Get Closer: Traveling with Photographers

It’s going to take me several tries to cover everything I experienced recently in East Malaysia, but here’s my first go.

In case I haven’t said it outright, I hate tours. They are really, seriously, not my thing. I might even have a gag reflex when I see coach busses queuing to pick up passengers. It’s that bad.

But I know they’re useful. And I do occasionally join the smaller ones because they can take a lot of the logistical hassle out of things. And they can be a nice place to meet a few fellow travelers. As much as I love independent travel it can also be lonely, so it’s nice to meet new people. But I have a very, very hard limit in how much of that I will do.

Which makes it more than a bit shocking that I willingly signed up for a four day tour. A travel photography tour.

To my even greater shock, it turned out brilliantly.

Bajau Laut girl with houseboat

I joined a photo tour to see the stateless Bajau Laut tribe off the coast of Sabah, East Malaysia. The tour was designed as a travel photography tour led by an extraordinary photographer and it was filled primarily by Singaporeans. Which made it quite interesting from many angles.

You see, I’m a bit spoilt by being the only solo woman in the majority of groups I join. I usually get some sort of special treatment. I know, I know, I should be more hardcore, but it’s a lovely perk – I get the front seat next to the driver most of the time and someone usually offers to help with my bags. On the occasion I’m not the only single woman, I usually end up paired with another kindred soul. I approach these situations with no expectations, so sometimes it’s simply an interesting social-experiment to see how things work out. But I won’t lie to you and pretend I don’t enjoy the perks when they roll my way.

This tour was not like that. Maybe it was the photography goal (rather than sheer tourism) maybe it was because the majority were Singaporeans. Even if I were to categorize Singaporeans as chivalrous (which I probably wouldn’t) I am very obviously NOT the girly, Asian-princess type that would evoke that response. My height alone sort of kills that. No. Here, I was clearly just one of the group.

After a few moments being a bit taken aback by this, and then some rueful laughs at myself and my pride, I decided I quite liked the experience. It was also nice to not have my gender or solo-status be remarkable at all. I was simply another photographer.

The timbre of photo tours is also not like touristy-tours for another, very critical, reason:

It’s quite special to be with a group of people who all see beauty in the world.

Sea nomad woman

It’s unlike any experience I’ve ever had before – more often than not I’m with a group where everyone’s a shutterbug for recording purposes but no one is there from an artistic point of view. We might all have some moments of artsy shots, but it’s a passing fancy rather than a hobby anyone invests much in. Many times during this trip I looked around our boats and thought that on the surface this looked like a rather random and unremarkable group. But my oh my when you start seeing their photos…. it’s a rather intimate view and knowledge into a stranger’s soul to see someone’s artwork in progress.

Travelers on the whole are a rather curious bunch. We end up as a random group of misfits, those driven to wander by so many emotions: frustration, grief, envy, fear, exhaustion and simple sheer curiosity. Photographers on the other hand, especially the non-documentary type, are seeking a way to capture the beauty their souls see. Combine the two and …. wow.

Add in the technical prowess in the group and to say I spent the majority of the tour humbled would be an understatement. Here is the website of one of the photographers I traveled with, and here is another. In fact, I had to watch that my humility didn’t go so far that I shut down from self-consciousness because of the company I was keeping.


But the heady combination of photographers and fellow travelers led me to another intimate and somewhat uncomfortable lesson. To get closer.

“Closer, Kate. Get closer.” Was the mantra I heard all weekend long from our wonderful leader/coach. I took it to heart on so many levels. Partly I worked on boring technical skills. Those tedious things that my impatient self had finally admitted I had to conquer if I wanted to make it to the next level of capturing what my heart saw. Getting closer just makes for better photographs. But what I didn’t realize right away was the push to get closer also highlighted that I have created a comfort zone bounded by an invisible line in my travel style. And it fences me into a place where I can clearly define myself as an observer. An outsider. Maybe a witness, maybe just a stranger. But not truly a visitor, guest, or …. fellow-


Really photographing someone, getting close, interacting, feeling my way along the boundaries of what is intimate but not intrusive, polite but not voyeur; letting the artist out from behind the carefully educated business person is a wobbly, uncertain experience. I am simply not used to it. It’s exposed. It hurts a little, especially when I’m desperately trying to calculate aperture and shutter speed because the math isn’t yet second nature to me. It’s…. raw. In some ways it is like traveling solo for the very first time again.

Maybe this isn’t so severe a sensation for the more experienced photographer. I would imagine (and hope) that this simply becomes a more comfortable and intimate place beyond the fences and more fully into a world of experience, sharing, and curiosity given more time.

I’ll try it again. I understand better now. Good photography doesn’t work well in zoom. Just like great travel and cross-cultural experiences don’t come from staring out the window of a tour bus.

Get closer.


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Yes, I think I’ll go on another photography tour.





  1. Aarief

    June 1, 2016 at 7:42 am

    Good read and visuals.

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