Frequent Flyer (Part Two:) Commuting for personal and creative purposes

I fly a lot for work, like most photographers. I initially commuted for personal reasons like most people do. I wanted to be with my family as much as possible, while I was working on projects that seemed to always be “somewhere else.” Eventually commuting became an integral part of my creative process as a photographer. This blog post is an argument for the idea that most photographers who work on long-term projects should consider building commuting into their creative processes.

The first major project I did that had a commuting component was my work on the pesticide poisoning of farm-workers in California. At the time, I was living in Philadelphia, but the project I was working on was in the Central Valley of California. In order to see an entire agricultural growing season (and maintain some semblance of a home life,) I decided NOT to simply move to California. I chose to commute, which meant approximately two weeks at home in Philadelphia alternating with two weeks in California. When I was at home, I was doing regular assignment work to “pay the bills.” I was also doing research for my next trip to California. Also, I was processing and printing the film that I had been shooting during my trips West.

Photographing a story as sensitive as the showing the impact of pesticides on farm-workers required me to slowly build trusting relationships with families who had children dying from cancer or living with shocking birth defects (both likely caused by the pesticides.) Not surprisingly, they were often scared and traumatized. I usually met a given family in California, for the first time, through a clergy person or medical worker. A couple weeks later, during my next trip West, I would try to see the same family. During that second meeting they would often agree to talk to me. On the third meeting, they usually would let me do a formal, posed portrait of them and their family. On the fourth meeting, I would give them a copy of the posed family photo. By the fifth visit, they would often invite me into their homes and/or hospital rooms to see (and photograph) the difficult situations they were living with. By the time that project was finished, I was starting to see how commuting made me look like I was a fixture in the community (even though I was not living there,) and how folks would start to trust me over time.

During my next large project, exploring the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, I did actually move to Israel. Ironically, after working on that for over a year, I moved back to the U.S. having done a great deal of assignment work focused on the conflict there and not that much work on my project. But, I had finally figured out my approach to the project (and won a large grant to enable me to do the proposed work.)

Much like in the way it did in the pesticide-poisoning project, commuting between Philadelphia and the Middle East had great advantages. It enabled me to continue doing my research at home, while having something of a home life. It enabled me to appear as if I still lived there and to meet people numerous times to build up trust. The added benefit was that commuting also gave me a better perspective on my strategy for the project. Because I commuted, when I was away from the Middle East, I could look at the work I was building up and clearly define what I had, and what I needed to get in order to complete the work. By comparison, when I was living in the middle of the situation I was photographing, I often found it very hard, if not impossible, to step back and get a good perspective.

During the last decade’s work exploring globalization’s impact in South Asia, I continued commuting for all of the reasons noted above and some new ones. A couple years before I started that work, I had a daughter and then I was divorced. The desire for a strong, ongoing relationship with my daughter and my second wife became strong motivation to continue the commute. In this case I was going half way around the world to different locations in South Asia, though primarily India.

The upsides of commuting were many. They include a sustainable home life as well as a good perspective on my subject matter. I learned to look at India from the point of view of both an insider and outsider. Because India was much less economically developed when I started the work there, commuting also enabled me to get the needed color slide film, camera gear and later digital technology, to continue the work.

The downside was that about one third of each trip seemed to be spent on-line plotting the next trip. Political events, most notably the upheaval in Nepal in 2005 and 2006, meant even more time spent on-line changing plans and less time out photographing. The actual flying was something of a downside too, though I have my own routines for making travel less painful (which may merit another blog post.)

I certainly would not casually recommend commuting long distances for photo-projects. Still, it can work if you want to maintain a good family life, become part of the culture where you are working and be able to develop a good perspective on the progress you are making on your project. If you want to learn to simultaneously view your subject as both an insider and outsider, commuting can be helpful. Besides, think of all the frequent flier miles you will accrue.

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