The Digital Adventures

Travel Writer-TW12B

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Chapter 12B

Lessons Learned

One of the most daring writer/photographers I ever worked with was John Everingham. During the war in Vietnam, John was a war photographer who spent much of his time in Laos. When the war began, he wanted to join up, but the recruiting officer in Sydney told him he was too young and to come back when he was old enough. So he went to Vietnam on his own to see what war was all about. From Vietnam, he traveled to Laos. Being Australian, the communist Pathet Lao government permitted him to stay. He found a flat in Vientiane and in time fell in love with a Laotian girl, but when he wanted to take her out of the country he found it was impossible. Laotians could not leave the country. So he decided to smuggle her out by putting her in scuba gear and swimming her underwater beneath the Mekong River to Thailand. There was a problem: she couldn’t swim. Not only could she not swim, but also, she was terrified of water. Somehow, after several attempts, John succeeded in doing the impossible and got her safely to Thailand, only to be arrested by the Thai authorities for illegal entry. John was saved when Hollywood heard about his incredible plight and bought up the movie rights to his story. Fox filmed the movie with Michael Landon playing his role, and also starred Pricilla Presley. Fox messed it up so badly John refuses to see it. I wrote about John and his daring swim in At Home in Asia.

They say you get to know a person best when you travel with him. That was certainly my experience with John Everingham. I had joined him on an assignment on the Australian Outback. We were invited by the Australian government to photograph and write promotional stories. Everything we needed was provided-four-wheel drive vehicles, camping equipment, guides and cooks, and even a helicopter for aerial shots. John asked if I’d like to accompany him on a helicopter jaunt. Certainly, I didn’t mind, but I should have noted this wouldn’t be an ordinary flight when John requested that the pilot take the doors off the helicopter so he could get better shots, which the pilot did. When John had the pilot lean the aircraft far over to one side so that he could get the right angle, and with only a seat belt separating me from the ground below, I knew it was a mistake to trust a photographer. I vowed no more helicopter trips with John. But still, I didn’t learn. Next we went into the bush in Kakadu where John saw a shot he wanted out in a marsh. He rushed forth, wading in water up to his waist. He paid no attention, even after I warned him about the sign that said:


John has a successful art studio in Bangkok and is a successful publisher of several fine magazines-Phuket Magazine, Tropical Homes, Southeast Asia Yachting-but still does his thing with his camera. Everyone in Bangkok was quite surprised when John was commissioned by National Geographic to photograph his Australia, and to write the text as well. Very seldom do the editors of National Geographic have a person do both, write and photograph. But this time it was different, and for a good reason. John’s forefather arrived in Sydney aboard the very first ship carrying prisoners and exiles from London.

I found I have to choose carefully the photographer I had to travel with. Photographers will go to any extreme to get a photograph, and you may end up in trouble with them, as I did with Willy Metter. Willy was Swiss and I met him in a camera shop in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. He gave me his name card and said if I ever needed a photographer, he was available. He added he’d go anywhere. He sure did, and it cost him his life.

Willy was true to his promise; he’d go anywhere. He joined me on a Jeep trip across the Soviet Union and he signed up as photographer on my Trans World Record Expedition. He didn’t make it all the way around the world, as he couldn’t get along with the others in the expedition, but I did other travels with him throughout Southeast Asia-e-when I could get no one else to go with me. One such trip was in Sarawak on Borneo.

I had a magazine assignment and Willy joined me as photographer. It was not an easy trip. We had to hire Dyak tribesmen in long boats to take us up the Balleh River, a tributary of the Rejang, deep into the interior. Having passed the last longhouse on the river, we had to carry all of our supplies with us. Willy was so demanding with the native porters that one morning we got up to find they had deserted us. We had to make our own way out of the jungle, leaving behind most of our supplies, that which we couldn’t carry.

Willy found his end in Cambodia. He was in Phnom Penh at the wrong time. Unfortunately he had the idea that he was Swiss, from a neutral country, and no harm could befall him. He was wrong. We heard later he was bound with his hands behind his back and executed. Being Swiss didn’t help him.

That said, the fact remains, there are times when I don’t want to travel with a photographer. Fine. But what’s the alternative? The only other choice I have is to take my own pictures. If it’s a simple travel piece or a destination story, with all the modern digital cameras available these days, it’s easy to do. If it’s a glossy picture layout for a top magazine, that’s something else. That takes real skill.

When I do interviews, taking photos can be quite difficult. Interviewing a person takes concentration. I must give the person interviewed my full attention. It is disconcerting to be asking a person questions and at the same time wondering what angle would be best for a photograph. I find it best to concentrate on the interview and take photographs afterwards, when the tension is over.

It’s difficult to be both, writer and photographer. It’s like being a one-man band. It’s fascinating to watch and to listen to a one-man band, but you can be certain the music you hear is not going to be Heifitz or Mendelssohn. Editors for some reason don’t think of writers as photographers or that photographers can write. National Geographic with John Everingham was an exception. I may hear an editor say he likes my story, and in the next breath he asks if I have photographs. No photographs, no story.

When I asked Peter Stackpole his advice on taking photographs, he advised me to take as many photographs as I could and never to be spare on film. My concern back then, of course, was the expense of taking extra film and film developing costs. With the new digital cameras, that is no longer a concern. However, I still like to use a film camera, and I try not to economize on film. Actually, film is the least of one’s expenses when traveling. Twenty years ago, that was hard advice to give to beginning photographers. For National Geographic, when on assignment, Mike Yamashita shoots several hundred rolls of film. When I was working with Hans Hoefer for Insight Guides, Hans shot so much film he found it cheaper to open his own film-developing laboratory in Singapore.

Many magazines still like film. If I am on a trip and on a tight budget, I cut expenses but I don’t cut down on film. I try getting a cheaper room, or eat less.

One doesn’t have to be an Eddie Adams, who was awarded Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, to get good pictures. Kate Ingold, the daughter of my book publisher in California, is a good example. She was coming to Bangkok and wanted to take the train to Singapore. To oblige my editor I offered to be her guide and chaperon. She was keen on photography. She had a fancy new camera that was fully automatic and she snapped at everything. I mean everything, that which moved and that which didn’t. She just aimed and snapped. Sometimes she didn’t even aim. It was most annoying when h didn’t care if there were things cluttering up her foreground. I wanted to tell her, to give her some advice, but I thought better of it. I didn’t want my publisher to get upset with me. Let her waste her film. In Singapore she had the film developed. It was remarkable. Every photo she took was good. I mean everyone. She got shots I never imagined would tum out. I realized at that moment I had been wrong; she had an eye for a good picture. After that experience I refrain from telling people what to shoot and what not to shoot.

During the war in Vietnam, I took on the assignment of war correspondent for the Bangkok World and made a dozen or more trips to the war zones. I met many very good and courageous war photographers. They had to be to get the photos editors wanted. While journalists could sit in the bars and clubhouses on hotel rooftops in Saigon and interview soldiers and Marines back from the field photographers had to show their mettle and follow these GIs into the fight. They had no other choice. Kurt Rolfes was one. He could take pictures under the most unusual circumstances, like when being fired upon. He has one photograph which shows a close-up shot of him stroking his handlebar moustache with one hand and holding up his telephoto lens in the other. The lens has a hole in it that stopped the bullet that was aimed for him. Later, after the war, I made a number of trips with Kurt into the Malay rain forests. Like Kate, he snapped photos quick and fast. Milt Machlin, the editor of Argosy, told me when Kurt sent in his photos for publication: he always had a difficult decision to make. It was not which photo to choose; it was which photo to reject. Milt said every one of Kurt’s photos was suitable for publication.

Not all photographers are difficult to work with. Robert Stedman is fun traveling with. He is a keen observer of the environment and very knowledgeable about the areas in which we travel. But more than anything, he is a teacher. He discusses the photos as he takes them. I can’t help learning about light and shadows, and what makes a good photo. Working with him in his studio in Singapore is an experience. Robert is one of the highest paid photographers in Asia yet he will tum down an assignment simply to make a trip that interests him, with little or no monetary rewards.

I try not to interfere with photographers when I travel with them. To do this I have to keep focused on my own mission, and that is to write. It helps when I remind myself what editors want, and it’s editors who buy my work.

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