Traveling… who doesn’t love or wish to travel with their family? Maybe only the most sane people in the world would say “no” to such an opportunity. My family and I are lucky, damn lucky! We left Texas two years ago to move to South Korea and we haven’t stopped traveling since. Within the past two years we have traveled to more than 10 countries as a family – all four of us – and we are still going at it.
There are not many families in the world that have this kind of opportunity and we are milking every experience we can out of it. My wife’s Facebook feed looks like something from a late night travel infomercial you would see while sitting on your couch with your Cheetos dust stained white under shirt, “Do you want to travel? Do you want to be like this family (insert Taj Mahal family pic here)? Then you need to get off the couch and call this travel agency number now, don’t delay!” My wife’s social feed taunts and seduces other families sitting back home into thinking that traveling with kids is easy and glamorous.
With me being an avid street and travel photographer it makes it seem even more dreamy and fitting to be able to document our travels in the artsy-fartsy ways one would love to. Anyone who has traveled will tell you that it is not all private yachts in the Mediterranean or the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai or glamorous coconut vesseled cocktails on the beaches of Bali. How many people do you really know actually travel and have experiences such as the ones that grace the front covers of Conde’ Naste Traveler or National Geographic Traveler Magazine? And my family does not fit in this category by any means.
When we travel with the kids you’re more likely to get vomited on by your child, because the Thai longboat is ascending 6-foot waves and leaking fuel. Staying in a room that will accommodate four people in a developing country, say like India, usually means you are not taking your clothes off to sleep in these stained beds and sofas. And your kids playing and poking sticks at jellyfish on a littered beach in the Philippines is a wonderful break from them whining and crying about how hot it is on the 6-hour non-air conditioned bus ride that you just endured to get to this supposed “world’s best beach” destination.
Shooting pictures with kids and traveling takes it to a whole different level of complexity. Kids need their parents, but even more so when traveling because of a multitude of reasons: their routine is off, nothing is familiar, they won’t eat the food, they’re sick and you are sick. They need constant attention and they don’t let up. So how the Hell do you find the time to go shooting and seek the enjoyment you’re searching for when traveling, which is street photography? I don’t shoot the family group shots on the beach or the kids praying at the feet of the lying down Buddha. My wife takes care of all that. Like I had mentioned, she is the Facebook Indiana Jones and her iPhone is her whip taking all of her family, friends, and followers from one country to the next. I tend to take the path least followed by tourist for my shots and like to walk the alleyways to document the local’s everyday life. When everyone else (tourists) are staring and pointing at the bull elephant, I’m usually pointed in the other direction with my camera because I think I see something more interesting to shoot and this here lies my problem.
Street photography is all about moments – freezing little moments in time that seem peculiar, interesting, funny, boring or whatever you are trying to interpret with that image. My son is now 12 years old and is becoming very familiar in his understanding of how things work in the world, sort of. He understands a little bit about why Daddy is taking pictures of the man frying chapatis (flat bread) at the roadside stall, instead of the poor elephant that is chained to a tree that all the other tourists are gawking and taking turns to pose with. But you see that was my distraction for those fleeting 60 seconds, “kids go look at the elephant!” meanwhile Dad is gonna finally pull his camera out of the ol’ bag and shoot something, which he has been dying to do all day, but he’s been too busy taking care of you lot… Aw yeah, a whole 60 seconds with me and my camera, savor the moment, embrace it.
Later, months after the trip and after I have developed and scanned the film (long live film) and my son overhears someone make the comment, “wow, that is a great shot, how cool is that food stall pic”, he picks up on this and thinks, “hmmm maybe Pops is onto something”. So now any time I stray away from the pack with my camera, the kids want to see what ‘cool thing’ Daddy has stumbled upon. “What are you taking a picture of Daddy!?” screams my daughter at the top of her lungs. The sidewalk full of pigeons all leap into flight as if a gunshot rang out, obscuring my shot of the Buddhist monk that was hand feeding the birds a second earlier. Gone. The moment is over, my cover blown, my shot just a blur of gray pigeons like smoke rising from a brush fire. My ‘decisive moments’ have gone to the wind, due to my kids walking into the frame or shouting “Aww Cool!” and have disrupted my subjects so many times that it depresses me and now the moments are gone, unfrozen by my camera.
The composed shots that I have missed are still framed in my mind and I cringe thinking how many that I have missed due to my curious children. The once ‘awesome images’ that were ruined have flooded my head at nights in form of a nightmare as if I were a combat war veteran having flashbacks. The elephant distractions don’t work anymore, candy bribes don’t work anymore and even promises of an evening to themselves in an air conditioned hotel room with their electronics doesn’t work anymore. “Shhh go away, Daddy is trying to take a cool picture”, “but Daddy I wanna see!”…. Sigh….(the camera is returned to its cave of a camera bag to hibernate). Even more offensive than my kids ruining potentially great shots is my wife creeping up behind me to take the same shot as me with her phone and immediately posting it to social media and taking full credit for having such an artistic eye.
Kids are so much smarter than their parents. As mine get older and wiser to Daddy’s big elephant distraction techniques and candy bribes, I have had to counter strike with strategies to take down their evil ploy of ruining every shot I try to make during our travels. They are a team that needs to be respected and require constant research to find ways to outsmart them – and I find the readings of the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu author of ‘The Art Of War’ a great reference. It’s go time my little ones, daddy is bringing in the Calvary.
So what is this great strategy that I have devised from all my research and planning that will divert my children’s attention away from Daddy and his camera? Wake up at the crack-ass of dawn. I don’t care how many cold beers were consumed on the beach or how much duty free whiskey from the airport was poured the night before due to the previous day’s travel escapades, you gotta get up before the sun. If you have been fighting a stomach bug because you thought it was smart to devour that supposed beef taco (or three) in the airport parking lot and you don’t think you could last ten minutes until the next toilet episode, I don’t care. You better get up before the sun if you want any time to yourself while the kids and wife snooze away. That is the only time I can find uninterrupted that allows me to ‘do my thang on the streets’. I have to prep my clothes and shoes by the door in advance the night before and (in my case, load my film) check my batteries, silence anything that might jingle (hotel room key) and stir the enemy. Like a member of Seal Team 6 about to head out on a mission at dawn, I slip out of the room with all my gear before the little one awakens and shouts, “What’s for breakfast Daddy?”.
Each successful early morning film shoot, I may have won a small battle in our family travel itinerary, but I have not yet won the war of street photography sessions vs. family prerogatives. “Don’t touch that!” I scream as my daughter reaches (with salt and sand dipped hands resembling the ‘sugar cookies’ made of the same granules that she was trying to feed me moments earlier on the beach) for my precious Leica M6 around my neck. “But I want to take your picture Daddy” she says. She sure knows how to pull on my photographic heart strings. I have for years tried to get my family into photography (still trying) by buying them waterproof, shockproof, and what I thought was kid-proof cameras, even a Fuji Instax. I’ve also bought my wife a little vintage Olympus point and shoot with some Kodak Tri-X film to lure her away from her smartphone, but to no avail, the Oly sits, because it doesn’t post to Instagram or upload the pics to Facebook instantaneously, of course. Every photographer is very fastidious about their equipment. Hours of research and money saved up has gone into the cameras, the lenses and that photo doo-hickey that has been hand-picked and sought after for months online. “Now you are finally mine, ha-ha you are mine…” goes through every photographer’s mind when they receive that special package in the mail and begin the ‘unboxing ritual’. Now my son is starting to get a little interest in photo taking and making videos, since he and his friends obsess over pics of other friends and YouTube videos. This is great! Every father at some point wishes their child will share a similar interest with them, whether it be sports, music, fishing, you name it. “Someday son this (fondling my Rolleiflex 3.5f from 1961) will be yours, when I’m long gone…” He just shrugs his shoulders, stares at me blankly and states that he’s hungry. Sigh….
Months before our 3-week India and Nepal trip my son says he wants a camera to take pictures with during the trip. “What? Really? A camera for the trip!”, I’m thinking there is still hope for him as I run to my desk to review the inventory to see what the young lad can handle and shoot with. What a proud moment, father and son, side-by-side, shooting pictures for the masses as we travel together (a tear falls from the corner of my eye, sniff-sniff). Four days into the trip, I ask, “where’s your camera? I wanna see what cool pics you have shot so far?” “Umm, I left it on the bus because I didn’t want to carry it and we’ll be on the same bus tomorrow to head to Varanasi”, he says. “Dude. We are taking the train to Varanasi, not the bus!” [facepalm] Not only did the bus driver get a nice cash tip from us, he also got a nice digital camera from my dear son. With kids, your equipment inevitably becomes their equipment, I recommend to choose wisely what you give them, as it may become equipment you need to learn to live without in your arsenal.
So you might think I detest having my my kids with me when traveling due to them interrupting my shots and losing my equipment. Well yes at times, but they are just being kids and I love them dearly. Kids are difficult to travel with, but they learn so much along the way, and these travel memories will stick with them forever. We as parents have to put in the time, the patience, the money, the refereeing of sibling disputes, and sometimes put our work and passion on hold (photography) to take care of them. There have been many times when the kids are fighting and complaining, that I stop and think “why did we think this was a good idea to come here?” Only to start planning the next trip with excitement as soon as we return home. There have been numerous times when my kids have been a great asset on a trip in regards to my shooting. They can be used as subjects in my shots. They will get reactions out of the locals that you wouldn’t normally get and help locals drop their guard they have in general towards most camera-wielding tourists they encounter. They point out things with their fresh eyes that you don’t see at all. And sometimes they will even pick up a camera and shoot alongside of you, which is pretty cool – as long as they don’t leave it on the bus or at the airport terminal. With each trip, it seems to be getting easier to travel as a family. The more we travel together, the more they know what to expect. And they know Daddy is gonna slip out early in the morning but will return when it’s breakfast time.
It can be tiresome to be on the constant lookout for intriguing images as well as keeping an eye on the kids, which is even more reason why I really try to discipline myself to wake up so early to go shoot, no matter how tired I am, on our trips. Waking up early also lets you see how the locals start their day, and allows you to capture all the activity that goes into how they prepare breakfast, commute to work, conduct morning prayers, sweep the streets in front of the shops – all the ingredients that make for good images. When I’m long gone my kids will have my library of film negatives, prints, as well as my digital scans (if .jpeg and .dng are still in use). I think, no actually I really hope, they will appreciate the fact that Dad was so dedicated in getting his camera out and they will have pictures to go along with the memories of all the places they traveled to when they were young. “I didn’t know Dad took this picture of us, how cool! Where did dad take this shot, I don’t remember this? Ah, here’s the elephants we loved in Thailand. Awesome! I can’t believe he took all these pictures and for what? For us…”