My name is Tanveer Badal, and I’m a travel photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. I’ve traveled to over 50 countries to date and have contributed photography to Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, BBC Travel, and other publications and websites along the way. Travel is one of my passions, and photography gives me the opportunity to interact and converse with the world around me.
How was your interest in travel sparked? What was your first travel experience?
Some of my favorite books inspired my interest in travel. I’m a fan of adventurous writers like Paul Bowles, Ernest Hemingway, and Jon Krakauer to name a few; to me, those guys all led/are leading extraordinary lives in incredible places. I was influenced and motivated by their tales. The first time I set foot in Africa was a big deal for me—I’ve read and watched as much material about the continent as I could (Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari is epic!). I’ve been fortunate enough to explore different regions of Africa several times now, including six-week safari assignment in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya last year.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
I studied creative writing at New York University and originally planned to be a writer. But I found the writing process to be extremely difficult, not to mention a very lonely existence. So, I bought myself a nice DSLR camera (the original Canon 5D), and forced myself to learn how to use it by reading the manual, watching online videos, and shooting constantly. Now, photography gives me the perfect excuse to socialize and explore. It’s amazing what a powerful tool a camera can be. Locals in developing countries have recommended beautiful places or unusual things I should see, simply because they heard I’m a photographer. I’ve found that people love to share their homes and lives, if you’re kind and treat them with respect. And I love that I’m no longer just walking around and looking at things, but engaging with the world. When I started out, I would shoot everything in sight, but now I usually have an idea of what I want to do with a photo or location—whether it’s for my portfolio, a project, an assignment, a stock agency, or a just a cool Instagram.
You have traveled to over 50 countries, so it’s safe to say you’re a seasoned traveler. How did you get your start? What advice would you give to those interested in following a similar path?
I think most people overthink travel, turning the process into a much bigger deal that it has to be—dwelling on things like how they’ll get there, where they’ll sleep, how much will it cost, whether they’ll get ripped off, etc. I’m convinced that all that anxiety ultimately deters more people from traveling. So, my golden rule of travel is, just buy the plane ticket. Because once you do, you’ll be forced to figure out all the other stuff, step by step. This experience builds character and ultimately makes you a better traveler. I understand that to some people travel logistics are daunting, but I love the challenge. I never feel more useful, or that I’m applying 110% of my brain, than when I’m in a foreign land wondering what the hell is going to happen next.
PS: My friend Gillian Morris created this awesome travel app called Hitlist. You select your bucket list travel destinations, and the app alerts you when ticket prices drop. So there’s no excuse now not to nab that round-trip from NYC to Nairobi for a mere $300 bucks (true story!).
What is your favorite approach to photography while on the road? Do you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just candidly capture the moment?
I like to go on long walks with my camera. I typically have a loose plan of where I’m headed and at what time I want to be somewhere when the light will the best. One perk of being a travel photographer is that you are in constant search for beautiful light. I’ve caught so many sunrises and sunsets that I might have never bothered with otherwise. As for photographing people, I rely on eye contact and body gestures to get their permission. I used to do these “sneak attack” shots in the past, but later when I’d look through my virtual “roll of film” I’d find that most of those photos are terrible. I find it’s usually worth your time to engage the person and take your time with composing the shot, if you can. Otherwise, I don’t really bother. I think it also helps that I tend to appear non-threatening and smile when I approach people. I’m not carrying around a bunch of big cameras and waving photo releases in their face.
What impact would you say the various cultures you have been exposed to have had on you? What have been some of your most unique cultural experiences?
When I’ve traveled through Africa and South Asia in particular, I’ve seen so many people with next to nothing working hard to simply get by. Most of their lives seem to revolve around work, just so they can feed their family or pay rent. When you witness that over and over again, it puts your own life into perspective. After I got back from traveling for the entire 2014 year and landed in my hometown of Los Angeles, it hit me just how incredibly comfortable we are in the Western world. We live in homes with electricity and heating, our cities pick up our trash, and many of us occasionally go out to a nice restaurant and order sushi whenever we want. A majority of the world doesn’t have that luxury. Another takeaway that I’ve picked up from traveling is to lead a more minimalistic existence. I’m less into buying things and more into spending my money collecting experiences.
I truly believe travel can change the world. If everyone could meet people from different cultures and backgrounds -- whether in Ethiopia, Turkey, or Bangladesh -- they’d realize how similar we all are. Sure, there are the Adolf Hitlers and Mother Teresas of the world, but most of us are somewhere in the middle, just good people doing their best.
What are three things you know now you wish you knew when you first began traveling?
1. Just buy the plane ticket, and then figure it out later.
2. Get an unlocked iPhone, then just pop in a SIM card with a data plan wherever you go. In most countries you can get a SIM for free or for very little, and Internet data is super cheap. Once you’re plugged in, you have the freedom to book hotels, explore transportation options or just find out about the place you’re in (I’m constantly surprised at how many places appear on Foursquare or Google Maps, just about anywhere in the world).
3. Enjoy the journey. Don’t stress about when you’ll get there, how long it will take, or whether you’re getting ripped off or not. It’s Tuesday afternoon in America, and you’re not sitting at your cubicle in a 500-story office building in midtown, Manhattan refreshing your Facebook feed. S’all good.
What travel experience surprised you the most? This could be an experience you had preconceived notions about or a completely unexpected experience.
I didn’t think I could trek to Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas. It’s just not something people like me—with no prior climbing or trekking experience—typically do. Before my own trek, I didn’t know a single person that had done it. But my wife and I met a pair of British travelers in Myanmar that had just completed the trek. The way they spoke about it and the excitement in their storytelling convinced us that we had to give it a shot. So, with zero preparation, gear, or training, we booked a flight from Yangon to Kathmandu; few days later we boarded a small plane to the Himalayas to start a two-week trek. Travel has a way of taking you on unexpected adventures like that. Looking back a year and a half later, it’s easily one of my top three travel experiences of all time. That wouldn’t be the case if I simply saw an Imax movie about it.
Travel has a tendency to look very glamourous, though that is not always the case. What types of challenges have you had during your travels and how did you overcome them?
It’s all about pacing and recharging. Whether you set out on a two-week, two-month, or two-year trip, you have to be in that mindset for that entire length of time. It takes some time to get your bearings, but then you’ll hit your stride and everything is amazing. If you feel like you’re burning out (especially during a longer trip), I recommend taking a break, renting a nice Airbnb, ordering take-out, and watching Breaking Bad reruns for a couple days straight. Before you know it, you can’t wait to get back out there. When I traveled for a full year in 2014, it didn’t feel like one long trip. It felt like 20 small trips. Every couple of weeks, I’d get to visit a whole new country, with new people, new food, and new things to experience. What could possibly be better than that?
Of all the images you’ve captured through your years of travel, which would you say is your favorite? Why?
This (see image above) is a recent favorite photo I took in Dhaka, Bangladesh in December 2015. I’m originally from Bangladesh and have been back several times. This time, I experienced the capital during wintertime, where a mist often hangs like a shroud over everything. The fog is at its densest in the mornings, making the city appear surreal and dreamlike.
What’s next for you? Do you have any final words of advice?
After spending the entire year on the road in 2014, I’ve been focused on the business aspect of photography. My wife, Kelly Badal, and I just launched a travel content marketing business and blog called Compass & Passport where we’ll be sharing our personal travel experiences and tips, and inspiring others to go out and see the world.
But, of course, there’s a lot of trips ahead. Iran, Iceland, Bhutan and Brazil are high on my list for 2016. And I’m considering another extended trip to South American and Antarctica as well. Any suggestions, readers? I’d love to hear them! Final words: Just buy the flight.
Images Courtesy of Tanveer Badal
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