TRAVELING WITH PHOTOGRAPHERS
The Good and the Bad
The one thing I don’t like about travel writing is the need to take pictures. That doesn’t mean I dislike taking pictures, for I do. I have on file more than one hundred thousand photographs I have taken over the years. No, it’s the combining of the two, writing and photographing that is troublesome and annoying. For certain, travel writers need photographs. Editors of most publications want photographs to go along with the articles. There’s hardly a travel story which isn’t illustrated. What to do?
Those writers who are not photographers have a real problem. It means they have to take a photographer along with them when they are on an assignment. Often the editor will assign a photographer. I prefer giving an editor my text and let him send a photographer out to take the photos. It’s understood then that the editor pays the photographer for his or her work. No problem there. But problems do arise when it comes to sharing payments with photographers. It can become ugly. The question is: who is worth what? How do we determine who gets paid and for what? Split it down the middle? Sounds fair, but it’s not, not from the writer’s point of view.
I am one who queries editors first to get assignments. I do the groundwork, all the research and finally burn the midnight oil writing the articles. The photographer gets his briefing from me, shoots the pictures, gives them to the editor, and then asks what’s taking me so long to write the story. This is a complaint between writers and photographers that never ceases to end.
The most difficult photographers to work with are beginners. I don’t know why but they are usually prima donnas, know-it-all, you can’t tell me. They hate taking orders. Professionals are much easier to work with. When I got that assignment from Argosy to do a story on Quinn’s Bar in Tahiti, I thought I might be able to do the photographs on my own, but in the end I failed to give the editor what he wanted. He then gave the photography assignment to Peter Stackpole. Peter was one of the original photographers for Life when the magazine first went into print 1935. Who could be more professional than Peter Stackpole? When he arrived in Tahiti, I was anxiously waiting for him. He had but twenty-four hours. “Not much time,” I said. l was, naturally, concerned. I had spent several days trying to get photos and hadn’t succeeded. I had learned that to take photos of boisterous drinkers in a dimly lit bar is far from easy.
“More than enough time,” Peter assured me. We sat in Viama’s Street Cafe waiting for Quinn’s to fill up, and I was getting more and more nervous by the minute. Finally the time came. He handed me a remote strobe flash with instructions to keep at a distance but always keep it pointed to wherever he was aiming his camera. I was sure the rowdy gang of carousers in Quinn’s would douse us with beer, or worse yet, hit me over the head with a Hinano beer bottle and smash Peter’s cameras. Taking photos in any bar is hard enough to do but in Quinn’s it was close to impossible. But Peter was no neophyte. He knew what he was doing. He shot one roll of film, took it out of his camera and handed to me. “Send this to the editor,” he said calmly. “He’s waiting.”
“You mean that’s all! Aren’t you going to shoot more?” I pleaded.
“What for,” he said, a statement not a question. ”Now let’s buy some Hinano beer and dance with some of these lovely vahines.” We drank buckets of Hinano and danced with every vahine who was willing to dance, and the next day, Peter left Tahiti. I posted the roll of film and waited. What an agonizing wait. Two weeks, later Milt Machlin, the editor of Argosy, wrote back and said the photos were fine. The photos were fine! Was that all? Not great, nor superb, just fine? Months later when I got to talk to Milt in person, be said every photo that Peter took was useable. That is what is meant by confidence, and it comes with experience.
Another fine photographer I worked with was Mike Yamashita, a Japanese American I came to know quite well. His is a story of determination that applies to writing as well as to photography. Aside from being a top-notch photographer, he has written some very fine books.
Mike wanted to be a photographer and figured the best place to start was Southeast Asia. At the time I was outfitting my schooner in a small klong south of Bangkok, preparing for a voyage to Singapore and then across the Pacific to Tahiti. Mike heard I was a writer and thought I might be able to give him some leads. He appeared at the dock one afternoon, with his heavy camera bag slung over one shoulder. I invited him aboard.
Under the awning on the aft deck, we had coffee, and Mike told me his story. He was part of the system-married to a prim and proper young Japanese lady with a father who wanted him to enter the family business. But Mike’s only interest was photography. His father went along with him, thinking after a few months Mile would come back to the fold. He gave his son a year to prove himself. Against the wishes of his wife, Mike gave up his job and fancy apartment and set out to be a photographer. His wife was not happy. That was when he came to Bangkok.
Mike was convincing, and I signed him on as a crew-member to Singapore. In the meantime, I had a few writing magazine assignments, and Mike offered to take the photographs. He sold one of his first photographs to one English-language magazine in Bangkok for 300 baht, the equivalent of US$12. It wasn’t something he could write home about, but he was proud of his first sale.
Mike labored all day with us on the schooner and, at night, be worked at his photography. He studied books and magazines on photography. He cleaned and re-cleaned his cameras and fiddled with lenses and filters. I believe be even took his cameras to bed with him. Mike worked harder than anyone on the schooner. He was keen on painting the decks and keeping the rigging neat. When I asked him why all the effort, he simply said a neat ship makes for better pictures.
When we arrived in Singapore, I had an invitation from the Chief Game Warden of Malaysia to join him and his rangers on an expedition in search of the last of the one-horned rhino. When Mike beard he wanted to go too. The warden agreed and we spent a month in the jungle, tracking the rhino. Mike adjusted to rugged jungle life quickly and came back with some remarkable photos.
Mike was quick to take advantage of every opportunity that presented itself. We were on a flight from Honolulu to Bangkok when the B-747 developed engine trouble and we bad to return to Honolulu. While passengers began to panic, Mike took down his camera bag from the rack above and began assembling his Nikon underwater camera. “Just in case,” he said calmly.
Mike’s assignments became longer and more difficult. His marriage ended and there was no keeping him back now. And what exciting assignments he bad. Every time he passed through Bangkok, we had dinner together. He had remarried, and has a grand house in New Jersey and an apartment in New York City. Over the years, I visited him both at his home and at his apartment. He always has some exciting tales to tell, about things like covering the Hong Kong handover, Indonesian fires, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Vermont’s four seasons, South China Sea, New Zealand’s South Island, sailing a square rigger, Tuscany in Italy and many more.
In his travels, Mike became interested in the travels of Marco Polo. Having done more than a dozen assignments for National Geographic, he convinced the editors to let him follow the trail of Marco Polo from Europe to Asia. Mike spent two years following the great 13th-century explorer’s route from Italy to China, a trip that took him across the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Iran, into the war zone in Afghanistan, across the Pair mountains and along the rim of the vast Taklimakan desert; and on to Shangdu, immortalized in Coleridge’s poem “Xanadu”, returning by way of Sumatra, Sri Lanka and southern India. National Geographic did run his story, but not in one issue, in three consecutive issues.
Mike turned his Marco Polo adventure into a book which became an instant success, and sold 250,000 copies in the first print run. The route Mike followed from the Persian Gulf to the extreme tip of Asia was, in a certain sense, more difficult today than it was in the 13th century. But then neither wars nor hostile borders, neither B-747’s losing their engines nor wild rhinos charging in the jungles could hinder Michael Yamashita.
What is the key to Michael Yamashita’s success? We can find the answer in one word-determination. Mike was determined. And he was happy to sell his first photograph for $12. Mike makes good copy and I wrote about him in my book Return to Adventure Southeast Asia.
Most photographers, even professionals, are difficult to travel with. I always end up carrying their extra cameras and tripods and help them set up reflectors. If it isn’t this, I have to sit in the car to watch things as they dash off to get a picture. If we are traveling by car, we will forever come upon a scene he can’t possibly pass up. We skid to a stop and it will be a half hour before we continue. Once or twice I don’t mind, but once or twice for a photograph is never enough.