Mary Bartinowski was living a photographer’s dream. She lived in Silicon Valley, just down the street for Steve Jobs. And she was a busy professional photographer, booked solid with high-paying wedding and commercial clients.
But she decided to make a change…a big one by chucking it all and becoming a citizen of the world.
Today Mary is living a life most of us only dream about. She travels the world living in out-of-the way places for months at a time. The time she has in each place is a luxury few of us get to enjoy. When most of us travel, we pass through each place for just a few hours at a time, usually when the light is bad. But Mary can wait. If she finds a good location but weather or light is bad, she can always return another day.
Unlike many street photogrphers, Mary takes the time to engage with her subjects. She will get to know them first before touching her camera. And when she does take a photo it looks like a picture of an old freind. That’s why you see so many smiles among her subjects. She has ther permission and blessing.
Mary’s enthusiasim for her lifestyle and life in general is infectious. I left our interview (which I conducted in the middle of the night) fired up and ready to travel the world. After all, she did…so why can’t we?
So please take some time to listen to my interview with Mary Bartnikowski.
Use the player below to hear the interview. Note: you must be connected to the Internet.
Following are some excerpts from the interview.
Tell us a little about yourself. For example, how you get started in photography and how it got you to where you are today, living in all these really cool places around the world? I want to give just a little background about that to start.
In my former life, I was living down the street from Steve Jobs, three blocks from where Facebook started and that was where my photography business was for 20 years. I photographed over 700 weddings and I stopped counting at 700.
I did it in the street photography style and so how that got me to this point is really what made me a good photographer in getting candid moments and real interaction of people. I love photographing people and it was successful, because no one else was doing weddings in that way.
So I didn’t start out thinking, “Oh, I’m going to do wedding photography.” I just thought I would try it and that’s what I became known for; I was making $500 per hour shooting in Silicon Valley and really enjoying my life there.
But what it really did was give me the practice and the guts to get those real, natural kinds of pictures that you can’t really plan for. That’s really what launched me into this life and then well, there was a moment, there was a moment when my maverick son started traveling in age 17 on his own dime. I was sitting home one day. I had finished my work and I noticed there was no one to make dinner for!
I thought, “I need adventure in the unknown.” So he invited me to visit him in Nepal. It was my first third world country and took two and a half months off. I hadn’t had that much time off in over 15 years because I was so busy shooting, but I planned it and I left. That’s what changed everything. I decided that I wanted to keep doing that. It has always been my dream, to be traveling the world and shooting and now I’m teaching and I’m selling my photographs and everything is great.
How do you create a sense of place as opposed to just capturing landmarks and famous buildings and things?
It all comes down to light, angle, composition and timing – if you have those four elements, you’re going to have a great picture. When you’re traveling, here’s what I recommend. Go out when the light is beautiful early in the morning or you can go out, if you want to sleep in, when it’s around sunset.
Even if you don’t have your camera (I highly recommend not even having your camera) do what I refer to as the art of seeing and really look closely at things. Let those things happen to you without thinking that you’re going to capture them but just really look at things closely. A few weeks ago I saw these tourists taking pictures and not having any interaction with the people or stopping to look at something in the bad light. It was already bad light and I thought what a not-such-a-great experience.
If you come from this place of it’s all about the experience, then your pictures are going to be better because you’re going to stop and talk to people. You’re going to look at people in the eyes. I like to have interaction. I like to have that person know I’m going to photograph them. But I do it fast or I talk to them for five or ten minutes and then I bring out my camera and I hold it in front of my heart and I look at them and think “I’m in love with you, can I take your picture?” But I don’t say that. I say it with my eyes and 99 percent of the time, they let me take it.
Then it’s over. Boom! One shot. If you have that kind of understanding, that it’s miraculous to get one shot of an amazing person looking at you and letting you into their heart for one second. That can be an incredible picture.
It’s funny you mentioned that because when I look through all your work I see these street portraits of different people in different places and they’re all smiling. I could tell they’re engaging with you and I thought for sure you knew them for a long period of time.
But are these people you’ve just met and just engaged with briefly on the street and you got these shots? They all have this look in their eye, like their best friend is taking the picture.
Oh, thank you. There is this magical second and that’s what I discovered while I was traveling that if you really come from your heart and look at someone with all of your being and spirit, most of the time they will look back at you because they can see that in your eyes and that’s what I really try to convey in my private sessions of teaching photography because those pictures take a boldness to get. But what’s so bad about not getting it? I mean you still had an interaction with someone and if you get the picture or not, the main thing is that you’re connecting with people and if they let you into that tiny bit of a second, you have a chance to get a wonderful picture of them.
But even if you don’t, you have that connection. So that’s where I come from. I mean another thing I like to do is stay somewhere for a little while and start to get to know people and then take pictures. But all of those ones that you see like very few of them I knew those people before or I hardly knew them at all. It was just being bold enough to walk up to them and have an interaction and people are so open. I mean here’s what I find. When I go back to the USA, I forget that people don’t say hi on the street and they don’t stop and talk.
I would stop. I’m doing that and people think I’m crazy. That’s what happens in other countries. People are very open to talk. So even though you have to be fast, a lot of the times they will open up for a split second but that’s all. You’re not going to be able to take 10 pictures. You’re going to be able to take one and it will be a miracle if you get that one.
That’s an interesting point. Many people are afraid to engage with others on the street. Maybe it’s an American thing or regional thing. Many photographers are concerned that they’re going to be regarded as some type of a voyeur or a stalker, and it’s difficult to overcome. How do you suggest people engage more?
Here’s what I suggest and it does take practice because it’s mainly a cultural thing from the West. We have this kind of layer around us where people don’t engage so much. So you have to break out of that.
I would suggest that you don’t go with the idea that you’re going to take a picture. Just go with the idea that you’re going to engage with people. For example, when you go to buy something from a store try to engage the people that you’re interacting with not just as a tourist. Find out things about them even if you don’t speak the language. You can interact with people and act interested in them.
One of the things that helped me was the wedding photography because I had to instantly be everyone’s best friend. It worked. It’s naturally something that I find fun to do. I’m not afraid to engage people because I do have it, and I think anyone can develop this skill.
I was more afraid before but wedding photography emboldened me to come out and really reach out to people. Otherwise, I wasn’t going to get the shots. I got paid really well to get those shots and I felt I owed that to them. So I started opening up more.
I would go around and engage with them and you don’t even have to bring your camera. Because if you think you’re just going to do it for the picture, then it’s not as authentic. You can engage and when you’ve gotten to a good place with your five minutes of engaging, you just pop out your camera. Never ask with words if you can take the picture because they will say no. Ask with your eyes.
This has been really effective because during my first trip to Nepal, I asked them and I even paid some people money and those pictures weren’t good. But as soon as I started really coming from my heart with my camera held over my heart and just looking at them, thinking “I have to take your picture because you’re amazing” and not saying it, they let me; but only for half a second.
Most travelers are in one place maybe a day or two and then they’re moving on to the next. But you are there for a long time. So if it’s raining today, weather might be good two days later. There must be less pressure.
That’s right. That’s exactly it. So I don’t feel so pressed to get the picture today.
When you have a good sense of the area, the light and where the sun comes up and it sets, that’s quite a luxury to have.
It is a luxury because it’s just so beautiful! I can let a place happen to me and not feel pressured about getting something that I can’t get today. It might take a week.
I look at your images and one thing that pops out is the color. Your colors are just beautiful and nicely saturated. Most of your work is in color. It doesn’t appear that you are doing much post-processing.
I don’t. I have my foundation in film so I learned how to only shoot in good light and I don’t have to make corrections that are major. I just wait. To have patience. My worst fault is impatience. But I’ve been working on it for decades with my photography. Because you have to wait for the right light and I am willing to do that.
Also with film, I find that that it gives a different quality and a different luminescence. But I’m very happy with the digital work that I’m doing now and how the colors are coming out. I do not want to sit in front of my computer any longer than I have to because I’m also a professional writer.
So I don’t want to spend time doing post-process. I make sure I get it in the best light without the distracting backgrounds and I approach it from a film perspective because when you’re shooting in film, that costs you money every time you take a picture.
That’s how I train myself to get it; not just hope I’m going to get it. I never bracketed. I just went for the gold. You get so you know. You can look at something and go, “Well, that’s F8 at shutter speed 125.” You just know. That’s what it is and so you don’t have to take 20 pictures. You might have to take two. But I love how you can take a picture with a digital camera and think “that’s too light. I’m going to take another one.” You could never do that with film. How amazing.
When I teaching in my sessions, I’m teaching people how to not have to use Photoshop.
Let’s take a look at some of your photos. The first one is a mother and two baby elephants. I think this was in Nepal. In the US, you wouldn’t call that a street photo. But in Nepal, maybe it is.
It is a street photo.
We’re all about photography in the moment and I’m sure you took that in the moment and so tell us about that image.
I was in Chitwan, which is a world heritage site in Southern Nepal, and it has wild elephants. They’re in the breeding center but they go out and roam around in the jungle. They’re the mothers with their babies and so they get the day off. They don’t have to take tourists on a ride for months on end. So I went to the guys that took care of the elephants and made friends with them.
I had no intention of going to take pictures. I just really wanted to know how these elephants get taken care of. To learn what these people do. I just was curious. The caretakers are called mahouts and one of them knew English.
He became like my son and would show me around and he invited me to stay there. One day, he says, “You can come with us into the jungle.” I thought, “This is illegal. I can’t go in the jungle.” But of course I went.
The next day I went with the guys and the elephants and this Nepali guy came up to me, and says, “Not possible for you to go.” Forget it. I thought, “Oh, no. This is not going to be taken away from me.” So I said, “Well, OK. How about if I just walk out there with you guys and then I will walk back?” That’s illegal to do too. You could get killed in the jungle.
They said, “OK.” So I was the only one walking out there. I could have been killed getting that picture.
I was the only one on the ground, and then there was a big panic among the elephants. And right after that shot I found myself surrounded by a wall of grey elephant hide. I thought I was going to be crushed. Then I saw this tiny opening between two elephants and ran out of it.
It turns out the elephants were fighting. I was able to shoot some video of the fight and it’s on my YouTube channel.
Another photo I really like is called Girl with a Goat. Is this another image where you just met the person or did you already have a relationship wither her?
This one happened right where I am now in the Himalayas. My son and I hiked up there one day and the light was so pretty. We saw this baby goat and started playing with it then we walked away and started doing something else
Later I turned around and I saw this girl holding the goat. It was her baby goat. I thought, “Oh my God! That looks like the bible.” So I ran over there with my film camera, which does not have auto focus, and I looked at her with my camera over my heart and I was just melting because she looked just like that.
In a length of two shots, the one that you see is the second one and I was just praying, “Please have this be in focus,” because it all happened so fast. It was less than a second. Once she saw me, she looked at me and started laughing. That one is OK but it’s a little bit soft and then I came in closer and she got a little bit more timid but she still was happy and she just looked at me and it was boom! I got it! But I didn’t get to see it until a whole month later because I sent my film back. So I didn’t know I got it for sure. That’s one of my top sellers.
Who’s your biggest influence?
I’m going to say my father because he told me, “Pick something you love to do in life and make sure it makes you happy.” So it didn’t have to do with somebody who’s a photographer but just I always held that in my heart. And he was right!
That’s good advice. A lot of times you don’t hear that from dads. Usually dads say “go work hard and make money.”
He never said that and he was a dentist and I don’t think that’s what he wanted to do with his life. We had a nice childhood and we were comfortable and everything. But he never made it sound like you got to do something you don’t like and so that was good advice.