The Joy and Fear of Being a Female Travel Photographer
I was inspired to write this after having just read an article by world traveler and National Geographic Traveler columnist Daisann McLane where, in an interview, she was asked the question “Is it harder to travel when you’re a woman?” Ms. Maclane offered tips for the traveling female, and although her article speaks about travelers in general, my article is geared towards female travelers who also happen to be photographers. So if that’s you or if you’re a female photographer who’s thinking of making the big step of traveling by yourself in a foreign place, I hope you’ll find this helpful and eventually inspire you to do it.
So, do I think that is it harder to travel when you’re a woman? In some ways I think it is, but you can make it easier if you take precautions and plan ahead.
A woman traveling by herself is not necessarily fearless. On the contrary, I feel scared and vulnerable whenever I’m out there alone in a foreign country where I don’t know anybody, at 4:00 (or earlier) in the morning or at 10:00 and later at night, brandishing expensive gears. I feel scared but I am crazy enough to do it, why? Because I love photography and I am dedicated in what I do. I also know that if I don’t explore the realms outside of my comfort zone, I won’t get anywhere.
Just like any serious photographer, male or female, my goal is to produce great photographs. The problem with that is that to produce photographs, you need great light as well. Unfortunately, in landscape or cityscape photography, the best light comes at the most inconvenient hours of the day.
I don’t always travel alone, but I have taken many trips by myself and when I do, I have to be on my guard at all times. I like to take photos by the water or on the bridge, and I find that these are the times when I look over my shoulders a lot, in case some nutcase decides to push me over. I don’t think it’s paranoia more than it is merely looking after myself and making sure I get home safely and in one piece.
Of course, any other location that’s dark or remote, or where you have to either climb or trek down a hill for a better vantage point in the dark is potential for danger. If male photographers worry about these things and I’m sure they do, I’m certain that it’s even more so with us women.
So what do you do to try to keep yourself out of harm’s way?
1. RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH. I probably spend more time doing research on the web before my trip than actually being on my trip. Planning ahead and knowing what to expect eases half the burden of traveling in a foreign place. One of the top reasons why some women don’t travel alone is that they’re scared. It’s the general fear of the unknown – where to go, the language barrier, worries about safety, etc. They probably don’t know that fear of the unknown can easily be conquered by finding and knowing the answers before stepping out the door!
I don’t know how any traveler can just go to a foreign place on a whim without any clue of what is there to expect. I have, in fact, met people on the plane or on the bus who don’t even know where to go or how to find their hotel once they get to the airport or the station. Time is gold, as they say; why waste your time on finding location or getting lost when you can already be out there seeing the sights or eating a delicious meal?
The web is a wealth of information – take advantage of it, and best of all, it’s mostly free. There are even maps you can download, or if you can’t find any, Google maps and Google Earth make you feel like you’re already there. You don’t even have to buy an expensive guidebook anymore – I used to do that when I was just starting, but now I get most of my information on the Internet.
There are even sites where you can see your city of destination in panoramic 3-D. Check out 360cities.net. Some major cities also have their own virtual 3-D videos available in their official tourist websites.
Before I even leave my house for the airport, I already know how to get to my hotel, which transportation to take (I rarely take a taxi – that’s too easy), the cost of the fare, and the distance. I also stop by the Tourist Information office at the airport to grab a city map, get more info, or to purchase city or transportation passes. If that’s available in the airport of your destination, make a beeline to it before exiting through those glass doors.
2. SCOPE YOUR LOCATION. After having already researched what particular sites I want to shoot by looking at various photo sites on the web, I have a temporary itinerary for each day. But there are still sites that I might have missed, so I like to go and have a look-around during the day and inspect my vantage points and make amendments to my itinerary if needed. While looking around, this is also the time to pre-visualize my compositions and make a mental note of what else I want to shoot when it’s time. When all’s been planned for good, then I can go enjoy a cup of coffee, browse the souvenir shops, mingle with the locals, or just sit on a bench and watch the world go by while waiting for the light.
3. KEEP A LOW PROFILE. Nothing can draw more attention than a female wearing provocative or colorful clothing or flashy blings. I always try to blend in and choose comfort over style when traveling alone. With a heavy camera backpack and a tripod to worry about and lug around the whole day, I don’t want to add to that the inconvenience of having to pull up low-rise jeans (which I refuse to wear anyway), check if my blouse is all buttoned-up or if my bra straps are showing, etc.
I also avoid pulling out a map out in the open – there’s nothing that screams more that you’re a lost tourist. I usually do that in the hotel before I go out, or if I have to do it outside, I do it in the restaurant or somewhere more private.
If you have an iPhone, you can also download offline city maps before leaving home. Although I do this, I find that I don’t need it as much since I’ve already taken my personal city tour in Google Maps and usually know my way around or at least have a sense of the street layout.
4. KEEP EMERGENCY PHONE NUMBERS HANDY. The emergency phone numbers are different in every country. I always have the number of the police and medical services of the country I’m currently in, and also the phone number of my hotel. It’s also a good idea to know or have a list handy of a few foreign phrases, like “help, police, doctor, etc.” You can either keep this info in a handy-dandy notebook or on your smart phone’s notepad app.
5. KNOW WHICH AREAS TO AVOID. In my experience, the areas around the train and bus stations are usually the hubs for pickpockets, bums, drug addicts, drunks and just your typical up-to-no-good folks. If I can, I usually avoid the area when choosing a hotel. But it’s not the case for every city though. In Berlin, the hotel I always stay at is right by the well-lit and glamorous Central Station, which is also conveniently located next to the famous landmarks.
Reading travelers’ forums on the web helps a lot too. Sites like Virtual Tourist or Trip Advisor are among the popular ones. A travel forum can be a good source of information on topics like dangers and warnings, hotel, restaurant and site reviews, off-the-beaten path locations, transportation, etc. I wouldn’t have known half of what I need to know without visiting the travelers’ forums first. It is also a good assurance that if these travelers survived their experience in a foreign land, you can too.
6. KEEP CASH AND ID’s IN SEPARATE LOCATIONS. You don’t have to wear an unfashionable money belt that you tuck inside your trousers. But it’s always a wise thing to do not only for females, but for every traveler, to have your cash divvied up in separate locations such as in your pocket and in your bag and to be aware of it at all times. Same is true with personal ID’s or credit cards. I personally carry a “fake” wallet or a secondary wallet with a few cash in it, which I can hand out instead of my “real” wallet in case I get mugged, which I hope doesn’t ever happen to me.
7. AVOID EYE CONTACT, STAY CALM AND IGNORE. I have had a lot of practice on this, but still it does not get easier each time. One of the biggest threats to a traveling female photographer are drunks. I get them all the time – beside or behind me, and even in front of my camera, posing. They will try to distract you and get you to acknowledge their presence. I don’t leave at once; I stay and try to get my shot first. Acting like they don’t exist sort of puts you in a bubble, like you’re in your own world and they can’t be in it. Whatever you do, never look at them straight in the eye. If you do that, they know you’re aware of them and they’ll try to provoke or taunt you even more. One advantage I have (at least I think it’s an advantage) is that being Asian sometimes interprets to them as someone who can’t speak English. Some will even try to mimic Chinese-sounding words, but will eventually leave me alone when they run out of anything clever or insulting to say.
Sometimes, merely ignoring does not work. I was in the area of Sergels Torg in Stockholm walking back to my hotel late at night when I decided to pull out my tripod and camera again to shoot the glass fountain. It had rained that night and the wet ground created some nice reflections. Immediately after I had set up, a group of at least 5 men surrounded me. They did not say anything, which made me more uncomfortable. After my first shot, I grabbed my tripod and left calmly, looking straight ahead in front of me. I have read warnings about this area on my research and did not want to risk it, which leads me to my next tip—
8. HAVE AN EXIT STRATEGY. Even though I have heard about Sergels Torg being a popular hangout for either drunks and drug addicts or teens just bumming around, I chose a hotel not far from it because it was also close to the places I wanted to shoot. I knew I was going to be out late in the Sergels Torg area, so I chose a hotel that I can easily walk to when incidents like this happen. Of course, sometimes when you’re in a remote location, it’s not always possible to have an exit strategy. In cases like that, I simply do my business as quickly as possible, first making sure I have my shot, and leave. I’ve never walked so fast in my life after I finished shooting in the dark ares of Hamburg Docklands. Of course, it’s best to walk in well-lit areas if available, and know where the closest train/bus/taxi station is in case you need transportation.
When scoping your location during the day, look for nearby places you can go to in case you feel threatened and need to be safe with other people. This could be a restaurant that will be open late at night, a hotel, even a bar or nightclub. It might be better to be in the company of several drunks in a bar than with one sober psycho out in the dark street.
Another thing you might want to try is if you see other “safe” people walking around, pretend that you’re with them by walking alongside or just behind them. I did this in Florence while finding my way in the dark alleys at night. I got disoriented on my way back to the hotel so I tagged along, switching from one group to another until I found my bearing.
9. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. Women are known to have sharper instincts than any other human being (that means men), so trust them! If you sense an inkling of danger, it’s not worth sticking around and acting brave. The great photographs you might have made won’t be any use to you anyway if you’re not alive to see it.
10. INFORM SOMEONE BACK HOME OF YOUR ITINERARY. Have you ever seen the movie 127 hours where this guy went hiking in the Moab canyons and got trapped underneath a boulder? Or do you just remember that James Franco was in it? The worst part of that scenario is, nobody knew where he was or where he was going that day.
That applies not only to mountaineers but to photographers and travelers as well. It’s always a good idea to let someone back home know where you’re going to be and what sites you’re planning to shoot that day. And if your plans changed, be sure to update that person. Also be sure to leave your hotel phone number and your flight information with someone back home. In this day and age of instant technology, there’s no reason why you can’t call, text, or e-mail someone and let that person know what your next step will be.
11. CHOOSE A HOTEL CLOSE TO WHERE YOU WILL BE SHOOTING, if possible. The hotels closest to the famous landmarks are usually the most expensive ones; after all, you’re paying for the location, But that doesn’t have to be always the case. Sometimes, you can find cheaper alternatives in the same area, or perhaps you can still stay at the more expensive hotel when you go there during off-season when rates will be more reasonable.
The right hotel in the right location is very important to me, at least for safety’s sake. If I know I will be getting up early for sunrise and have decided where to shoot, I usually choose a hotel right by that location. Not only will it be easier to get up in the morning, but I’ll also rest assured that I’m in a safer distance where civilization is just within reach.
“Braveness is not the absence of fear but rather the strength to keep on going forward despite the fear.” (Paulo Coelho)
In closing, being a woman should not be a hindrance to taking that great photograph or traveling to other places unaccompanied. Not only until you experience what it’s like to do this will you find out for yourself how it’s like to enjoy that inexplicable feeling of freedom, of being out there in the middle of vast nowhere – just you and the world and only a camera separating you from it. It’s a strange yet effective way to feel fearless, even when you’re really scared out of your wits. That’s also when the JOY sets in.