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Tag: Incas

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Exploration

The media has always sought to put on a pedestal explorers who brave harsh conditions in search of the unknown. Through history these intrepid trailblazers have risked life and limb to push to boundaries of knowledge. I cannot overstate my great preoccupation with the eighteenth and early nineteenth century European explorers. I have written about some of them in my work: Men like James Bruce, who travelled to distant Ethiopia and Mungo Park, who expired on his search for Timbuctoo; and Samuel White Baker, Richard Burton, Rene Caillie, Heinrich Barth, Stanley and Isabella Bird. Such explorers really deserve to be feted for their work under impossible conditions. Just as I venerate the greats, I frown on the legions of celebrity ‘explorers’ who crowd our airwaves and cable channels. They take with them mountains of television equipment, crew, stylists and all manner of comforts. There’s no sense of spontaneity as the whole series has usually been planned and written in advance to the journeys. If anyone out there is reading this, I want to stand on my soap box again and implore you to understand something: it’s not that hard to grab a few essentials, and a couple of maps, book a few weeks off, and go in search of a lost city, a fabulous treasure, or anything… and in the next week or so I’m going to tell you how to get started, and what problems to be ready to solve.



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Jungle Journeys

Over the next few days I’m going to write about running a jungle expedition because for some reason it’s on my mind. I have made a number of expeditions through the Upper Amazon and the Madre de Dios river systems, and think there’s a lot to be learnt from the subject, much of which can be applied in general life… such as maximising peak performance and getting the best out of the team.



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Technical Stuff

Regarding photographic technical stuff… With the new digital cameras I am a fan of the small viewfinder-less models, and used one to great effect in Afghanistan recently, as you can take pictures without people noticing. The drawback with some models though comes with the size of images. Now that more and more megapixels are available, editors have gone megapixel mad. If you can afford it, buy a digital SLR and try to negotiate for a wide angle lens as standard, taking into account that conventional wide angles are not as wide when used with digital. I remember when everyone was all excited with zooms but they’re really not that great for journalism in my opinion. If the picture’s worth using, then you’d be better to get near (unless of course it’s a distant shot of Osama Bin Laden). Editors like wide angle shots especially for double page spreads, and the more potential DPS material you give them, the more space you’ll get and then the more cash you’ll make. Oh, and something I didn’t say yesterday: remember to take a range of portrait and landscape pictures, as this gives editors more layout arrangements to work with. Sadly, film has just about gone out of fashion, although last week in Syria I worked with a French photographer who still uses transparency film. Trailing around after him reminded me how arduous the medium is, although I am a great lover of film and processing, and have always had a darkroom myself. If I’m taking pictures of a person, for a story about them, I take a series of portraits which somehow link in to their work. If they are a painter, then have their work in the background, or a writer holding a copy of his first book perhaps. make sure you get the lighting right and spend time on that. Check the background and don’t be afraid to rearrange the subject or his environment if needed, as you may not be able to come back later. It’s a good idea to take pictures on the highest resolution possible (or on raw), and then it’s also good to load the pictures onto a web site gallery so an editor can flick through. Generally speaking, no editor likes being bombarded with images by email, unless they have asked for them that way. When I send individual pictures I do so by using an FTP upload, or I send them by www.yousendit.com, which has been a trusted friend to me. And, as with text, I make sure I am selling photos on a one-use basis. And remember that the photo editor is going to need caption information, and so make an effort to keep this ready and supply it. The more organised you are in terms of numbering and filing your pictures, the more successful you will eventually become. 



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Photography

I’ve been meaning to write about photography for a while. Because, as I said previously (One Man Band), it’s important to try and take care of the pictures yourself. The best way to learn about what’s needed is to buy some magazines, or better still to go to a library and check out a big stack. With photography there are a few different editorial niches. There are the articles that require a single picture, and those which need you to tell a story using pictures. I specialised in features and so I needed to give a set of imagines that could be used to illustrate the text I had written. If you look at some magazines, you’ll usually see that they have used a variety of sizes and different types of image. The sizes are generally a full page, a double page spread (DPS), a half page, a quarter page, an eighth and even a sixteenth. The important thing is to give an editor as much to play with as possible. Give photos that can be used as a DPS, as well as for close-ups. For example, if I was doing a story about a magic market in Fes, I’d give some wide shots of the bazaar itself, and of one or two stalls, preferably with shadowy figures clustered around (i.e. foreground and background). Then I’d give shots of the salesmen, doing various things, like weighing dried chameleons, or taking money, or sleeping between customers. And I’d take other pictures for details, like a handful of exotic powders, or the rows of jars all lined up. If the article was a long one, I’d try and take pictures of some of the clients as they explained how they took the medications, and so on. The really key thing with photography when you’re working for magazines, is to give them as much colour as possible. If there’s a bright red wall, or a turquoise door, get a picture of someone interesting (and associated with the article) standing there. A note on technical stuff tomorrow…



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Foreign Correspondent

When you turn on the TV or open the international section of the newspaper, it always says that so-and-so is the foreign corespondent. It sounds very grand and prestigious. But i’s actually a lot easier than you think to become a foreign correspondent… depending of course where you live, and for whom. During the long miserable years I lived in London, I had a niche for myself writing weekly columns for several newspapers as their London correspondent. I would write 1200-word pieces every week on (a) culture (b) general life and (c) travel tips, and I’d sell the same piece to publications all over the world. This was all done on the back of making a few phone calls, and quick meetings with local editors when I was visiting new York, Rio de Janeiro or Ulan Batur. OK, I’m not saying I was in the top bracket, but I was making money doing something that was fun and only took a couple of hours every week. And I was giving lesser known publications (like the Ulan Batur Herald or the Nairobi Standard a chance at bragging to their readers that they had a man at the ready in one of the greatest capitals of the world.



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Niche

I wrote about this before, but it’s something that has huge application in the media, and in journalism as a whole. If you can develop a niche of expertise for yourself, then editors in specific departments will call on you again and again. I have a friend who writes for food magazines, and she’s very good at it. But she also gets work writing culinary pieces for inflight magazines, for newspapers, as well as blurbs for food companies. Over the years she’s got pretty well known in her field, and is now invited on press trips, which are free trips (usually to exotic destinations) in the hope that she’ll write about the place later. And, even better in my opinion, she gets asked to write culinary books, cause she’s got a track record in the field. When developing a niche, the thing that’s so important is to follow a subject on which you’re passionate. Ask yourself what you’d write about for free. There must be something, whether it’s travel, or food, or railways or even knitting. Then set about thinking where you could pitch stories, and what angles would be good to cover. With the internet it’s much easier than before, and great because you can start at once by writing a blog.



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Mentors

One of the problems about writing is that you are shut away a lot of the time and you can get the feeling that you’re detached. A bit of being detached is a good thing. Actually, it’s a great thing. But once in a while it’s even better to get a sense of where you are… whether you’re on the right rails. And a way of doing this is, over time, to get to know (preferably personally) a writer who influences you. I have had several great influences, and they have affected me in different ways. Some have touched the way I think, my outlook, and other the way I work. For the kind of life I want to live, Wilfred Thesiger was an enormous influence. I adored his clear reasoning, and the way he never ever ever altered his views depending on the audience. He was consistently politically incorrect, which was so refreshing. He said what he believed and didn’t live a life couched in fear. It was Wilfred who encouraged me to go to Ethiopia, and to go for a walk in the Upper Amazon, where he hinted I would probably meet ‘some interesting fellows’.  Hugh Carless has been another great inspiration to me. He was with Newby on ‘The Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ (the journey was actually his idea). Carless has the finest conversational delivery I have ever heard, and is quite the most impeccable man I have known. As for writing, my father was an enormous influence. He used to tell me ‘we are basket weavers, Tahir jan, that’s what we do… we weave baskets’. My one memory of childhood is the clicking of a manual typewriter from morning till night. And, as I mentioned the other day, Doris Lessing, who is a writer’s writer. But even more importantly, is her plain-speak. Like Thesiger, she’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind.



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