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How to Find a Guide in a Foreign Country / For Traveling Photographers

January 19, 2011 //  How To Back to posts

I am frequently asked how I go about finding reliable guides to help me complete my photography projects in the countries that I’ve visited. It took me a long time to learn what to look for and what not to look for. I’ll admit that I’ve made a few mistakes and been in bad situations when I depended too heavily on the wrong people. However, when you have the right people on your side it can make all the difference.

You take the first step off your plane in a foreign land… The sights and smells are new and overwhelming. Visualizing yourself as a tiny dot on the vast sphere that you know as the Earth, you contemplate how far away from home you really are.

Outside the airport, rickshaws dart down the street, zig-zagging between one another in some kind of chaotic order. Even this late at night, the city is alive and vibrant. Chain-smoking taxi drivers try to peddle you into their cars, speaking little English, only the words of business.

Where are you going? What next?

I am frequently asked how I go about finding reliable guides to help me complete my photography projects in the countries that I’ve visited. It took me a long time to learn what to look for and what not to look for. I’ll admit that I’ve made a few mistakes and been in bad situations when I depended too heavily on the wrong people. However, when you have the right people on your side it can make all the difference.

Before I head to a country that pokes my interest, I like to learn as much as I can about the place. I read books at the library and research online. What is the history of the country and it’s people? What is unique and intriguing about the culture? If I’m at the point where I can’t sleep at night because I can’t stop thinking about it, that means it’s right.
After the research, it’s time to have a first hand experience… I need a guide to help bridge me between my culture and the one I am visiting. This is someone who will show me around, translate for me… a sort of co-pilot.

One of my favorite resources when I start to look for a guide are the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forums; I can ask questions there and receive timely responses from other experienced travelers. Another route is to find photographers who have already been to the country, and ask who their guides were. Read their blogs, and contact them and ask for guide suggestions (google “photographer,” “blog,” and the country). The downside of this is that you may not find anything new, but their tips may be a good starting point.

There’s also the route of just googling “photographer” and the place where you’re going. Think about it- finding an actual photographer in the area you want to go would be a blessing. They know the place well because they live there, they know the rules and challenges a photographer must face, (and who knows, they may let you borrow a lens or two).

Similarly, if you belong to photography-oriented internet groups, such as, PurePhoto or Flickr, you might consider checking the membership lists to see if there’s a photographer member in the country that you want to visit. If you can find someone from the country that you want to visit, then you’ll have a small foot in the door if you can mention that you belong to the same group or that you found them through the group.

No matter how you might find a possible guide, I suggest that you take your time and get to know this person first, sort of as if you were starting to date – you want to build a relationship with this person. Meet for coffee, walk around, test their knowledge and experience a little. Remember that as a photographer you have a different set of needs than a normal visitor. Have they worked with photographers before? How are their language skills? How flexible are they? Can they take you to where you want to go when you want to be there? Are they going to take you to the typical tourist spots or can they help you find those unique perspectives that help to tell the story of this place, its people and culture? Are they physically able to help you carry some of your gear if necessary? How is this person going to help you get from here to there – their car? Another driver?

You also may not want to be too direct with your questions, but find ways to draw out from this potential guide their experiences. In my experience, many cultures are less direct than Westerners. Take this person out for a “test drive” for a morning or afternoon, and observe them and how they interact with others. Listen your feelings about this person – can you trust them with your life? Do you feel safe with this person? Trust your gut.

Also, when you get to the point of talking money, be willing to negotiate price with them because this is a part of the relationship building for many cultures. I usually pay my guides a per day fee, and tip them at the end a couple extra days worth of their quote.

If you’ve been following my work, then you know that I’ve had a couple of great guides on my trips. On my trips to Ethiopia, I’ve made a great friend- Anteneh. I met Anteneh through a recommendation on the Lonely Planet forum. Anteneh and I corresponded by e-mail and he seemed to have a good grasp of the area and gave me advice on what to bring and what not to bring. When my friend / assistant Ryan and I arrived at the airport in Addis Ababa, Anteneh was there waiting for us. At first, Anteneh didn’t say much so we weren’t sure about him. We were new to Ethiopia, jet lagged and tired, and it was hard to get him open up much right away. But we gave him some time, and he opened up and showed us a lot about himself. He’s the strong silent type, and when something needs to get done he gets it done. Our problems become his problems, which is very reassuring when your travel success in a new place is in someone else’s hands. We learned at the airport that he was actually from the Hamer tribe and grew up with them as a kid. The Hamer were one of the tribes we were going to see in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia. That gave me full confidence to go there with Anteneh, which is remote and a three-day drive from where we arrived.

When I wanted to visit the Mentawai in Indonesia, I started some of my research with google. Someone wrote a post on their travel photography blog about a guide named Gejeng, who was of the Mentawai tribe and was living in a government village on the island of Siberut (where the tribe lives). He was one of the few Mentawai people to have a cell phone, the mentioned blogger bought him it to help his business. When I called he couldn’t talk long and it was hard to hear due to the poor reception. He directed me to his friend Ricky, who arranged business for him from across the Indian Ocean in Padang, Sumatra. After speaking with Ricky on the phone, and the scale of that specific project (we shot photographs and video) I knew it would be beneficial to bring both Ricky and Gejeng. Ricky was able to help us arrange the ferry boat and come with us on that ride across the Strait, and Gejeng was a local who could help further bridge the gap between cultures. I always believe in hiring a guide of the same ethnic group as the people you are photographing because they are usually compassionate about the people, know them personally, speak their language, and of course the people trust that guide more than an outsider. When traveling, you need to make sure that your money is going directly back into the community, not into some exploitive tourist organization’s hands.

After you’ve gotten home, keep in contact with your guide. Send him some photographs of himself, with his family, you together and perhaps a hand written note of recommendation. He can always use those pictures as a sort of “portfolio” so potential future clients can trust him. You’ve had some amazing experiences and wonderful memories with this person, so no sense in ending your connection at the end of a trip. If you’ve been somewhere once, there’s a good chance you’ll go back! And, if you’re a traveler, your other friends and I will be asking you for guide suggestions… Perhaps you can be the one who helps the next person find an honest guide.

I still stay in touch with Anteneh, Gejeng and Ricky, and recommend them to any traveler who asks me. And, Anteneh and Ricky are world travelers in their own ways – Anteneh is with a German chick and Ricky married a French girl!


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Naveen // March 11, 2016 10:41

Great tips Joey. I've always struggled with this aspect of photographing in a foreign land. Now I know better.
Do you happen to know any guides in India?

Btw, your work is pretty inspired. Keep creating!!!

Sidar // February 05, 2018 12:57

HAHAHAHAH "Anteneh is with a German chick and Ricky married a French girl!" Those irresistible casanova. Thanks for the name of the guides! I'll definitely get in touch with them when the moment will come. Thanks again for everything! Especially your work on the Kurds. I am Kurdish and I feel like I owe you something because of the work you've done about my people.

I am grateful.

All the best,

Rajasthan Tour // January 12, 2019 03:38

Incredible Travel India Private Tour Jaipur based tour operators. We are one of the best travel agents and Tour Operators in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

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