Creative Accounting and Lightweight Travel.

Part One

TRAVELLING LIGHTER , TIGHTER AND BEING A WRITER   (with a bit of photography chucked in for good measure)

Learning to become a tight arse traveller, meandering slowly and smelling the roses, is akin to starting your own offshore tax haven. Don’t let that fool you. The fact is you may never earn enough money to pay tax. But so what? Eat your heart out, here’s my office.

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This is my second home, a bonus of creative accounting. It’s rent free so I have nothing to hide from the taxman. This a drone shot, not mine, I pinched it from a friend.

These days I’m learning a perverse logic:  You may as well not earn money at doing something you enjoy than not earn money doing something you don’t enjoy. Think about it!

I’ve never been mean, especially when it comes to spending Other People’s Money. Now, in the world of media’s changing economics and OPM vapourising, I’m learning to become lean and mean; a tight arse traveller. It takes practice but sooner or later  unique creative accounting falls into place. Not only that but it’s possible to earn a comfortable living. For example I don’t measure my economy in dollars and cents, rial, roubles, rupiah, kip or kyat, even though my best friend is a free currency converting App on the iPad.

THE NEW ECONOMY

My economy is measured in units of air fares and the cost of beer. There is no App for that yet.  One Air Fare Unit (AFU) is $250. A Unit of Beer (BU) is one dollar.

The process started in late 2008 when a global recession scattered freelance journalists and photojournalists in all directions. I was at a career point where I wanted to slow down a little. It was time for a change.

I found myself disliking driving. I’d been down the road of exotic cars, luxury appartments and had a trophy wife. I ‘let her go’ and she quickly married a Gucci. That has become the basis for a bigger story. I’m working on that.

Driving had been a passion but with crowded roads and traffic lights it had become frustrating. I was calculating how much I could sell my car for when somebody kindly drove theirs into the side of mine. The other driver should have become my new best friend. I would have bought him a few beers and traded girl friends because my car was deemed a write off and the insurers paid me twice what my asking price was going to be had I sold it. Suddenly I fell in love with an insurance company, that was a first, they can be very unlovable.

NEW FREEDOM, NEW LIFESTYLE

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New supermarket. Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, fresh fish. A weeks shopping costs about $15

Within a week the money was in a new account marked ‘Travel’. I woke to a new freedom, a new style of living. I had an old bike and a worn out travel bag which, at a squeeze, could accommodate a few T-shirts, shorts, jocks, toothbrush, shaving gear and pain killers. This kit was the framework for lightweight travel and a reasonable income.

The economic benefit was instant. No fuel bills, no massive service fees, no new tyres, no broken screens, no break-ins, no parking tickets, no speeding fines, no road tax, no depreciation, no insurance and no drink driving problems. That doesn’t mean no drinking. Collectively they save me a minimum of about $6000 a year.

I axed two daily newspapers, weekend papers and a few magazines saving another $2000 a year. My travel budget was now sitting on $8000 a year. Not a lot in the overall scheme of things but sufficient.

I had been travelling on OPM, staying in decent hotels, sometimes in exotic locations. I had every so often flown first class (nice); more often business class (nearly as nice) and sometimes cattle class;  not nice at all but I liked the passengers a great deal more.

I had spent years in Fleet Street, a nerve centre of journalism in those days, and was on the staff of a French magazine. After several years I went freelance, working on assignments, earning well, saving little but enjoying the freedom only a freelance journalist can enjoy. I then started working on a totally speculative basis, writing and illustrating self assigned stories.  My publication rate was high and I enjoyed more independence.

I’m an avid reader of Graham Green, Somerset Maugham and others who travelled and wrote about the region. Prompted by their influences I have let myself loose in SE Asia, an old territory of colonial France, Indochina. I saw a refreshed career as what the French fondly refer to as a flâneur; simply wandering streets and observing life, making a few notes, taking a few photographs.  I disciplined myself to write most evenings for an hour or so, usually in the company of  ice cold beer and a local meal.

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A sea level view of the office. My spot is on the extreme right, in that dark space.

As it happens Bali is only about three and a half hours by air from my Australian base so I made the island a second home. I can travel door to door, home to home, in about seven hours for  one AFU. Once there I stay in a delightful, clean and comfortable hotel. It has eight rooms and costs me ten bucks, about 10BUs, a night including breakfast and, importantly, a fast internet connection. Adding to the romance of the place is the rumour that it was formerly  a brothel.  I find that hard to believe as it has cold showers which could be counterproductive in some situations. I can live for about $200 a week on the island, including the hotel. That’s less than one AFU. People don’t believe me when I say I’m heading off to Bali to work. “Enjoy your holiday” they say. My office is a beach where I  write in a  warung, eat fresh fish daily with salads, rice and fruit and have a beer or two at about a dollar a bottle. That’s only 2BUs v 18BUs minimum in Australia.

I go to the morning market, buy fruit and chat to the locals who’ve named me ‘Poppa’, which I rather like. I buy fish to feed the hotel’s scrawny cats and frequently a kilo of rambutan when in season but the market is always full of fresh fruits. The fruit costs me about dollar, the fish about 20cents. In my local store, in Australia, rambutan is nearly $50 a kilo! Five kilos is an air fare! The more I eat the more I save.

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Erna and Made in their beachfront warung which doubles as my office. A decent lunch sets me back about  4BU of my creative travel currency. I do  a bit of writing, walk about twelve lengths of the beach, swim. There’s a secret trail though the trees along cliff top to the beach . It takes me about ten minutes to walk to the ‘office’.  

I’m digressing. This blog is aimed at people looking for an uncomplicated life, smelling the roses and earning a quid doing something they enjoy doing. So back to the travel light and write theme. Having spent several decades covering news and other events I was ready for a change. I have always written, always taken pictures. It was a useful combination and I see no reason to change that. This change in direction is to look at laid back stories, probably around travel, people I meet, food I eat. Like any good flâneur I have no sense of direction. I do have a list of ideas which tend to revolve around rivers, lakes, oceans, boats, beaches and palm trees. And a Happy Hour in a bar somewhere. So please feel free to watch this space.

WORKING KIT for WORDS

This is my basic working kit. I sometimes take a Macbook Air but generally find the basic iPad is sufficient. I carry a notebook and prefer the French Clairfontaine products as the paper is extraordinarily good for writing on. I used to use Moleskine but the paper is not in the same league and they cost nearly three times as much – about 33BUs against 12BUs. I like to write with a fountain pen and Clarefontaine paper doesn’t suffer from ‘show through’. Ink is often not practical in climates of high humidity either as the paper can get a little damp from sweaty hands. In that instance I use a highly treasured ball point pen. A few pencils and a sharpener are handy backups.

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Basic writing kit: I use the notebook as a scrap book too. On the left hand page I paste useful things like maps, menus, beer labels. Anything which may jog a memory. On the facing page I make notes. Each page is dated.
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The iPad and notebook are stored in lightweight nylon bag. Not totally waterproof but it could help. Pens, pencils, sharpeners are in a waterproof roll-up pouch. 

I’ll write about a photography kit in the next blog.  Cheers for now.

Roger Garwood. <rjgarwood@gmail.com>

Travelling with Dragons: Part II

Time Travel in the Slow Lane

I promised part II of this odyssey some weeks ago, in fact about three months ago. However, time waits for no man (or person depending on how politically correct we feel we should be). Thus I found myself sidetracked by a trip to Bali, a lot of writing and, better still, a few weeks of good old fashioned darkroom printing. That has been followed up with preparing notes for a workshop I’m giving at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in August. (http://ballaratfoto.org/garwood-workshop/). I will also be reviewing portfolios.

Also I freely admit that if anything looks as though it is going to interfere with my stroll to the cafe in the mornings it gets put off – forever.

The whole idea of travelling with the dragons is outlined in the original post (February). It was in fact a story which went off at another angle. I had intended to photograph the Mekong Delta in the wet season, the monsoon, but it didn’t rain. Thus I turned the idea into a time travel story. That idea morphed from the observation that travelling on the delta did seem like turning the clock back to days when travelling was a sedate pastime, when there was time to savour the atmosphere of a town, interact with the population, enjoy a journey without an itinerary and not worry about finding a cab to an airport.

It was with those things in mind that I cadged lifts, quite illegally, on cargo boats which ply goods through the lacy network of broad rivers and tiny creeks which make up the delta. To hop on an old cargo barge and negotiate a days travel with the skipper, with no notion of the final destination, is fun. Sauntering along at something above walking pace with a deep throated diesel engine powering you from village to village is a relaxing experience which no organised tour can match. Nudging into jetties as all manner of goods are loaded and unloaded – anything from eggs and bricks to chickens and rice sacks – is an insight into how the world used to be.

By the way, just click on pictures if you wish to enlarge them.

A typical landing point for cargo boats. These are good spots to cadge lifts.
A typical landing point for cargo boats. These are good spots to cadge lifts.

A small cabin, its ceiling low enough to make it impossible to stand upright, with rush bedding on the floor and simple wooden shutters which could be removed to allow a cooling breeze to slide though, was luxury. And cheap. A days travel would cost around five dollars and you are spared the ceremony of eating at the captain’s table. It was a good idea to take a few snacks along as well as bottled water. If you felt inclined you could go below into the crews’ quarters and steal a nap in a hammock. Crews invariably consisted of a husband and wife team and maybe a deck-hand. A real treat would be a pot of lotus tea and dive into a bag of coconut toffee sweets.

A typical day on the delta involves dropping into small towns and villages to offload cargo. This is all labour intensive work, often in high temperatures and just made for pictures.
A typical day on the delta involves dropping into small towns and villages to offload cargo. This is all labour intensive work, often in high temperatures and just made for pictures.

The Lightweight Photo Kit

I tend to specialise in travelling light – very light in fact. The photo gear on this trip amounted to nothing more than my Leica D Lux 5 and about 15 4gb cards.

I don’t backup images while travelling but do edit the obvious junk out ‘in camera’. I’ll also download a few shots onto an iPad each day to use when emailing friends. The intention of doing that is to make them feel green with envy while they work on their desk jobs in the big city, something I’ve never done. The notion of working at a desk in an air conditioned office is the greatest incentive of all to want to spend a life travelling and writing. Rather like feeling thirsty and hungry is an incentive to look for wine bars and restaurants.

There is a certain paranoia among photographers with regard to backing up images while travelling. I really never bother. I know one day I’ll lose something but I don’t really look on that as a matter of life and death. Obviously, If I have a really top shot, which is rarely, I’ll back it up – send it to the cloud or Dropbox. The reason I use 4gb cards is because (a) they are cheap (b) If I lose one I haven’t lost a truckload of pictures (c) the contents of a 4gb card fit perfectly onto a DVD which is how I back-up when I return home.  So what happens if everything is stolen? Tough – I refuse to live in fear. It’s worth pointing out the advantage of travelling light – simply put you can keep all of your gear with you all of the time.

One great advantage of using small cameras is they are inoffensive. Lugging a large DSLR around in order to shoot pictures of people can be deemed offensive – small cameras don’t seem aggressive or intrusive.

The D Lux 5 or its successor, the D Lux 6, each with a 24-90 (equivalent) zoom are perfect for candid pictures and deliver very high quality. I’ve had a number of magazine spreads  used from DL5 files and the quality is such I could kid myself the work was taken with a larger format camera.

I call 'Keeping and Eye on the Kids'. This boat was moored on the river bank and the kids had rigged a couple of swings up. And no, they didn't fall into the mud. A;; boats have giant eyes painted on the bow to ward off sprits - or see where they are heading.
I call this ‘Keeping and Eye on the Kids’. The boat was moored on the river bank and the kids had rigged a couple of swings up while the tide was low. And no, they didn’t fall into the mud. All boats have giant eyes painted on the bow to ward off spirits – or see where they are heading.

I’m not going to rabbit on too much about the travelling, that’s saved for magazines, but I’ll put a few more pictures and captions in. Interestingly, while on this trip, I have produced one major story and several small ones. That’s to say one of about 2500 words and a handful of ‘fillers’ each of around 500-800 words and a handful of pictures. From the original shoot, which was done in RAW and high quality jpg, I edited about 100 pictures for the delta story. From those around 40-50 are sent for editors to work from with a note saying more are available.

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This is a short series from various floating markets on the Mekong Delta. On these occasions I hired a boat and local boatman to get me around.

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The original files are RAW but of these shots have been worked on from the jpgs, straight from the camera, and put through Silver Efex Pro 2, a great program to work with.

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It’s in tight situations like this that the flexible 24-90mm zoom on the DL5 comes into its own.

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Every small town and village has at least one market and they’re  like a magnet to me. I don’t generally  take less than flattering pictures of people but I couldn’t resist this one.

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To give editors a wide choice of pictures when presenting them with a feature story it’s important to give a broad selection which takes many aspects of the story into consideration as well as making sure there’s a variety of vertical and landscape pictures. People always add life to a feature, they give a story ‘pace’.

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These two men were sitting in a riverside cafe playing a board game. They could see there were no seats or tables free and the guy on the left stood up, walked over the road to another cafe and came back with a small table and chair and indicated for me to sit down. That’s the sort of kindness experienced all over the country.And I got a couple of reasonable pictures.

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This man is a sewing machine repairer. He works from a small workshop with his wife. Language was a difficult proposition but with a bit of hand waving and pointing the old gentleman happily obliged while his wife looked on.

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As I said, markets are a magnet. I don’t think I’m an exception in that as most street shooters tend to look on them as happy hunting grounds.

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Wandering around Chau Doc, on the Cambodian border, I came across wonderful lady who lived under a bridge. She insisted on showing me her kitchen.

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Dried fish! It took me a long time to realise what these were. I had assumed they were a sort of grass or seaweed but the tiny heads gave the game away.

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A noodle factory on the banks of the delta. I have to admit that I tend to use the D Lux on a simple automatic setting. Thus the lens seems to operate wide open most of the time. I use the slowest ISO of 80 which produces extraordinary quality from a small sensor. I don’t mind a little movement creeping into pictures and in this instance the steamy atmosphere added a great deal to the image.

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Viewed from my hotel room at Chau Doc. This is where many of the homes are floating on large oil drums and are accessed by planks from adjoining streets.

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Looking for ‘filler’ shots is essential to give stories some character. These spotless white ducks were in a little creek off a main delta tributary. I’m not sure if they were waiting for their dinner or about to become dinner.

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Graphic images are formed by the boats’ hulls.

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Don’t you just love old technology?

Dragged, Kicking and Screaming, into The Digital Age

I first saw digital media photography in action about 14 years ago. I was covering the last of the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Races (It’s since become the Volvo Race).

I was contracted to the Toshiba Team and, for a change, being paid good money  to travel around the world, stay in decent hotels and do all of the things which give people who don’t do these things a warm fuzzy feeling. Some people have a funny notion of news work, they don’t understand how bloody hard it is.

A colleague who was contracted to one of the other syndicates was working with an early professional digital cameras. It was a mongrel spawned by Nikon and Kodak, had the memory of a gnat and had cost him about $25,000. He was also using a state of the art Mac laptop. These days they’d be about as useful as a garden gnome but in those days they represented state of the art technology.

I don’t think many of us working at that time realised we were on the threshold of a revolution which would have massive repercussions in the media.

I was working with a few Leica R bodies and lenses which weighed a tonne. I was also working with film, C41 colour neg. which I processed in hotels, in the bathroom basin with a two bath kit of powdered chemicals. I then scanned the negs on a Nikon Coolscan and was able to caption and send pictures from my computer. In the time it had taken me to do that my friend had download his camera’s memory cards, edited them, captioned them and hit the send button. In fact he had pretty well finished his work before I had unloaded the film from my cameras.

It was in the first few days of the race that I realised the potential of the new technology. My colleague, I’ll call him Bert  (that isn’t his name because I’m going to talk about his financials here).

In addition to the contract he had with his team he made deals with about 200 newspapers and magazines around the world, offering them a simple service from the race. He would photograph the end and beginning of each leg of the race (when they arrived and left each destination). He would also supply a story for each of 10 days during each stopover. The stopovers were generally for a couple of weeks and there were about ten of them. So, on each of those days he sent half a dozen pictures with captions and a short story. Now here’s the stroke of genius. He didn’t mind how the pictures or stories were used. They could be covers, spreads, postage stamp size, whatever. The customer had no rights to sell them on to others nor did Bert lose copyright.

I know a heap of photographers who, with some justification, bleat and moan about the small amounts we can be paid, particularly now. But Bert was offering a service and for what he offered he was asking US$40! I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t open the filing cabinet drawer for that amount. Now look at  200 x $40. When I went to school (I did go to school!) that was $8000. Now look at that for ten days – $80,000. Now look at ten stopovers. $800,000 for ten months work plus the syndicate’s contract. I was impressed.

And so, very slowly, I was dragged, kicking and screaming and probably biting, into the digital age. I don’t like the cameras much. I do like the convenience. I still use my old Leicas and film for what I deem serious work – which doesn’t make money. But digital is convenient, it’s fast to process and pump out material.

I have, for the best part of my career, worked as a freelance for some excellent magazines. I would be commissioned to work on a story, deliver the goods and, hey presto, get a cheque in return. I retained copyright and put pictures into stock libraries which gave a tidy turnover. I also received syndication fees from the magazines – generally 50% of ongoing sales.

It was a gravy train. These days there’s no train and no gravy to speak of. We all know times are tough.

I asked myself, in light of the rapidly changing market, what I felt I should do. The answer was simple. Carry on as you are – writing and illustrating stories. But instead of looking at the megabucks hit five or six times a year offer publications shorter stories with fewer pictures. Then sell them many times for small amounts. A few years ago it was possible to get good four to five figure payments from magazines. I decided to make a new business plan and spreadsheet based on average sales of $200. It showed that by doing about six stories a year and syndicating each of them methodically I could make a reasonable quid without actually stressing too much and with radically reduced overheads.

Is it working? Well, it is. The early signs are good. Sales are going up, not down and it’s a difficult market with magazines and newspapers closing and the competition increasing. Basing my business plan on $200 sales was a bit low as sales average above that.

Would this be possible without digital technology? Well yes but it wouldn’t be as simple.  While the big change has been in equipment the bigger shift has been the effect the web and electronic media are having on traditional markets.

Digital images make it possible to cut overheads dramatically. About 15 years ago it was necessary to supply magazines with either original transparencies or duplicates.  That meant high film overheads and high duplicating costs. Many magazines would expect to see anywhere from a hundred to well over a thousand images. That made it necessary to get high publication fees.

Now it is possible to fill neat little markets with  stories of a 800-1200 words and a selection of about 20-100 pictures. The production and freight costs of preparing and dispatching are, to all intents and purposes, zero.

What of the immediate future? Well, here’s a thought. Statistics from the USA show that the industry in the most rapid decline is print media. The industry showing the most rapid increase is electronic media. My conclusion is that the market is still there but it’s highly fragmented and, like shrapnel from a bomb blast, nobody knows exactly where it’s going land or who it’s going to hit. And we know there are plenty of casualties.