Ask anyone why they travel, and they might tell you that one of the key reasons is to broaden their horizons. For Essdras M. Suarez, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist who is partnering with Immersion Journeys on an exclusive guided photography tour of Sri Lanka, that pursuit of broader horizons and the drive to understand the people of the world more clearly has pushed him at every step of his award-winning career. From the photos of Cuban refugees arriving onshore at the U.S. which jump-started his career, to his work for the Boston Globe covering such stories as Columbine, the Boston Bombing, the space shuttle Columbia disaster, and the Iraq war, Essdras’s work captures his desire to convey the human experience happening in front of his lens, and has captivated international attention and acclaim for over two decades.
Having worked in over 40 countries internationally, Essdras has no plans to stop exploring anytime soon. In his latest venture EMS Photo Adventures, Essdras and his team of photographers provide unique, hands-on guided photography adventures for photographers of all levels in destinations such as Cuba, Panama, Uganda, and Southeast Asia. We caught up with Essdras on a recent afternoon to learn more about his journey to photojournalism as a career, how photography can teach you new perspectives in more ways than one, and his unique travel necessities.
I’m originally from Panama and my family had minor businesses like grocery stores and drugstores. Growing up I’d go to one of my uncle’s drugstores after school while I waited for my mom to be done with work. One of the things that I saw were periodicals – magazines. First, I would go through all the comic books, and then when I had nothing else I’d go look at the other more serious stuff. Without even knowing, I kind of started developing a taste for wanderlust. I would see National Geographic, I would see Conde Nast Traveler, so even from a young age I kind of started feeling that the world was so much bigger…and that at some point I’d like to see it. So that was always in the back of my mind.
How did you come to photojournalism as a career?
When I went to study at the University of Florida, I thought – why not get a major in journalism and I kind of like animals, so maybe get a minor in zoology? To me, that sounded like the perfect combination to work for the National Geographic. That notion was dispelled pretty fast. [After struggling in Intro to Journalism], my advisor asked me, “Why are you doing this?” So I told her and she must have put it in the back of her mind because one day, she called me into her office and said, “You know, the Director for the National Geographic is an alumnus and he’s coming to talk to photographers. You should go with them to dinner.” I’m like, “No I’m not a photographer – I know nothing about photography.” But she made me go and that pretty much changed my whole life. I was the one non-photographer at the whole table, but I had read a lot of the articles in the magazine so I hit it off pretty well with the director, and asked him at one point, “What are the odds of me working for you guys?” And he’s like, no, we only hire experts in the field. He says, “You better become a photographer.”
So I went about the business of learning as much as I could, and I switched my major to photojournalism. [After his advisor sent in his portfolio, he received a call from the director he had met over dinner a few months later]. He said, “You have a long way to go but you have potential. I need someone who speaks English and Spanish, knows some of the tropics, knows about jungles and also a bit of photography and zoology.” Which basically described me. He asked me if I would you be willing to do an internship in Central America on a couple of stories for two months for $50 a day. After that experience, I was hooked.
What, to you, is a good travel photograph? How do you convey that when you’re leading workshops out in the field with novice photographers?
I’ve always had a very inquisitive nature. In the beginning of my career, I had really no idea what a good photo was. I had no idea what my duty was as an official documentarian. I really saw only that there was a hole in an article and it needed to be filled. Early on, my wife and I moved to Colorado for an internship I was offered there, and after three months into that internship, my boss pulled me into her office and said “Look, we brought you here because we believe you have potential, but you haven’t shown it, so you either get better or you’re out of here after the 6 months are over.” From that moment on, I became a sponge. Every time a good photo would could up, I would sit down with one of the photographers on the staff and ask them, “Why did you pick that lens? Why that composition?” I became a true pain, but you know, it worked out. When I finally understood, the growth was exponential.
While I was teaching at Boston University, I developed this theory called the Round Trip Theory – it’s a bit convoluted, but it applies to photography because there’s this universal human trait when you drive to a place for the first time, the trip there there will feel longer than the trip back. There’s a reason why – it has to do with the way your brain assimilates new information, especially visual information. When you’re going to a new place, your brain is active at all times, saying: “Big Hill, Tree, Big Barn, Big Town, Small Town, Bridge.” It’s continuously learning and categorizing that information and putting it in data packets in your mind. On the way back, your brain doesn’t need to stay awake the whole time because it only needs to pay attention to the highlights because it recognizes most of that information as known information.
How do you translate that into photography?
A lot of what I teach is common sense. If you stand in front of a great scene from an eye level perspective, bring the camera to your eyes and click, do you think you’ve made a good photo? The odds are probably not. Why is that? Because your brain is used to that perspective – it will look at that photograph and say “This is known information. I don’t really need to pay attention to this.” So what I tell people is, I am going to teach you to see the world and make the viewer of your photo say, “Huh, that’s interesting,” because I understand how the brain sees what it sees. I’ve always said, photography is a two-dimensional imperfect tool to document a three-dimensional world. I want you to have your own little epiphany. And you’ll figure it out because once it becomes a part of that knowledge base, it just becomes a part of you. It’s not a specific thing, it’s an understanding. It’s about understanding.
Tell me how a guided photography tour is different from other travel experiences. What can guests expect on their journey with you?
My job for so many years was that I would be thrown somewhere where I had no idea how to tell a story and still had to get the best out of it. I can guarantee you 100% that you can throw me anywhere and I will get you the best possible photos without ever having been there before because the principles are the same. I know a lot of professionals who teach workshops where they tell the group, “You’re going to go here, here, here, and at the end, you’re going to bring me the photos for me to review them.” I don’t believe in not being hands on. I believe in being right there right by your side when you’re shooting, when it matters. I will walk around and say, “Let me see what you’ve got.” And I guide everyone: “Okay this works because of this or that doesn’t work, go back and try this.” So I’m always, always giving people feedback when it matters, when you’re there with me. I want to be there when you need me.
How have you planned stops along your Sri Lanka itinerary to capture the best photos?
The best way to tell the story of the place is by telling the story of its people, its inhabitants, human beings. When magazines were magazines, what was the number one magazine in the world? Take a guess. It was People Magazine, not because they have the best photos but because our brains are wired to pay attention to others who are the same as we are. I am not into architectural photography. I might be looking at a beautiful building and I guess I can show you how to shoot it in the best possible way, but when that one tiny human starts walking into the front, that’s when I get all excited and I’m like, “This is your photo.” When that person walks in between two shadows and the light hits, that’s when your photo becomes a golden photo, a perfect song.
I have a partner [at EMS Photo Adventures] who had initially been one of my clients – she came with me on a workshop to Cuba and she was a headache (laughing), a headache because she needed to know everything we were going to be doing every single minute of the day…But it turns out, as a planner, she’s a dream. So she took the list of places Rumit initially suggested and together we picked everything based on experience because I’ve been in places like Sri Lanka that are full of visual possibilities, and I’m all about the storytelling.
What do you want guests to learn during their trip with you?
I always tell people, look you’ve got to prepare but you also have to be able to discard the plan and take advantage. A lot of what happens in photography is serendipity. I always say, serendipity is my lover, serendipity is my muse, she hangs out with me all the time and she simply has to because I’m open to the possibilities. You know, let’s say the schedule calls for us being in the beach today but if we’re going from Point A to Point B and all of a sudden I see four little boys carrying a big fishing net and following guys carrying the boats, I’ll be like – let’s follow them. And I’ll start chatting with them and we might end up spending the evening with them while they’re fixing their fishing net and they’re cooking and just use that intimacy – that is what the journalist in me wants to see. I am curious about people and that’s usually what I tell people – look if you come here and you just photograph the items, you’re going to come back with a bunch of inane postcards. So let’s tell the story of the place. Let’s be open to the possibilities. Be flexible. That’s my approach.
I want people to realize that the more different we think that people are, the more we are pretty much
the same. Somebody else might be on the other side of the world, but at the end of the day it boils down to – they’re human beings with basic needs: water, food, shelter. That’s it. When those three things are covered, everything else is secondary… If you can actually leave behind your mentality of the superpower country we live in and all of the things we have, and basically learn to understand and appreciate how happy people in a little fishing village in Sri Lanka can be if they get a great catch today, then you start understanding on a much more basic level that we’re all the same.
What are your top three items you can’t travel without?
Camera and Lenses: Well obviously cameras and lenses that you’re comfortable with. It’s like how you never run a marathon on brand new shoes. Same thing here – whatever camera you are familiar with, whatever you use all the time, that’s what you need.
Tactical Military Gloves: Over the course of three years I had a contract in Puerto Rico with a car dealership of all things – though they’re much more than that, they are very entrenched in the community and they’re involved with a lot of special projects and so it’s a lot to tell. One point I needed to climb this water tower to get a photo of this football field full of cars – it’s hot, it’s humid, and when I got to the top of the tower, my hands were bloody because of the rust on the rungs of the ladder so I had to get a tetanus shot. Now, wherever I go, I carry these military tactical gloves that I’ve had to use against mosquitoes, or when something is too hot and I have to move it. This one is more about being on assignment specifically, but it gives me a lot of peace of mind to know that my hands, which are as important as my eyes are in my field, that I won’t damage them – and I’m not a delicate flower by any means!
Sun and Insect Protection: I’m all about protection. Like sunblock, mosquito repellent, and a good pair of sunglasses that you can shoot through. I spend a lot of money on sunglasses and only buy one with glass lenses because there’s no distortion at the edges like with polycarbonate lenses.
Do you have any quick tips on travel photography that you can share – either on a real camera or using your phone?
You know how people say, “I have so many photos on my phone”? Well, I have 57,000 photos on my phone. If anything tickles my fancy, I will photograph it. It can be as simple as the way the shadows are hitting something. The beauty of photography is that it allows you to enjoy not only where you are going, but where you are. When you’re a photographer, you have to slow down to really and truly see the world.
Tip number one would be that you have to try new perspectives and new angles. You should challenge yourself to make a photo that is better than what everyone else has done. I tell people “Okay, we’re going to shoot this like it’s never been shot before.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t show the cliche – but you shoot the cliche to get it out of your system. Okay? So everyone has a photo like that – now be better than everybody else.
The second tip is to become part of the scene, not an observer. Don’t make the person looking at your photo ever think about the person looking at your photo. Never ever. What a good photographer does is disappear in plain sight. I’m a big fan of the show “Man vs Wild” – I mean, Bear Grylls does all these crazy things and you get really into the crazy things he does, but every once in awhile, he has to turn around and help the camera guy and you realize, wow there is a camera guy who is doing the same things Bear Grylls is doing. These guys are at the top of their game because they have mastered the act of being invisible while still being very much present. It has nothing to do with ignoring – it has to do with getting close, and changing your angles and perspectives to make you feel that when you look into that photo, you are a part of the photo.
Lastly, sometimes you need to put your camera down and simply listen. Take the time to enjoy the moment and build rapport with the locals. A lot of times, people just take photos surreptitiously and then run away. That’s horrible and it’s ugly; it reminds me of what the Native Americans used to say about photographs stealing a piece of their soul. Don’t get me wrong – if I see a photo happening, I will shoot it. But afterwards, I will walk right up to the people to talk with them, explain the situation to them and spend time with them, and the situation might prove worthy of my just hanging out. Taking time to make connections is very, very important.
Any last thoughts on your upcoming Immersion Journeys photography tour of Sri Lanka?
I think it’s going to be golden – it’s super, super exciting for me because Sri Lanka is a country that I’ve never been to, so not only will I be discovering this whole new world, but I’ll be bringing people along with me. I’m one of those people who when I’m around others shooting, I’m explaining to everyone exactly what I’m doing, the way the light hits if I move to the left, or the way I can create juxtaposition with this one other element. It’s really exciting to me because when people start getting it , and you see it in their eyes, you see the epiphanies that the student gets from the teacher – that’s why I love teaching. You know what your students get out of it and what you get out of it – it’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s going to be really exciting.