Q + A: Travel Photographer Peter DeMarco on Following Your Vision, Befriending Nomads, and the Most Dangerous Thing He’s Done for an Image

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A goat herder in Bagan, Myanmar. A subway commuter in Busan, Korea. A child walking on water (or so it appears) in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo. This is the work of travel photographer Peter DeMarco, who I’m so excited to feature here.

I discovered Peter’s photos while living in Busan, Korea’s second-biggest city, which he has made his home since 2007, teaching, travelling, and shooting amazing photos like the ones you’re about to see. We met through a friend and one day went for a walk along the Busan coastline, talking about freelancing, creativity, and how to merge artistic passions with career.

In 2006, Peter backpacked through Mongolia with a digital point-and-shoot camera. This trip, along with a moment in a college photography class–in which he discovered the magic of a reflection in a garbage can–created a passion for photography that has developed into award-winning work. I’ve been lucky to follow Pete’s photographic adventures through his awesome site The Nomad Within, and continue to be struck by his motivation, technical skill, and genuine passion for a life rich with imagery, travel, and the expression of both.

Peter shoots everything from people and landscapes to city views from 80 stories up. He shares some of his secrets here–on photography, yes, but also on setting aside time to create, finding inspiration through action, and being present. I hope you enjoy, and if you do, please share!

*If you’re  in Korea, check out Pete’s exhibition Wonders of Asia in Ulsan from June 15 – July 28, 2013.

Bagan, Myanmar. Merit Winner – National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest.

Bagan, Myanmar. Merit Winner – National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

1. What’s your earliest memory of feeling a connection to photography, of getting a sense that it was significant for you?

I was taking a picture of the inside of a garbage can. Seriously. It was for a photography class I took in college. I remember thinking how interesting the light looked reflecting off the black garbage bag, and that “normal” people wouldn’t point their camera at trash. The theme for my final project was reflections. That was the first time I ever put together a body of work on a single topic. I developed those black and white prints myself. After I saw them framed I knew photography would always be a part of me.

2. What stands out as the lesson that has most influenced your work?

Believe in and follow your vision above anything else. Don’t doubt your work. Don’t judge it. Create it. Put it out there. Let other people judge. Create again. If you are going to pursue any creative endeavor in your life, you have to read this article The Helsinki Bus Station Theory by Arno Rafael Minkkinen.

Hong Kong Tram

Hong Kong Tram

3.What’s the most dangerous/risky/surprising thing you’ve done to capture an image?

Rooftopping is probably it – sneaking into buildings and taking photos from the roof. I wrote about how I do it here.

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View from 80 stories high, Busan, South Korea

4. How do you navigate the fine line between capturing an amazing shot and potentially invading the privacy of the subject?

I try to engage my subjects by giving of myself first. Instead of sitting on a street corner with a telephoto lens like a stalker, I’d rather walk up to someone, and get to know them for however a brief encounter it might be. It’s hard to do, to talk to a stranger. But the fact that I engaged my subject will show up in the photos. It’s that opening up of both myself and my subject, that intimacy, where great images are born. For instance, when I was in Mongolia back in 2006 I befriended a family of nomads and lived with them for a week. Since I got to know them well, I was able to photograph their daily life without invading their privacy. I saw things like a grandmother kissing her sleeping grandchildren, sewing in the pasture, relaxing in the yurt, and more. I’m not saying you have to live with a family of nomads. Even a short greeting and a smile is enough to open up to a stranger. Photography is not just about taking photos, it’s about how we choose to interact with the world.

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Mari Mari Cultural Village. Sabah, Borneo

5. What do you turn to for inspiration to keep the creative tap flowing?

There are a few things: go for a walk, journaling, look at other people’s photos, read books on creativity like The Artist’s Way by Julie Cameron, etc. I also read a bunch of articles and watch videos by people that inspire me. For instance, I follow Chase Jarvis and Trey Ratcliff quite a bit. Chase’s Consequences of Creativity video and Trey’s Author’s Talk at Google are excellent for filling the creative well in the age of the Internet.

6. What are your thoughts on balancing just being present in a moment, and at the same time wanting to document it? Do you ever just want to leave the camera behind?

For me, being present in the moment and documenting it are the same thing. My camera helps me to be in the moment. It forces me to see what is special in this world. Something happens. I click the shutter. It is true though that I can get so wrapped up in taking a picture that I forget where I am, who I’m with, how much time has passed by, or even what I’m doing. For me, that is a good thing. It means I’m flowing or “in the zone” as they say in sports. That is where I want to be and my camera is a tool that takes me there. Yes, sometimes I just put the camera down, take a breath, and think about where I am. The only time I want to leave the camera behind is when it becomes a pain to carry.

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Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

7. The options for photo editing have increased drastically in the last few years. What’s your perspective on staying true to an image, while taking advantage of the artistic possibilities that editing offers? Does this come into play during the process?

Absolutely. But rather than focusing on being true to an image, I focus on being true to my vision. Of course, if I’m submitting photos to a magazine for publication I would never manipulate them to the extent that they don’t represent reality. However, I would definitely make basic adjustments such as color saturation, exposure, contrast, etc. There is an excellent article about this – Enhanced Reality: Exploring the Boundaries of Photo Editing.

On the other hand, if I’m creating something from a purely artistic standpoint, there are no boundaries. I’ll process an image to no end, even if it doesn’t look real. I don’t care. As long as I’m true to my vision.

The Commuter

Busan, South Korea

8. How do you continue to challenge/push yourself creatively?

Goals and structure. The hardest thing for me is to start creating. But once I begin I can’t stop. Writers write. Painters paint. You have to set aside time to create, the same way you make time to go to work. I plan blocks of time in the morning just for creating. I also set goals to publish a certain amount of articles each month, enter photo contests, update my blog, write new stories, and so on. Now whether or not I complete those goals is another story.

9. What’s on the top of your dream list of places to photograph?

I’ve always dreamed of traveling the Silk Route from Xian, China to Europe. It has camel trains in the desert, cities Marco Polo visited and wrote about, mud houses wedged into mountain crevices above emerald green lakes, Muslims, Buddhists, and everything else in between. You can find it all on what is considered the world’s first “highway” of sorts. Is there a more romantic travel adventure?

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Gobi Desert, Mongolia

10. What’s your biggest tip for someone wanting to pursue photography?

Take photos. Don’t worry about equipment. Your basic phone camera is enough. Many people (myself included) wait to be inspired before starting something. The secret though is that it’s the opposite: action creates inspiration.

Bamboo forest in Damyang, South Korea

Bamboo forest in Damyang, South Korea

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Bohey Dulang Island, Sabah, Borneo

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Peter with ‘the girls’ on Jeju Island. Photo by Kim Ok Sun.

  

A few of Pete’s Favourite Photography Quotes

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” ~ Ansel Adams

”When people ask me what equipment I use – I tell them my eyes.” ~ Anonymous

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” ~ Robert Capa

“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”. ~ Ansel Adams

And Some of His Favourite Travel Quotes

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” ~ Susan Heller

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson

“Live the wonderful life that is in you. Be afraid of nothing.” ~ Richard Hailliburton, author of The Royal Road to Romance

*I’d love to know–which is your favourite photo of Pete’s, and why? What are your thoughts on editing for artistic purposes? Any dream places you’d love to photograph?

View more of Pete’s work and words at The Nomad Within

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