Ok, so you may have been reading along the various stories of shooting portraits with The Mentawai, or portraits of workers in Sumatra (here or here) who rejected illegal logging. Both of these trips obviously required quite some logistics and organization! But how do you do this when you are not local? How do you identify the right places and people to talk to? Well, there’s one “profession” that photographers need to keep in mind, actually this becomes the most important help of all, in getting the picture you dreamed of: they are called “fixers”.
Choosing a good fixer, or “someone who is from the country and can help you arrange the logistics, speak the language and introduce you to people” is therefore perhaps THE most important person to contact when preparing for a photo shoot.
I tried to list below some of the features you want to be looking for, in order to avoid last minute disappointments… Any comments or experiences you want to share? Please feel free to comment those points below!
As a general rule, fixers have to be quite technical, if they are only guides, they will try to show you their usual routine and the tourist places. Here, my friend Rama had been working for 10 years with the farmers and villages around Gunung Terang, and he had a personal knowledge of farmers. He could therefore identify them and tailor a program depending on what material I had been able to get so far, and adapt to what I still missed to complete the subject.
So in general, you want to be looking for teh following:
– The person needs to speak English. You want to be able to communicate easily to explain what you are looking for. This seems obvious, but it sometimes can be an issue in some countries, or you may realize too late that you did not get properly understood and you’ve already been driving 4 hours to a location that will not fit.
– If he can drive a 4WD, this is a real plus, and even highly recommended in remote places. I might even say that it is mandatory if you are carrying a lot of gear, like I did. Forget about the motorbike in some places, because you don’t want to risk breaking stuff if the bike tilts over in a rocky steep path.
– Of course, he needs to speak the local language, this is what fixers are great for, they can open all the doors for you.
– He must have some time to show you around, without rushing you into a fixed schedule: this is not a touristic visit, he must be there for you.
– It is really good if he can understands light a bit, like sun orientation and lighting on the landscape you want to photograph, etc. It would be pointless to drive for hours to go to a place if you can’t take any pictures there because you are against the sun and need to come back on the next day: this is a waste of time.
One last thought: validate several times what you want to see and don’t want to see in order not to do unnecessary travelling.
Last of all, show him your gear, so he understands that you are a pro photographer, and can introduce you as such to the people you want to photograph. Setting up a shooting session with light and diffuser requires slightly more time and cooperation from the subject than just taking « stolen shots » from a man working in the field. You don’t want to feel rushed in the middle of the shooting because your subject got bored or changed his mind, has happened to me in the Mentawai (see post here)
In a word, you want to hire a fixer who can help you specifically for pro photography, not a touristic show-around. Meet him first, ask questions to him to see if he understands what you are looking for. And study his questions to see if he is in line with you — depending on the questions he asks, you will know whether he will be able to arrange exactly what you are looking for.
Our 4×4 wheeler (on the left), equipped for heavy river crossing, which thankfully we didn’t have to do.. but the strong tires and engine were definitely a must have to go through the steep slopes of Sumatra’s mountains…
As you already know, preparation is key to nail down the perfect phoo-tshoot and come back with the pictures you had dreamed of. But beyond this, there is a fact that you cannot ignore: you can’t always prepare everything beforehand. Making contacts from a distance (even more so when there are 7 hours of time difference) and in remote areas with little communication infrastructure is not always possible.
This is why you should also plan you trip leaving plenty of extra time to afford spending a couple of days when you arrive in order to scout the area, meet people, friends of friends, contacts of your initial contacts, well, anyone who could tip you in on the must see and best places where you can find what you are looking for. In a word don’t plan just 2 weeks of holidays hoping that you will be able to cover the next Pulitzer in just that.
Taking some time to find the best fixer and identify the best location will make your life a lot easier in the subsequent days, and take a lot of stress off you shoulders when taking pictures, because you can then only focus on what really matters in the end: artistic choices and composition, technique (well, just a bit, not too much!) and enjoying yourself. Leave the logistics for the begninning and then forget about them to free your mind and take your pictures!
I hope you found this helpful, please share your thoughts below, as we always learn from new perspectives, so please jump in!