This website has quite a strong focus on photography (no pun intended) and so I suppose I don’t talk quite as much about my early travels. In fact, it was my earlier travels that pushed me into photography. I started to go places- beautiful, interesting, exciting places- which I wanted to be able to communicate to my friends. I decided that photography was an ideal medium to let this happen (and have more-or-less simultaneously developed my travel-writing portfolio to compliment it).
By the time I was eighteen I had already visited over fifteen countries (as far as I can recall). On the one hand I think I knew that that was quite a lot compared to your average eighteen-year-old, and yet given the context I grew up in (the international community of Geneva, Switzerland) I felt fairly average in my travel experience. In some ways, I was seriously deficient, in that the entirety of my third-world travel was summed up by one night in Bangkok (Chess, anyone?), and by living vicariously through my parents’ tales (and slide-shows) of living in Peru, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the 1970s, before I was born. That my Dad could not cite with any degree of confidence the number of countries he had visited towards the end of his career with the World Health Organization didn’t help. Meanwhile many of my own friends had spent years living in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
My parents’ slide-shows and stories were more than a little influential in my development, of course, and I can remember them well. I don’t doubt they contributed to my branching into photography, as well. While Afghanistan was still a grey spot on geography text-books at school throughout the eighties and nineties, for me it was a place I desperately wanted to visit, and when it suddenly jumped to the tip of everybody’s tongue after late 2001, I felt terribly disappointed that my own personal Shangri-La had become uber-chic to talk about. I still haven’t made it there yet (unlike a very large number of my friends and colleagues today) and this irks me greatly.
Not so my parents, who are quite content that I keep my distance for the time-being. They would not be thrilled with me if I decided to retrace their own footsteps through the Khyber Pass, which was a dodgy enough prospect when they drove it in ’77. But the way I see it, I’m a product of my own parents, so what can they expect?
I realise when I have kids of my own I will rue these words.
Given that from my middle teens I knew I wanted to work in developing countries, it was pretty clear I needed to change my overseas experience. Brief trips to Poland and Turkey expanded my horizons slightly. On the former I shared a queen-sized bed in a tiny hotel room in Warsaw in December with a very large Russian gentleman who snored like a TVR on nitro, while the latter I accompanied my Dad on an all-expenses business junket to Istanbul where we shared a pleasant suite in the Swishotel overlooking the magnificent Bosphorus in crisp springtime air. But neither one was exactly going to cut me out for aid-work.
My first solo trips were to Kenya for 2 months during the summer of 2001, and to Thailand for a similar amount of time a year later. They were both trips rich in experience, joys and hardships, and the knowledge and memories I gained on each have stayed with me over the years. Because I don’t have as many photos from these days, I tend to forget about them when I share my travel stories, but that’s not to say I don’t have some and don’t want to share them. This is just one of the traps of photography. In addition, on both trips I journalled quite extensively. Perhaps I need to revisit the old exercise books and rehash a few of my memories.
My 2001 trip was couched neatly between an early summer trip for my mate’s wedding in Arizona, and a family trip to New Zealand and Fiji. That summer I ended up with photos from the Grand Canyon, the Jura Mountains of Switzerland, the top of Mt. Kenya, bushwalking in Aotearoa’s North Island, sunsets over Fiji beaches, and even several landmarks in downtown Seoul, stolen during an extended lay-over- all up, five continents in the space of four tumultuous and memorable months which I’ve had a hard time matching for pace since (though I try my best…). I travelled with a waterproof Minolta APS camera- that horrendous automatic camera film which stored whether the camera was set to normal, wide or panorama mode and changed the aspect ratio on the resulting prints (but off the same teeny-tiny negative, so picture quality was horrible). I’d fallen in love with the camera hanging out with my buddy Mackie in the Rockies the summer before, where we’d taken some stellar photos of hijinks in the high mountains, boot-skiing and swimming in ice-filled lakes and jumping off canyon walls and generally being idiots. It was a great sports camera. And thoroughly rubbish for landscapes. My Dad took one look at some shots I’d framed of shafts of moody sunlight from the Desert View watchtower on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and firmly pointed out that my photographic eye had exceeded the confines of the camera, and that I needed something better.
Slow to learn, I travelled next year to Thailand with the same camera and a backpack full of film canisters, more determined to take lots of photographs but not fully understanding what could not be done with an automatic film compact. Flat monsoon lighting scuppered virtually every shot I took of hilltop temples, cloud-swathed peaks above the Mekong River, and the Burmese borderlands north and west of Chiang Rai. I came back with three or four photos I liked, plus a handful more I could use to illustrate my masters thesis with, but nothing that was going to win me a Pullitzer.
It was the end of that summer that my Grandfather dug up his old Canon T-70 from some musty bag, film still in place from its last use some time at the end of the 1980s, and stuck it in my hands. I went for a couple of walks around my grandparents’ farm in the English Lake District, shot that single roll of film, had it developed, and landed half a dozen shots I was chuffed with, including three colour-saturated sunsets that must have been graciously developed by the chemist because there was no way that colour was straight out of the air. However it’s a good thing he did, because spurred on by my initial success, I threw myself full-tilt into the hobby, and by Christmas must have dropped three hundred quid in development costs (weren’t those the days, guys?), invested in a set of Cokin filters, and was well on my way to boring everybody I ran into about the joys of photography. I received a simple teach-yourself-photography book for my birthday that year, read it cover-to-cover (the closest thing I’ve had to any training), and haven’t looked back since.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the traits that defines my personality is my love of diversity. I think this is why I like photography- and why I like travel. They’re both open-ended hobbies. You can never get everywhere. And even if you get to a lot of places, those places always change. Nothing’s ever quite the same twice. Likewise with photographs. No two are ever identical. There’s always a new angle on the same subject, or a different play of light, or a variation on the camera settings that lets you do something slightly fresh. It’s quite literally an endless, ceilingless hobby, and each time I think I’m getting somewhere, I realise there’s a whole new level I can take myself to.
Photography isn’t an end in itself. It’s not the meaning in my journey. But it’s certainly a very engaging companion to take along the way.
Photographs (all early attempts with the T-70):
1. Coastal Track: A meandering footpath among yellow flowers at Cape Foulwind, South Island, New Zealand’s most westerly point, November 2002.
2. Dewdrop DoF: Playing with the macro end of the little 35-70mm lens that came with my grandpa’s T-70.
3. Winter Sunset: The 75-300mm Miranda zoom that came with the T-70 catches a cold sunset in the Lake District, December 2002.
4. Lakeland Sunset: Photo scan of a shot from the very first roll of film I shot on the little old SLR, August 2002.
5. Grandpa at Gunamatta: Mid-2003 on an Australian beach.
6. The Sheep: Iconic shot of mobile mutton. Lake District, December 2002.
7. Matterhorn Emerging: September 2002, an early photo-shoot taking a road-trip down to Zermatt from my parents’ place in Geneva for a couple of days. The hut you can see on the near shoulder is where my afternoon’s hiking brought me (after which I missed the last lift back to the valley and had to hike all the way off the mountain again…)