the airport.
It was exciting and terrifying in equal measure. We went to India only a few weeks after a terrible terrorism attack in Mumbai (we had bought our tickets months in advance) and because of this, we were some of the only tourists in a city of 12 million.
Soldiers patrol the area around the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, India. By Kirk Mastin, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 160 preset
I saw military on every corner, and fliers stuck to buildings and telephone poles demanding justice against the terrorists. It was an intense atmosphere. But despite the gruesome attack, the city was bustling and nearly everyone I met was incredibly friendly and positive.
Mumbai, India. By Kirk Mastin, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 400 preset
I spent the next month in India traveling from Bombay to southern Goa, and then over to Chennai and Pondicherry. It was a fantastic experience and some of the photos I took went on to be published in books and magazines worldwide. One photo was even accepted into a traveling fundraising exhibit that included some of my photography heroes from National Geographic.
The trip was expensive. I figure I spent about $3,000 total, but the experience was incredible and the photos I took would later sell as stock photography over the next 7 years and make well over what it cost for the trip.
Woman wading in the water at Marin Beach in Chennai, India. This photo would later be used in a traveling exhibition to raise money for women’s rights. By Kirk Mastin, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 800 preset
Travel Tips for Photographers
1. Take as little gear as possible.
I’m a firm believer in less is more. When packing for India I wanted to EXPERIENCE my trip and not worry about transporting, packing and unpacking, and protecting my belongings. You really don’t need much gear, and in retrospec, I could have taken even less gear. Everything I brought, including clothing, fit in a ratty old JanSport backpack. The kind you take your school books in. I also figured that if I needed anything I could buy it in India.
By packing light, I had more energy and could shoot even while wearing my backpack. I barely even noticed it.
Taxi ride through Chennai, India. By Kirk Mastin, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 400 preset
2. Keep your schedule open.
It’s tempting to plan everything out ahead of time, especially with an excellent guidebook like the Lonely Planet Series. But over time, and many trips, I realized that by following a guidebook you get set on a tourist path, and you rarely get to experience the real part of the country you are visiting. Following a guidebook can be costly and dangerous as well. On a trip through Brazil in 2001, I followed the natural path set out by Lonely Planet, and I ended up getting things stolen from my hostel (because the local thieves know they will have a steady stream of naive tourists,) paying more than twice what I should for food or lodging (again because locals know they have an endless stream of tourists,) and even getting mugged (there was a big shakedown that happened to me immediately outside of the bus stop in Salvador de Bahia, and I witnessed it happening to almost every busload dropped off at the same tourist spot.) I literally threw my copy of Lonely Planet into the ocean in Brazil (sorry for littering) because I didn’t want anyone else to follow the same terrible route as I had. Since Brazil my new plan is to land in a major city, and then ask locals, what the next best place is to travel to from there. And so on. trust me, it is 1000 better.
My fixer who helped me get incredible photos around Mumbai. By Kirk Mastin, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 400 preset
3. Hire a fixer.
What is a ‘fixer?’ In the photojournalism world, it is a local in the town you are in, that knows everyone and can get you ACCESS to whatever you want to photograph. As a former photojournalist, I used fixers on occasion to make it easier and faster to shoot a story. As a traveling photographer, I still use them to make my time photographing much more efficient. You can find fixers online, or you can do as I do, and ask a tour guide to act as your fixer instead of going on a normal tourist route. You will have to have some idea of what you want to shoot, but your fixer should be able to get you into almost any place you want and introduce you to local people if necessary, to facilitate photography.
Man repairing a wooden boat in Mumbai, India. By Kirk Mastin, edited with Mastin Labs Delta 3200 preset
4. Be humble and polite.
This is pretty self-explanatory, but for those that have not traveled much outside of their own country, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be respectful to the people you meet. Remember, you are a guest in their country, and you represent all tourists that come after you. What is interesting to you is just normal life to the local, and just try to imagine if the situation is reversed. Imagine a tourist getting into YOUR life and business trying to get photos.
Of course, you want to be asked permission. And most of the time it would even feel flattering if a tourist wanted to capture something interesting about your life. But just remember that it is also important to put the camera down if the person you want to photograph is not into it. If you don’t you are violating that person’s privacy and no photo is worth that. A simple nod or smile is often enough to determine if it’s ok to shoot.
Marketplace in Mumbai, India. By Kirk Mastin, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 400 preset
6. Embrace the chaos.
Some places are just straight up chaotic. ON the chaos scale Seattle is about a 1 or 2, with people pretty much staying to themselves. India? I think an 11 out of 10 is accurate. It takes a while to get used to. But man oh man, getting outside of your own comfort zone is so rewarding. For example, in a small temple outside of Chennai, a little boy came up to me and offered to be my guide for $5.
Normally I would politely say that I’m not interested but instead I was like what the heck, why not! This little, kid, no older than 7 or 8, proceeded to take us deep inside a very sacred temple, helping us do every offering necessary to get all the way to an inner sanctum, and cave deep within the mountain, where a blind guru was blessing local villagers who were offering what looked like wrapped coconuts to him through the steam created by so many bodies packed into a hot tiny cave. I did not take a single picture. It just felt wrong to do so. But the experience is vivid in my mind and I will cherish it always.
Blessing from Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth and beauty) in Pondicherry, India. By Kirk Mastin, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 400 preset
7. Just do it!
Most photographers get into a rut with what they need to shoot in order to make a living. If there is one thing I can say throughout my 20-year career, it is to break out of this rut and force yourself to experience something new. These experiences will both transform and inspire your client's work, and keep you passionate about photography.