Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
Around the world by private jet. Sounds like the perfect photo assignment, right?
National Geographic Expeditions sponsors these "around the world" tours, and they are amazing adventures. I was asked to go along to deliver lectures, help guests with their photos, and shoot pictures for an end-of-the-trip show. Nine countries in 22 days with all stops being signature destinations of world travel. What could I say?
Photographers are known for their ability to find things to complain about, and I'm no exception. So I got right down to it on the first destination of the trip: Cusco, Peru. Our group's bus was trundling down the narrow streets of this ancient Inca capital. It emerged onto the Plaza de Armas, known as Huacaypata (Warrior Square) in Inca times. A stunning sunset was in progress, complete with glorious clouds on the horizon. But I was still on the bus, several blocks away from the hotel where we were to check in. I was champing at the bit, knowing that all the great light would be gone by the time I could get back.
Welcome to the real world of travel photography.
This dilemma is the steady fare of photographers on the road. If you wait for everything to be perfect, you'll never take pictures. The clouds change. We arrive late. It rains. The museum is closed. The monument is covered in scaffolding. The sign says, "No Photography Allowed." Great. Now what? Truth is, these things happen on the very best of trips. The only answer is to hit the ground running.
Running and gunning. That's what I was going to be doing during this tour. In the coming days, we would be traveling on to Easter Island, Samoa, Australia, Cambodia, India, Tanzania, Egypt, and Morocco. Our expedition leader, Carsten Stehr, likes to say that this is an expedition, not a vacation. Carsten is right. And it is also superb fun.
In my next few entries, I'll be taking you along on that trip around the world, sharing the adventure as well as dishing the dirt on making pictures on the run.
Let's start with that evening in Cusco. I had already made one crucial decision before leaving home: traveling light. Almost all my equipment was in one shoulder bag. I had packed a couple of fast lenses to cope with low light and left my lighting kit home. Those two Nikon lenses—the 24mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.4—would be my workhorses. That's why I was able to grab my room key at reception at the historic Hotel Monasterio, dump a clothing bag in my room, and barrel out the door with my camera bag.
Arriving back at the Plaza de Armas, I saw that the great clouds were gone, but that the electric lights on the great Cusco Cathedral and adjacent Church de la Compañia were glowing now. With a quick dash over to the central fountain, I was able to make a good picture within just a few moments. The 24mm f/1.4 Nikkor let me hand-hold this shot at 1/200 at f/2, ISO 2000. (I needed the high shutter speed because I was out of breath.) Within another ten minutes, the blue was gone from the sky and the scene was not nearly as interesting.
It is claimed Francisco Pizarro proclaimed the conquest of Cusco on this square. That conquest brought a host of changes. Perhaps the most telling was construction of the Catholic cathedral, begun in 1559. Cusco is laden with history, including magnificent stone walls crafted by the Inca as only that civilization could. Today Cusco is a vibrant city, and the plaza is its heart. It is the focal point of nightlife and at the same time rich with both tradition and romance. On a more somber note, it is also believed that the conquistadors executed the last Inca ruler on this very square.
On this night in Cusco, I was happy to run and gun with my camera in such a place of triumph, sorrow, history, contemporary Peruvian life, and sheer beauty. There I was reminded that action—not inaction or excuse or regret—is the highest perfection.