Steve Davey at a New Year’s celebration in Laos, 2011 (supplied).
A Picture Says… columnist James King is away this month, so ML Awanohara is pinch hitting in his place.
Greetings, Displaced Nationers who are also photography buffs!
Once again, I am the feeble stand-in for James King, who will be back in August. That said, I am happy to be the vehicle for bringing to you such an exciting interview subject: Steve Davey, a professional photographer who is also an intrepid wanderer around Planet Earth, with the creds to prove it. Steve has produced two best-selling BBC travel books, one about unforgettable islands to escape to, the other about unforgettable places that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
He has also written a photography book about festivals around the world as well as a guide to location photography.
And he has started up his own business leading travel-photography tours, about which a participant has written:
“Your love of photography and travel is infectious and I can honestly say I have never laughed or learnt so much on a holiday before!”
I recall that when I first stumbled across Steve’s photography site, I found him an amiable character—on his About Page he says is is a “crap sightseer” who is “more interested in how places work and often how they don’t, than in visiting monuments and museums.” I could also sense his insatiable curiosity about the wider world coupled with a certain fearlessness. This mix of qualities suggests not only that he takes great photos but also that he isn’t easily daunted.
Let’s find out if these impressions were right by giving Steve the floor.
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Hi, Steve, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Let’s start in the same way James always does: where were you born, and when did you spread your wings to start traveling?
I was born in a small village near Bristol. I longed to head out and explore the world, and as soon as I was old enough I headed off around Europe on an Inter-rail pass. That year I got as far as Hungary. The following year I got even further—to Romania in the days of Ceausescu.
Which countries have you visited thus far, and have you lived in any of them?
I have been to almost ninety countries in the course of my work. Some of these, I have been to dozens of times. I am a compulsive traveler but have always been based in London, travelling where the work takes me. As you mentioned in your introduction, I’ve shot a couple of books for the BBC. Each of these required taking all the photos for about twenty-five chapters in a single year. For the Unforgettable Islands book, I did the equivalent of 6.5 times around the world on 99 different flights.
So you’ve never been an expat?
There are some parts of the world I’ve visited that I would love to have lived in, but my feelings about this are always changing. So I figure it’s best to base myself in London and have the option of returning to the latest place that has taken my fancy.
Well, I love London, so that’s fine by me. Which part of the city do you live in?
South London. Brixton. About the closest you can come to living in a foreign land but without leaving the UK. It is an eclectic area with a multicultural flavour. My local breakfast cafe is Eritrean. There is a large Caribbean market nearby and people of every culture. My daughter’s school is like a 1990s Benneton advertisement.
I lived in South London myself at one stage: Kennington. I remember Brixton well and can picture exactly what you are talking about.
“Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure.” —Alfred North Whitehead
Moving right along to the part we’ve all been waiting for: a chance to appreciate a few of your photos. Can you share with us three photos that capture some of your favorite memories of the so-called “displaced” life of global travel? And for each photo, can you briefly tell us the memory that the photo captures, and why it remains special to you?
Before starting, I should tell you that I love to photograph festivals. I love the chaos and the sheer exuberance of these events. They are when a destination comes alive and when a place is at its most characteristic for the people who live there (festivals are not put on for tourists). So I’ll be sharing three photos of the most memorable festivals I’ve had the honor of witnessing.
First, the Sonepur Mela (Cattle Fair) in the state of Bihar, India. I have attended a number of festivals in India, from the largest gathering of humans on the planet to remote gatherings in the Himalayas and elephant temple festivals in Kerala in the South, but the Sonepur Mela is one of my favourites. There’s a vast animal market including the Haathi Bazaar, where elephants are lined up for sale. There’s also religious bathing in the confluence of the rivers Gandak and Ganges. The Sonepur Mela attracts few tourists and I consider it one of the hidden cultural gems of India.
Wow! I have a theory that it’s why we all travel: to see the “elephant.” Clearly, you’ve done that. So what’s next in the photo-fest, so to speak?
Elephants for sale at Sonepur Mela in India. Photo credit: Steve Davey
Next is one of a festival held by the Kalash people
, who live in three remote valleys in the north of Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan. They trace their lineage back to the soldiers of Alexander the Great
. They tend to have piercing blue eyes and fair skin. Animist non-Muslims, they drink, wear bright clothes, and permit men and women to dance together. This makes them rather unpopular in the region. Guarding this event were some 3,000 special forces commandos. Despite this, the festival atmosphere was lively and chaotic. It was one of the great privileges of my career to have experienced and photographed this event.
The Kalash people have a handle on what it means to be festive. Photo credit: Steve Davey
Steve, you are opening new windows for me on the world. I never knew about this unique tribe of people in that part of the world. So what’s your last pick?
Last but not least is this incredible festival that takes place on Pentecost Island, one of the islands within the remote archipelago of Vanuatu, in Oceania. It involves the village menfolk hurling themselves from high towers, with their fall only broken by vines fixed to their ankles. I’ve wanted to photograph this ever since I saw the film of the so-called land divers shot by the great David Attenborough. I finally got the opportunity when working on the “unforgettable islands” book for the BBC. It was a humbling rite to witness, and I managed to shoot some stunning pictures, too! This photo represents for me the kind of doors that have been opened in my life due to being a photographer who specializes in travel. I have managed to witness, and take part in, so much more of the world than I ever would have done without a camera.
Truly, you have seen such a wide swathe of life’s rich tapestry. Being presented with what is clearly just a fraction of the photo evidence has been humbling for me.
The precursor to bungee jumping, but a lot more risky. Photo credit: Steve Davey
“Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” —Gustave Flaubert
Having seen your first three photos, I expect it’s a bit of a tough choice, but which are the top three locations you’ve most enjoyed taking photos in—and can you offer us an example of each?
It is a tough choice, so I’ll give you four:
I love India. I can’t get enough of the place. I love the utterly bewildering variety it offers. I have been all over the country and attended a number of religious festivals, including the Kumbh Mela—officially the largest gathering of humans on the planet. But that’s not all there is. Here is a shot of a Buddhist monk in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas:
A Thikse Buddhist monk blows a conch horn announcing prayers. Photo credit: Steve Davey
I first travelled to Laos years ago, soon after it opened up to foreign visitors. There were few roads up in the north, and the only way to get around was by boat. I love the country’s atmosphere, its people—and could not resist photographing this line of monks heading out at dawn to collect food, or alms.
The tak bat, or Buddhist monks’ morning collection of food (alms), in Luang Prabang. Photo credit: Steve Davey
I still love Morocco. It is the most crazy place that you can visit from London on a low-cost airline. Over the years I’ve noticed that the people have become less friendly to photography, making it more stressful to walk around and take pictures; but there are few places that excite me more than the Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh. Home to snake charmers, acrobats, fake dentists, herbalists, drummers and some of the best street food this side of Delhi. Electric!
I have to interrupt for a moment to say that of all the photos you’ve shared thus far, this is my favorite. Even though I’m not fond of rattlesnakes, it captures an atmosphere that is utterly different and seductive. Now, you said you had four?
Don’t make the mistake of catching the snake charmer’s eyes! Photo credit: Steve Davey
The last one is my wildcard. I usually love hot, dusty places with people. Svalbard
is my Achilles Heel. I love the cold, the wildlife and the stunning scenery. I have seen it from ships, by snowmobile and on foot. I love the ever-present danger, the midnight sun and the sense of true adventure.
Incredible! The Moroccan rattlesnakes definitely scared me, but, though I know I should also be scared of the polar bears, I can’t help thinking how cute they look.
Polar bear viewing in the crown of Arctic Norway. Photo credit: Steve Davey
“Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.” —Bruno Barbey
I notice that you often photograph people, whereas quite a few of the interviewees for this column stick to scenery. Do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so? How do you handle it?
I seldom photograph people without approaching them and interacting with them in some way. Spend even a small amount of time with someone and you can come up with an engaged and atmospheric portrait. This is a difficult skill to develop, but once you have mastered it then taking people’s picture is a much less fraught experience and far more enjoyable for both the photographer and the person being photographed.
Here are a couple of examples where I’ve applied those principles:
Examples of Steve Davey’s people shots: A Sadhu (holy man) at the Ganga Sagar Mela (festival) in West Bengal, India; a pilgrim at the Korzok Gustor festival in Ladakh, Northern India.
“Eyes like a shutter, mind like a lens.” —Anonymous
And now switching over to the technical side of things: what kind of camera, lenses, and post-processing software do you use?
I shoot exclusively on Nikon pro camera and lenses. I shoot either with the Nikon D3X, Nikon D800 or Nikon D810. I have a cupboard of pensioned off cameras, including a brace of F4s and a brace of F5s. Cameras don’t tend to hold their value: especially when I have finished with them. I am a believer in going for the utmost quality in work. To me this is the mark of a professional photographer, shooting with the best lenses and filters. I always shoot in the RAW format and post process with Adobe Lightroom.
I suspect I need to read your photography guide or take one of your tours to fully appreciate the wisdom of what you just said. But I trust you!
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a cash advance.” —Anonymous
Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
Working as a professional travel photographer is bloody tough. There are a lot of talented amateurs who shoot a few good shots and virtually give them away; and a bunch of fauxtographers who have the website and the business card but the only way that they can get work is to work for free in the hope that they can break into the industry. Best to work at something that makes you money and take photographs for pleasure. Taking pictures for love and not money is a dream for most of us professional photographers!
Thank you, Steve! It’s been a memorable virtual journey into corners of the world I didn’t know existed!
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Readers, that was something else! I’d never even heard of some of these places before, and Steve has been to them several times over. What do you make of his vast range of travel experiences and photography advice? Any questions for him on on his photos or extensive travels? Please leave them in the comments!
If you want to get to know Steve and his photography better, I suggest you visit his photography site. You can also follow him on Facebook. You may also be interested in checking out his travel-photography books:
Or why not consider joining one of his tours and getting some hands-on photography instruction? It would be an experience to go down in the annals!
NOTE: If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed for this series, please send your information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!
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