It has recently come to my attention that exactly 10 years ago, almost to the date, I took my very first step into the world of photography. I was fresh out of high school when I got conscripted to the army and later served as a military photographer. Whether it was to my liking or not, this is how I was set on this long path which has, since then, flourished and developed my passion for photography into my current career as a traveling, cultural and documentary photographer.
There is a particular obstacle that stands in the way of almost all travel, documentary and cultural photographers alike and, for some reason, no one seems to be willing to talk about it – so I’m going to.
The way I see it, that obstacle could be best described as ‘Misconception’. No matter how hard I try to prepare for what may lay ahead in my photography projects, it never ceases to amaze me how much of a difference there is between what I think I’m going to find and what is really out there. So many times places I thought would be completely isolated from the outside world were overrun by travelers, and cultures I thought would be extremely protective of their arts turned out to be some of the most hospitable and welcoming people I ever met. My last photography journey in Ethiopia was a perfect example of just how these misconceptions can affect a photography project.
We are starting something new here, a Featured Photographer video series where we talk with famous photographers. Our first installment is a piece by travel photographer Asher Svidensky, who has been published by National Geographic, BBC, Oxford and several others.
Asher travels the world looking for stories. According to Asher, the only way to really get a story is by totally immersing yourself in the surrounding. But with total immersion comes a cost. The more a photographer absorbs, the less of their original self remains.
“Photography is the youngest language in the world,” says photographer Asher Svidensky in his most recent TEDx Talk, but why are the words used to describe photography so violent?
Join Asher on his 11-minute talk about how photography can be a bonding tool, rather than a dividing one, how he uses it to express himself and about the universality of photography as a language.
I would like to bring up an issue of principle which is connected to photographing people and portraits. One that each photographer has a different opinion and personal way about doing: Do I, as a documentary photographer, need to approach and ask the permission of my subject of photography to take their photograph, or do I “steal” the desired image without them knowing about me doing so?
The biggest advantage when we take a photo without our subject knowing about it is – Authenticity. When a person doesn’t know he’s being photographed, he acts naturally, doesn’t react upon us as photographers and doesn’t feel the need to impress. He acts exactly how he would if we didn’t notice him at all. In this article, I use the verb “steal” for a reason.
It’s a funny thing, how these little things in life lead us to places. When I left china at the end of 2013, I forgot to exchange some of my Yuan bills (Chinese local currency). When I was traveling in China, we used to call them “Mao bills”… 20 mao, 50 mao, 100 mao due to the big Mao Zedong portrait on them. As I was struggling to find entertainment during the 12 hour flight, I started looking at the bills and that was the first time I noticed it, something I didn’t see before: every bill has a beautiful painting on it. each showing a different place in China. In a way, with these bills in your pocket, you carry a “piece of China” with you wherever you go.
Originally, these paintings were the inspiration for my 2014 photo project entitled “The Yin-Bou fishermen of China”. In January 2015 I decided to follow the bills once more. This time it was one of the smaller bills that got my attention and directed me to my next photo project – “The Miao Tribes”
Asher Svidensky travelled to south China to photograph the Yin-Bou fishermen. Famous for using cormorants birds to fish, and located in a gorgeous setting, the fishermen are quite the attraction for any photographger.
After capturing the “right” and “pretty” images in the same location as every other photographer who goes there, Asher asked to move to another location to get better lighting.
The fisherman immediately refused stating that’s not how they do it, so how did Asher get them to change their mind and end up getting astonishing one-of-a-kind photos? Believe it or not, but with the then-viral ice bucket challenge.
You don’t need to drench yourself in water, however, and you’re not limited to trying it in China, so check out Asher’s story in the video below to see how it can help you become a better photographer.