I took some time today to sit down with my collaborator Robin Yong and chat about his passion for travel portraits and some of the amazing locations he has visited.
Robin has been collaborating with me during my past workshops at the Carnival of Venice and will be doing so next year as well. Check out the tour page to learn more.
Please tell us something about your passion for photography. How was it born?
It all started in Venice 4 years ago when I attended a photo workshop in Venice. I wasn’t a photographer then, coming to the workshop with only 2 little point and shoot cameras, the type that ladies carry in their handbags. The Venetian masked models liked me and trained me quite a bit, bringing me to where I am now, together of course with my other teachers Jim Zuckerman and Greg Gorman, whose workshops I like very much.
You are famous for your Venetian Carnival portraits. What attracts you so much to that event and to the people who attend it?
I suppose the people. I establish a special relationship with all my models and we keep in touch. Not just in Venice, even in places like Cambodia, Ethiopia and Japan. With most of my model friends we meet in Venice every year. I like very much the very outrageous and extravagant costumes and the beautiful medieval backdrops in Venice. Doing Travel Portraits is very different from other forms of Travel Photography. It is all about relationships with people – the models – even though they may have been just pure strangers at first encounter. If a photographer can form a special relationship with a model, the photos will come up very nice and very different. Venice is very different from my other destination – the models here all want to do photos much more than my models in other countries. And there are some associations and celebrities that want me to make photos for them during this Carnevale period as well, so it is a very exciting and very busy time for me.
You participate in a lot of photo competitions and often you win them. What suggestions do you have for people who would like to enter some of them? What subjects are more likely to be awarded?
Well, many of these contests receive tens of thousands of photos easily, so to make it in the TOP few hundred and then to the finals is not easy. Firstly you got to have something that is really different and will stand out. Otherwise it must be a classic theme but done in a totally different way and much better than those of previous winning entries. My advice is: for every contest, look at the finalists and winning entries from previous years, and also – if you can – at what photographs have been submitted by others this year. Some contests will show everyone’s submission whilst others do not. Are your photographs comparable to them? If not, then the chances of winning are fewer. Also, it depends on what sort of photo contests you are entering. As far as travel photography goes, most do not allow for heavy editing. I am not sure which subjects are more likely to be awarded but certain destinations such as African tribes, Indian street photos, Bangladeshi passengers on overcrowded trains and Chinese Cormorant fishermen tend to have won awards previously, although if you ask me, the latter three will seem less likely to win in the next two years because they might be overexposed and too many people are doing the same subject. So the idea is to be creative and have your own style.
Tell us about your travels to Ethiopia. You have won several awards with your portraits of Ethiopian tribespeople. How difficult is to get them to pose for you?
Ah yes, Ethiopia…and my “Flowers of Ethiopia” series. Well, it is not difficult to take their photographs as long as a photographer shows respect and forms a relationship with the models. Actually, most of them were not even posing. I rarely ask or tell my models what to do for all my photography. The logic is simple, if they haven’t been taught how to pose before, they won’t be able to do it in that 20 minutes, asking them would only make the pose look stiff and unnatural. Just make sure the models are relaxed and having a good time sure goes a long way – simple things like not using flash to irritate them, offering them drinks on a hot day and not eating in front of them.
Another great series of portraits is the one you took of the geishas (more appropriately called maikos and geikos) of Kyoto. Being used to your colorful Venetian portraits, I was actually surprised when I saw those stunning monochrome images. Can you tell us how you manage to obtain those gorgeous tones? What does your processing workflow look like?
Japanese photos are usually very clean and a lot of them are done in black and white. So I thought I’d do some black and white photos for Japan. Again, with the maikos and geikos, like the Venetian masks, you can’t tell them what to do. They just do their own thing and I click away. I still do not own a camera and I use whatever I can borrow. Traveling very frequently, I only have an iPad to process my photos as well. All my processing is done on Photoshop Express on my iPad. I am glad you like them.
You can see more of Robin’s portraits of the geishas of Kyoto here: “My Maikos and Geikos of Kyoto”.
One of your most recent trips was to the land of the thunder dragon, the Kingdom of Bhutan. What can visitors expect to get in that somewhat elusive country?
Bhutan is a small kingdom in the Himalayas, most things are quite basic although the country is developing. Things are actually very slow moving in Bhutan. It is a beautiful country with nice people but for tourists things are quite costly compared to many other Asian countries. Photography wise, it is good for landscape and people photography. Be prepared for quite a lot of long journeys – distances between places are far and it can easily take a whole day of driving, with lots of road bends and roadblocks. A lot of hiking up the mountains as well, so plenty of walking.
What other travels have you planned for the near future?
So far, it is always the same few – Venice, Annevoie, Kyoto, Cambodia and Chiang Mai. These are the places I tend to go back to often because I know many people in these places, so less planning to do. Every year or so, there will be a surprise big trip. Last year was Ethiopia and in 2015 it was Cuba. I am planning either India or Korea next for something truly exotic.