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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Anatomy of a travel photography assignment part 4

Day 3 arrives bright and early as always. There's cuttlery in the accommodation so no slurping my cereal this morning. :) I was looking forward to today because we were heading over to Arnhemland - aboriginal land over the other side of the East Alligator River.

It's a vast, almost empty wilderness owned by the local indigenous population and the only way in is to get a special permit. To get there you have to cross the East Alligator River - so named because the early explorers thought that the giant reptiles in the water were alligators. Alligators are quite docile, giant saltwater crocodiles are not! I thought I had a great shot of somebody about to get eaten when I watched unbelievably as some tourists walked right down to the water's edge for a better view!

Any photo story requires a wide variety of images so as you can make a spread. Signs are a good thing to photograph, as are landscapes and when you have such an amazing landscape as the Arnhemland escarpments and wetlands then your wide-angle lens tends to get a lot of use. I used a wide-angle lens to have the rocks of the escarpment lead the eye into the frame and out to the expansive wetlands.

You also need to show people. Local people are an important part of any travel photo story but you also need to show the travellers themselves. People experiencing this new environment and their reaction to it. I noticed Peter showing his young son something on the horizon, and as a father myself, really like the interaction and the way the wetlands spread out behind them.

One thing I always try to do is send people a copy of their photos and so I emailed a high res version of this picture straight after I got back. He also sent some of me working which I won't shoot here because I look as you would expect after two days of not much sleep!

After we crossed over the river we headed in to Oenpelli which is an aboriginal community with a famous arts centre. Now the thing about most aboriginal communities is this - they're not exactly photogenic. They're not set up for tourists and they're just regular folks living their lives. It's a very poor town, there are a lot of stray dogs and general state of disrepair. I'm not a news photojournalist. I'm not there to photograph that. I see it, I recognise it and I acknowledge it.

But I'm here to show things in a good light. The postive things. The arts centre has artists who produce this amazingly beautiful work. They are proud of what they do and want to show it to the world and this is how I can contribute something to their community, by helping them get a positive message out.

Some might say that that means I'm not telling the truth. Maybe so but I see my job as to show people positive things about the world we live in. The good and positive. We have enough negative about anything in life that I don't particularly feel a need to contribute to that. That's just me.

At the arts centre one of the women on the tour injures herself so we have to go off to the local medical clinic to patch her up. This puts us behind schedule and by the time we get back to the East Alligator River it's high tide and the river is way up. Nothing to do but sit and wait until the flow of the river slows down a bit so we can attempt a crossing. It may not be photographically inspiring but makes a great story for the article!

As the tide reaches its peak the river slows down and we gingerly make our way across without incident. For lunch we're taken to a beautiful place called Cannon Hill which has an aboriginal cave only visited by this tour group. Here's a bit of a dilemma. It's a vital part of the story because it talks about traditional aboriginal cave paintings. But in terms of getting stock photographs it's a killer because nobody can get here! To sell travel photographs you need to photograph places that a lot of people go.

So while I take a few snaps of the surrounds it's not my main focus. One of the points of the photo brief was that Janet wanted a cover shot. Now Janet is very picky about her front covers (I know she's reading this right now nodding her head!). Backpacker Essentials has a formula for its covers. It's always young people (usually attracive young women) who look like backpackers posing for the camera.

So far on all my tours I had folks older than my parents, or families. Lovely people one and all but not much cover material here. By the time I had reached the aboriginal cave I was a bit frantic. Getting the cover means more exposure and a higher pay cheque so it's definitely something you want to get if you can! Then I took a closer look at the tour guide Kelly. She's perfect for a cover, why hadn't I noticed before? So I work on getting a couple of portraits of Kelly. Remember a portrait for a travel mag isn't just a straight head shot, you want to try and put her in a place visually. There has to be some sort of location clue. Aboriginal paintings anyone?

And that was our last stop before heading back to our hotels. Again I had decided to do a mad rush out to a sunset location - this time the famous Ubirr Rock. I didn't have time to fill up with petrol but had noticed a petrol station (gas stand for you northern hemisphere folks!) at the East Alligator River crossing so I headed out there pretty much on empty. Big mistake! I got out there where the Chinese owner tole me they hadn't had petrol there for about 20 years. Oh-oh, now I had to get all the way out to Ubirr and back with not a lot of petrol. No time to go back and fill up, I'd miss sunset. So off went the air-conditiong, windows down and cruise out there quite slowly!

At Ubirr I was searching for models! I asked one of the park rangers who was there out of uniform (so I didn't know she was a ranger until she asked me for my permit!) and she gladly posed for me. Signed model release, thankyou very much. Then the sunset light show started so I found a spot to watch the spectacle.

And there sitting beside me were a couple of women paramedics from Melbourne who were dressed in odd socks and funky t-shirts and shorts, and perched on a precipitous ledge with Ubirr wetlands stretching out behind them. I got a little bit excited! Here was my cover shot now - I could already see the masthead in the sky above their heads. I politely explained what I was doing and they were realy happy to pose for me. Snap, snap. There's our cover.

All that was left was to sit back and enjoy the sunset.

And, before it got too dark to see, I scampered down the escarpment and cruised back on empty to my hotel. I was staying in the other hotel again so it was a further one hour drive on top of my regular trip. Again another late night of back-ups, more back-ups and more Territorian pizza! Yum. It had been a good day. I was pretty sure I had my cover, some nice landscapes, some aboriginal shots and had covered a lot of the feel of Arnhemland. At just past midnight my head hit the pillow.


Janet McGarry said...

Hey Paul

I'll pop up here, as yes, I have been cringing this week! But seriously, you are making lots of really valid points in this week's blog. So here's a take from the editor's perspective....
Paul is meticulous which can be time consuming in the planning phase but brings dividends in the end results. The cover story above is a good example... from experience and interaction between us, he knew the exact composition of the shot that I needed. That's absolutely invaluable to me and makes it much more likely that I'll purchase and use the shot.

Paul Dymond said...

Hi there Janet,

nice of you to drop by and I hope I haven't been too cringe-worthy!

Thankyou for the kind words as always. Folks, here's a real life magazine editor telling you like it is. I think one of the biggest differences between a professional and an amateur is how we treat our clients.

Know what they want, but also what they need. Go above and beyond their expectations, even if that means 15 hour days and lots of driving, heaps of research and too much Territorian pizza! YUM. In face, especially if it involves lots of Territorian pizza.

Knowing what you need to shoot and what time frame you have to shoot it in will ensure (serendipity allowing!) that you come home with some great shots, whether it be a job or just a family holiday.

We'll wrap up tomorrow with the final day's play and I'll post a link to the finished article on the web. If you're here in Oz then think about becoming a member and getting the mag, it's always a great read.