Travel Photographer Interviews: Terence Carter

by Lola (Akinmade) Åkerström Dec 14, 2010
Photography by Terence Carter

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter

In a new series on Notebook, we interview professional photographers and photojournalists, and discuss their different perspectives on travel photography as well as tips for taking better pictures.

TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER (and writer) Terence Carter has shot dozens of travel guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides, as well as scores of stories for magazines around the world.

He’s in the 11th month of a unique travel project called Grantourismo which he embarked upon with wife Lara Dunston, and the support of HomeAway Holiday-Rentals, aimed at promoting slow/sustainable travel, local travel, and experiential travel.

Matador editor and photographer Lola Akinmade caught up with Terence to discuss his practical take on travel photography and current assignments.

How long have you been a professional photographer?

Around eight years. I’ve worked in the media as a creative in some way or another – from book designer and writer to web designer and developer – for a whole lot longer.

What – or who – got your initial interest going in terms of photography?

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with photography since I was a child. My father had a Pentax SLR that I was enamored with and we always had cameras around the house to play with, however, I think my father was as smitten with the beauty and simplicity of the objects, as much as making beautiful images with them.

Photography by Terence Carter
What were your first photographic experiments or experiences?

My first serious experience was on our first trip to Mexico 17 years ago with a new Nikon FM2 and one 50mm lens. My wife Lara and I walked the streets so much taking photos every day that we’d barely have the energy to make it to dinner each night. That’s when my love of photography really kicked in!

Not soon after, I took photography as a second major subject at university (making films was my first love back then) and really got a kick out of developing my own films and making prints in the darkroom.

My lecturer was very supportive and gave me a lot of advice and constructive criticism – he was really tough but fair! I loved the process of bringing in photography books that we’d taken from the library and during the initial part of every photography class discussing which photographs we loved and why the images connected with us – that was incredibly fulfilling for me. I loved studying photography and love deconstructing photos and I don’t think I’ve ever really given up studying it in that way.

Photography by Terence Carter
How would you describe the work you do now…obviously there’s a strong travel editorial element, but are you involved in the photojournalism/documentary reporting world also? Any stock photography?

Travel and editorial, with a strong leaning towards portraiture and food-related photography. The more I travel the less I’m interested in monuments like the Eiffel Tower, and the more I’m enthralled with the people that make up the character of a city such as Paris. Besides, when I make a portrait of someone it’s that person at a point of time in their lives that can’t be repeated.

Unless you have someone in front of the Eiffel Tower doing something that ‘time stamps’ the image, it’s less interesting to me than the person in front of the lens. In terms of photojournalism, I toil alongside Lara (my work and life partner) and together we can produce stories that many journalists or photographers – on their own – can’t.

Whenever we can, we do a lot of in-depth profile-focused features and more serious stories, usually highlighting the work of NGOs and people that do selfless work. It’s something we’re both passionate about and would love to do more of.

Stock? I don’t really shoot stock at the moment. I was signed up with an agency, but I never, ever received a check even though I’ve seen my images published in a number of sources. But that’s a long, possibly litigious story!

Stock really is in a state of flux and I’m glad I make a living as a photographer without being involved in it.

Photography by Terence Carter
What 3 tips would you share for amateur photographers who are interested in pursuing your style of travel photography?

1. Your own personal style doesn’t arrive, it evolves.

2. If you want to do this for a career, don’t consider it ‘being paid to travel’ or you’ll be screwed financially – most publishers like to play on the notion that you’re having the time of your life and it’s a lark. It’s actually damn hard work – and when they log off their computers at 5.30pm and go home to their families, you’re still working.

3. Always have a camera on you that is capable of producing a publishable shot. No excuses.

You’ve photographed dozens of guidebooks. Do you like this type of dedicated photography? What are the benefits/challenges?

I’ve photographed dozens – now, that’s a scary thought! The main benefit is that you’re getting paid and you know that what you deliver will get published. Having a shot list really gets you to ‘focus’ on the job at hand, however, this is only good if someone you trust has written the list of points of interest to photograph. I’ve been sent to photograph restaurants and bars I’d never, ever, recommend in a guidebook.

That’s the disadvantage of being a photographer and travel writer, I guess. Another nuisance are the bureaucratic local government officials. For some churches and museums, let’s just say I’m happy to let the publications use stock photos instead of having me negotiate for a week to take a damn tripod into a dead space – only to find amateurs have sneaked their own tripods in.

Photography by Terence Carter

Another challenge about this kind of assignment is that you might not come across the same perfect weather conditions that a local stock photographer can wait days or weeks for. However, the thing is that the publishers have hired you to shoot a certain style instead of trawling through stock libraries. It’s frustrating to see stock images that are more engaging than yours because a local photographer can grab his or her kit at a moment’s notice and get that magic sunset that only turns up a few times a year.

I’ve also had publishers ask for a certain style of photography and I’ve asked them if they’re really sure that’s what they’ve wanted. They’ve ended up not having the intestinal fortitude to go with that style and ended up cropping my photos so much that people I’ve photographed have contacted me to say that they didn’t realize that the photo was going to be a close-up even though I shot it very wide!

Because the resolution of DSLRs is so great these days, designers often crop your photos with little respect in relation to why you’ve framed a photograph a certain way. It is disheartening, but sadly, some of the people putting together books and magazines these days really lack time, artistic vision, or a combination of both.

Which other photographers – old or contemporary – inspire you most?

Well, some photos and photographers never get ‘old’ in my mind – their images are always fresh! Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Dianne Arbus, Robert Frank, for instance. I also love the portrait work Avedon did. Of the contemporary portrait photographers, I enjoy the single-mindedness of Dan Winters. But to be fair, it’s mainly filmmakers that have inspired me: Godard, Wong Kar Wai, Almodovar, Jarmush, Wenders. It doesn’t show in my photography, but it’s there in my mind!

Photography by Terence Carter
When you are approaching subjects to shoot, how do you set about it? Do you chat and explain what you’re doing? Or shoot first, ask questions later?

Always chat. I don’t think there is any point in making a portrait without a connection with the subject and I never even think about making a frame without one. It is a negotiation and a barter process. The more people trust you and the more people realize that you have to have their interests at heart, the more you get from the photograph through the person. I always explain what it’s for and where it can end up.

With the portraits I’ve been shooting this year for our Local Knowledge series for our Grantourismo project, we give people a business card and ask them to check out the portraits I’ve done on the site so far and then tell us whether they want to be part of the project or not. I have not had a rejection yet and some people have been disappointed when we haven’t had time to get back to them to make their portrait!

I’m also a straight shooter, so to speak. No bullshit, no trickery, just trying to capture the person I’ve gotten to know – whether it be over the previous ten minutes, ten hours, or ten days. It’s the most honest way to make a portrait.

What’s the craziest or most inspiring encounter you’ve had in general?

Everyone I photograph is inspiring in some way, otherwise I wouldn’t raise the camera to my eye. I’m not one of those photographers who has to shoot everybody I meet. And we don’t do assignments unless we’re interested in the subject. We’ve met some really inspiring people this year, particularly in Africa.

But chefs are the most passionate, okay, crazy, and inspiring people – I’ve encountered everything from the most Zen characters to guys who’ve been certifiably mad. One chef (no names!) was quite calm in front of me, bringing out perfect molecular gastronomy-style plates to be photographed and then went back into the kitchen and started yelling at the staff like a madman.

I’ve had Michelin-starred chefs say they have ten minutes to chat and make a portrait – which is fine by the way – and two hours later they’re still chatting and asking me to smell how fresh the fish is in their walk-in fridges! The best chefs are really driven and they’re on the same wavelength as me. We work long hours, we have little time for anything else other than our job, and occasionally we like to let off a little steam. And by that, I mean drink.

Photography by Terence Carter
What kit do you use / carry with you / can’t do without (camera make, lenses, flashguns etc.)?

There is an old photographers saying (not sure who to attribute it to): “amateurs talk about gear, pros talk about money, and masters talk about light”. It’s really important to note that people are making brilliant images right now on everything from iPhones to large format film cameras.

However, in terms of DSLR gear, I use Nikon cameras and lenses because I’ve always liked their sturdiness. Sure the rubber parts fall off like crazy, but still they never fail to actually work. I’ve had a few Nikon cameras over the years but the D700 is my favorite as the full-frame sensor takes me back to the good old days of film, and the lenses are back to the right focal length due to the sensor being the same size as 35mm film.

I also love the size of the D700 much better than cameras with the built-in vertical grip (such as the Nikon D3 or Canon EOS-1D Mark IV) as they tend to be a little too intimidating for the subjects.

I’ve become a bit of a ‘fixed’ lens purist the more I concentrate on portraits. Love the Nikon 85mm f1.4 to death –we are lifetime lovers. I like the inexpensive 35mm f2 for food and full-length portraits, but only above f2.8. Love my old manual focus 50mm 2.8 macro even more for food but the modern 60mm macro would allow me to work faster! I dig my old 80-200mm f2.8 – been dropped twice and still keeps kicking. A word for the budget conscious, the Nikon 300mm f4.0 is wonderful and a bargain if you want to get into sports or birding/wildlife. And it’s a light lens – perfect for traveling.

Lighting-wise, everyone should get a decent reflector before buying a bunch of lights. I use a Photoflex five-in-one reflector which goes everywhere with me. You can get a lot of reflection to make a decent lighting ratio for a portrait using one. It’s rare that I shoot a portrait without the reflector being used – even if it’s just to block window light or something! Most of the photos in this series were shot with just a reflector.

I do carry a few Nikon SB800 flashes, remote triggers, umbrellas, stands, and various other light modifiers. Less is more for me when it comes to artificial light and while I always prefer to shoot in natural light, if you’re on assignment, you have to deliver the shot.

Also, as we’ve been on the road for 11 months now for Grantourismo, moving destinations every two weeks, I’m shooting in a new place literally every day, so I like the Lastolite EzyBalance grey card, which allows me to get the color balance of a photo right in post-production.

Lastly, my iPod Touch is indispensable for showing people my photography portfolio. I also keep some inspirational photography on there when I need a visual boost when I’m dog tired but have a shoot coming up.

Photography by Terence Carter
Finally, what else are you working on right now and what are your ambitions for the future in terms of your photography work or anything else?

I’m really just working hard on making good portraits of people we meet and creative evocative photos of the places we visit and the things we do on our Grantourismo project. The more people see them, the more interested they are in taking part. We’ll give someone a business card and ask them to think about being involved and they come back and say “I love what you did with so-and-so” mentioning someone I’d photographed for the project.

I also love playing around with giving each destination a ‘feel’ using a simulation of some of my favorite film stocks – for example, the images of our Kenya stories have quite a different look and feel to the Tokyo posts for instance, that reflects the experience for us – I’m having a ball with that.

Long-term, I have a lot of projects that closely combine editorial, storytelling, and portraiture. There are a few commissions waiting for us after we finish the Grantourismo trip in February, but Grantourismo has my full attention until early next year, and we’ll be taking the project in a slightly different direction after the trip finishes.

I’m loving the challenges of shooting in so many different countries, meeting so many fascinating people, and being privileged enough to make their portraits. I’ve never worked harder, but I’ve never enjoyed myself more than I am now.

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