An Interview with Photographer Jamie Marshall

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Jamie Marshall travel photo

Tokyo Nightscape, Japan, 2008. A self-portrait - of sorts. I balanced my camera on a bag, shielded window glare with a coat and quick-legged it round to another window on the 42nd floor of this building to grab this self-timer shot. Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Let’s face it, anyone who enjoys both traveling and photography harbours a dream of one day earning their living by combining the two. Some people manage to achieve it. It’s tempting to say that they’re lucky; but usually their success at living such an envious lifestyle is the result of lots of hard work, talent and perseverance.

Jamie Marshall is a person earning his living as a travel photographer. His website Tribal Eye displays photos from all around the world. I look at his photos and I want to go to the same places and experience the same things that he has. I’m sure you will too.

Jamie is unusual in that he has a background as an ethnologist, giving him unique insights into the people and cultures he photographs. This is a thoughtful interview, with lots of good advice for anyone who would like to be a professional travel photographer one day.


How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?

I like to shoot all sorts of material, but will never turn away from something that has the power to lift the spirit. If people derive even a fraction of the pleasure from my photographs as I have experienced making them then that would be fantastic. Visual imagery can have immense power and influence and is too often the messenger bringing scenes of death and destruction into our lives.

I like to be able to convey positive aspects of our humanity and try and help shatter certain ill-conceived notions that many people harbour about what are to them strange lands and alien cultures. One cannot deny that war, famine and disaster are more common than anyone would like, but that even in the poorest places people generally find at least some happiness in their everyday lives. Although materially poor, many people are culturally and spiritually rich, and there is always room for joy, love and friendship.

Some perceive many of the places I travel to as dangerous, though I suspect that my frequent commute by bicycle is more so. The joy of travel is not of course solely the places and paths one treads, but the people one meets in the process.  Fortunately I’ve realised that the snakes don’t necessarily move along that same path, rather cross it only occasionally at random intervals.

When did you start taking photos and why? What made you decide to become a travel photographer?

My father is a photographer, so I realised fairly early on that photography wasn’t necessarily a point-and-shoot process. Not that the pictures I took as a kid come across as a consequence of anything but.

Whilst at college I swapped a simple point-and-shoot for an Olympus OM1, and then found myself getting to grips with it whilst backpacking around Southeast Asia. If I hadn’t made that swap I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t be quite so rooted in travel photography now. Southeast Asia represented an inspirational backdrop, and the kick-start I received from grabbing a handful of good images and the interactions and adventures which led up to them, put fuel to this journey.

Travel and photography go hand in hand, but it is the memories of the people and places that flood from the photographs themselves that are for me a priceless source of warmth and inspiration. No matter how good or bad I, or others, perceive any of my photographs, I fundamentally treat each as a memory of life on the road – of people and places I’ve had the good fortune to encounter.

My interest in indigenous peoples and their arts and crafts also took root during that trip, and this subsequently fed into my studies and work as an anthropologist, documenting and researching tribal textiles. Much of what I photograph now combines these two passions.

Why did you start the Tribal Eye website and photo library? What was your inspiration?

I’ve had a web presence in the form of TribalEye Images for more than a decade and travels aside, the site actually cost me little more than midnight oil. When it first went live there weren’t that many travel photography websites around and certainly nothing with the depth of inspiration one finds on the internet today.

The original intention was to compile galleries of my travel memories organised by destination and theme and bring them to a global audience. Despite having aspirations of developing the site into something a lot more interactive, it hasn’t really changed very much as my work and travel commitments have kept me overly distracted.

As a consequence of the upsurge in interest in my work I threw a lot of energy into  digitising my slide archive so as to be able to offer images direct to clients and stock image libraries. So the bulk of my more recent material appears solely on sites like DK Images, Alamy and Imagestate. I have naturally linked my image archive through my site, but only in a crude fashion.

In this predominantly digital age, image processing, keywording and captioning seem to take up an inordinate amount of time, and this isn’t looking like abating any time soon, not least with Alamy’s constant revision of how they want images keyworded. Having recently been invited to contribute to Getty’s Image Bank collection, I expect I’ll be busy submitting more images there before I get round to giving my own site the revamp it desperately needs.

Your work has been published in a lot of magazines, including prestigious glossies and travel guides. What advice can you give any photographer aspiring to break into these markets?

Although the marketplace seems to have changed a lot, there is still a lot to be said for developing relationships and maintaining rapport with prospective and existing clients. I used to spend a great deal of time contacting companies directly, and managed to get material published as a consequence.

Although it is important to build up a track record with well-known publications, don’t short-sell yourself in the process. Over the past few years publishers, like photographers, have embraced the age of the digital image and now source most of their material online through numerous outlets.

Stock imagery is also much more accessible than it used to be, and getting images into digital libraries is a relatively simple and potentially worthwhile investment. Remember that your images are your creation, yours forever, and should represent an ongoing stream of income if marketed appropriately.

So again, don’t sell yourself short by throwing your travel imagery into inappropriate agencies such as microstock sites, and be wary at licencing your top-notch output as Royalty Free. Aim higher and see where it takes you. Good imagery can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, but many photographers, and consequently many image-buyers, seem to value it at little more than a pack of peanuts.

Photographic competitions represent another way of getting noticed by publishers, but watch the small print – many ‘competitions’ represent little more than copyright-grabs aimed to primarily benefit the organisers by way of providing them with free images into perpetuity. Do not relinquish your copyright under any circumstances.

Another worthwhile avenue to explore is to offer your services to a charity working in the developing world. Although the organisation will likely want exclusive, and hopefully time-limited rights to use your work, you can gain access to interesting parts of the world and valuable experience in the process.

Work towards getting a good portfolio together, publish it online, and use it to maintain the attention of publishers when you contact them. Travel publications are usually destination-driven, so preparing lightbox-links by destination will likely prove useful. Editors working on an article or title will usually have a pre-prepared list of things they wish to illustrate in their publication.

If you are invited to contribute on the strength of your portfolio, be professional, not just in respect of the images you send them, but the manner in which you conduct yourself. Adhere to briefs and deadlines, edit tightly and caption your work accurately and concisely. Build up a track record and use examples of your published work to win more work.

If the direct approach yields little success, target more effort in getting your work into libraries. Picture editors have millions of images to choose from online, so unless you have a comprehensive spread of material, it is unlikely that they are going to find what they need from one source alone. Find a niche subject that interests you and concentrate in building an archive and a reputation on that basis.

Not that it should necessarily be your guiding light, but bear in mind that most commercial clients are willing to pay more for uplifting and inspirational imagery. Returns per image has taken a major dive in recent years so be prepared for a bumpy ride.

Finally, I need to mention something often said – consider photojournalism as an option. A lot of writers also market themselves as photographers, and if you can truly do both, and do both well, then such a complementary set of skills could barely be more rewarding – selling self-illustrated articles gives you a double slice of the pie.

What tips can you give for understanding and interacting with the local people that photographers come across in their travels?

It is true that approaching a stranger and asking if you can photograph them requires a certain degree of confidence. If you don’t speak the local language, try and learn at least a few simple words – this helps break the ice, and does so by showing respect for your subject and an interest in their culture. Be friendly (yet always respectful) and try using hand gestures to indicate your photographic intentions.

Another good way to break the ice is to buy something from someone or engage their services – a market vendor or a rickshaw driver for instance – it really is as simple as it sounds as you’ve already set up a relationship, albeit one based on a simple commercial transaction. Try and strike up a rapport with people – showing postcards, or photographs of home and family can also help break down social barriers.

Photographing people going about their daily work can make for good photographs. By including the subject’s surroundings you can say more about them in a way that a straightforward portrait of someone’s face cannot. Always try and make the most of the moment without shattering your subject’s patience – work as efficiently as possible.

Studying people’s habits, gestures, expressions, movements and postures will help hone your observational skills. Capturing the right mood in your subject can make or break not only a portrait but a landscape which has human content.

It goes without saying that if someone has given you their address and asked for you to send a copy of their photo, you should always carry through with the promise. A good alternative, if you have the ability to do so in a timely fashion, is to personally hand deliver prints instead. This in itself represents an excellent way of getting to know someone better and indeed opens the doors to more photographic opportunities as a result.

What advice can you give a newcomer to travel photography in marketing their work? How important is your website in your marketing strategy?

A website is a vital tool for reaching your target audience. I’ve already confessed to not having updated my site for years, literally, and have an enormous list of things I would like to do when I finally get round to a revamp. Not that my online efforts have been in vain in recent years.

As already mentioned, I spent a great deal of time and effort in getting my images into online stock libraries at a time when there was an explosion in demand for digital imagery. Having your images available to the world through an agency or portal is paramount if you wish to make an income from selling stock, and a presence at any of these agents represents another opportunity to get seen and have an online portfolio.

You’ve travelled a lot. What is your favourite place and why?

That’s a seriously tough one. I have found joy and inspiration in so many places, that it would be difficult to be specific, but what I can say is that I’ve always been drawn to high places and plateaus. The Andes, Himalayas and Tibet, and the volcanic uplands of Indonesia and Central America all hold special memories for me.

The quality of the light helps a lot, but it is generally the people that make all the difference. In contrast I also have a personal bond with the coast and not so long ago made a fantastic trip to the islands of the Mafia archipelago, Tanzania. Generally speaking I relish the idea of spending time in the highlands and then retiring to the relative warmth and luminous expanse of the coast.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had as a travel photographer?

Photographs are amazing in the way that they, as single, fragmented, selective moments in time and place, can resurrect in one’s mind all manner of minor details of an event. Festivals seem to stand out as times when I’ve had a ball mingling and photographing people.

I’ve rarely felt more in my element on occasions where an otherwise solitary pursuit can be so full of newfound friendships and heartwarming experiences. The elation at coming away with a batch of fine photographs is just the icing on the cake.

Patronal festivals celebrated in the towns and villages of Latin America, The Nat Festival of Taungybone, Mandalay, Burma and the Maharero Festival at Okahandja, Namibia all represent memorable occasions.
Another was in the highlands of Guatemala, where one Easter I spent the entire night in the cemetery of a traditional Maya community, seeing in the new day with a group of elders and a statue of their patron saint. It was a ceremonial occasion and I was co-opted to be the procurer of ritual smoking materials. This amounted to little more than running off to find cigarettes at 3am. Copious amounts of aguardiente were also consumed that night.

Come daybreak, the foothills of the Cuchumatán mountains were a spectacular sight – rich, golden, mist-drenched and backlit. As well as the landscape, I took some memorable portrait shots of an elder’s soon-to-be-married daughter, spectacularly dressed in traditional Maya attire. She had arrived to collect her ailing father – his faith-fuelled indulgence in liquor had rendered him, along with the rest of his companions, virtually legless.

The world is changing at a breakneck pace – the industrialisation, commercialisation and effective destruction of age-old ecosystems and ways of life are happening virtually before our eyes. Landscapes and cultures are becoming homogenised.

From a sentimental point of view, I like to imagine that sometime in the future, someone will discover my transparencies and treat them with a certain reverence. Not for what they depict per se, but for what they represent – timeless slices of a pre-digital age, frozen forever into little more than a square inch of transparent film. Today I shoot almost exclusively with digital SLRs, but have a special place in my heart for my slide archive, despite it taking up way too-much space.

Tell us a little about your book ‘Threads of Colour’. How did you get involved in book publishing? What’s involved in taking the photos for an entire book?

Although I’ve got batches of photos across a broad range of titles, ‚ÄòThreads of Colour’, was the first that contained all my work and touched on my interest in tribal costume.  The publisher is primarily a manufacturer of furnishing fabrics, but also publishes on the broader theme of interior design and is something of a trendsetter as a consequence.

I introduced myself to the director after discovering his amazing showroom in Chelsea.  It was a delight working with him as he has a very clear sense of the aesthetic and I just knew that he would present the images in a stylish way.  We started by sifting through about 700 images, thrown together on the loose theme of colour and cloth.

As an ethnologist by training, with a specialism in tribal textiles, I had plenty of images to choose from, but it meant that some of my favourite travel shots just weren’t suitable. I included lots of abstract material and images of repeating forms and textures.

Most of the images were already in my files – accumulated over a string of trips, though I did shoot some fresh material – mainly of African textiles – to broaden the palette. The transparencies were organized into sheets according to colour, which looked dazzling and jewel-like, and so ‘Threads of Colour’ was born.

Name three photographers you like and why.

Steve McCurry – for enchanting images that evoke an appreciation of our shared humanity.

Sam Abell – for his pure relationship with light and his sense for the eternal.

Galen Rowell – for pioneering a unique perspective of participatory outdoor photography and his belief that it was all about being in the right place at the right time.

Where is your photography going? What future photographic projects are you excited about?

I’ve enjoyed travelling with my father, Jon Marshall, and look forward to taking more trips together. His 50 years of portrait photography combined with my general lust for travel makes for a good combination. The Mount Hagen August show in Papua New Guinea is something we’re considering, as well as a trip to Madagascar or Mozambique.

It is always good to have a few projects on the backburner, not least because potentially it can take years to get a worthy spread of material together. Peoples of the High Plateau is a work in progress as I continue to explore the world and those communities living at the top of it.

Your dream assignment, something you haven’t done yet. What would it be?

A National Geographic assignment involving a journey across the Bolivian altiplano and salt flats in a hot air balloon would probably do the trick!


Tribal Eye Images

Jamie Marshall “Visions of Travel” Portfolio One


Jamie Marshall travel photo

Habana Vieja, April 2009. Cuba is a fascinating country. Although I have another crop of this shot of the one boy alone gazing upwards, this broader shot, which includes another kid with crocs and clutching a digital camera highlight the bridge between the majority of Cubans and those that have access to remittances from relatives living in the U.S.

Jamie Marshall travel photo

Whirling Dervish. Nuweiba, Egypt, 2006. A snapshot taken at a package resort on the Red Sea with a compact point-and-shoot (a Panasonic LX1) produced some satisfying results. Goes to show that expensive independent adventures and cumbersome kit aren’t necessarily a prerequisite for making interesting and saleable travel images.

Jamie Marshall travel photo

Ubud, Bali, 2003. Indonesia is so much easier to get around now than when I first visited in the 1980s. I made a point of returning to Bali as I was aware of how tourism receipts had slumped after the dreadful bombings of the previous year. The Balinese are wonderful people and having enough Bahasa Indonesia under my belt made interactions with local people even more rewarding.

Laguna Chungará, Lauca National Park, Chile, 1995. My first trip to South America took in sections of the Pan-American highway. A quirky roadside perspective of the Parinacota Volcano which straddles the Bolivia-Chile border. This shot was used as a cover to the Rough Guide to Chile.

Sun-baked Apricots. Hunza Valley, Pakistan, 1996. This shot was a runner-up in the first ever Wanderlust Travel Photography competition, back in the day when I pursued photography solely as a passion. Apparently one of the judges deemed my efforts far too much the hallmark of a professional and disregarded it as a winner. The shot brings back memories of exciting travels in a country that has become so fraught in recent years.

All photos Copyright © Jamie Marshall. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.

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One Response to “An Interview with Photographer Jamie Marshall”

  1. Prashant says:

    nice interview with good set of questions.
    the answers are well tought off and gives a perspective on travel photography.
    definitely a great read

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