Interview: Commercial Photographer William Vázquez
By Aimee Baldridge
/ Published by TenbaWhat is it like to travel from Shanghai to Mumbai to San Juan on a professional photo shoot? New York-based photographer William Vázquez talks to Tenba about traveling the world to create images for commercial clients.
Aimee Baldridge: What’s been on your itinerary lately?
William Vázquez: In the past couple months I’ve traveled to Ohio, Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Shanghai, and India. I’m going to Chicago, San Francisco, and Florida next. And then Tanzania.
AB: How much time do you spend in each place?
William Vázquez: I tell people I've been everywhere around the world for about three days. Sometimes I spend a little more time. I was in India last year for about two weeks and in China for about a week.
AB: Tell me about the kinds of clients you work for and the projects you work on that require travel.
William Vázquez: I do a lot of travel for a long-term project by Abbott Laboratories, which is a health care company. It’s a corporate citizenship project, with its own Web site and reports. I also do work that involves travel for Pfizer, Samsung, and other companies.
AB: What kinds of locations do you shoot in?
William Vázquez: It can be anything from corporate offices to manufacturing plants to a slum to a jungle to somebody's house. Some of the locations are really nice and some are just a hole in the wall. I try to work outside as much as possible. Being inside limits your choices.
AB: How many bags do you pack?
William Vázquez: I usually have three check-ins and one carry-on. I have more to carry now that I shoot video too. One of the checked bags is for clothes, and one is a case for accessories, and the third is a longer bag for stands and tripods. I split the space in my carry-on bag up between cameras, computer, and chargers. That way, if everything else gets lost, I can still work.
If I'm going to be out in the wilderness, I bring a photo backpack as a carry-on. If I'm going to urban areas, I bring a rolling bag because it makes my life so much easier. It saves my back. Sometimes I’ll bring a smaller backpack inside the rolling bag to carry on location. I also have an equipment belt with pouches, and a photo vest. It's dorky, but it works really well.
Everything has to be as small as possible and as portable as possible so that I can take it with me the entire route. I was in India once and a guy came to pick me up in this tiny little car. I had to strap my bags to roof.
Airlines also weigh your luggage when you travel internationally. They don't just go by the number of bags. They’ll charge you for the excess weight or sometimes not let your bag on the plane. I’ve had to take things out of my carry-on and fill up the pockets of my photo vest to get my cameras on board. Because there's no limit on how much I can weigh.
AB: What's in all those bags?
William Vázquez: I carry two Canon 5D Mark IIs, a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, a 24-70mm, a 16-35mm, two Canon 580EX flashes with a battery pack, PocketWizard MiniTT1s, and a Sekonic C500R color meter. I love my color meter. I also pack a ColorChecker, some filters for my flashes, a Visible Dust Artic Butterfly sensor brush, and a Sun Sniper camera strap. For shooting video with the Canon, I bring a little viewer for the back of the camera, a sound recorder, and a small mic.
I also bring a video camera, a Sony NEX-FS100, as well as a matte box with a rail, an LED light, and some old Nikon lenses that I love to use with the camera—an 85mm f/1.4 and a 35mm f/1.4.
I pack tripods and monopods, hard drives, and a MacBook Air. I also carry a Sony NEX-5 as a pocket camera.
And batteries, definitely batteries.
AB: What else do you bring for power?
William Vázquez: I used to be constantly looking for electrical outlets to charge things, like a vampire. So I bought a battery pack made by i.Sound that charges everything. It’s about the size of a paperback, and it's basically a laptop battery with USB ports and a little flashlight built into it.
I try to buy gear that uses the same kind of battery. For example, I bought a video light with a Sony adapter so that I can use my Sony camera batteries with it. I also try to buy everything with multi-voltage support, so all I have to bring is a plug adapter. Once I used one of those voltage converters and blew the circuits in my hotel room in Rome.
I use eneloop rechargeable AA batteries, because they don’t lose their charge much when you’re not using them. That's the problem with rechargeable batteries: They slowly discharge, and of course when you need them they're dead.
AB: What do you look for in a photo backpack?
William Vázquez: It has to be durable and it has to look good, because I’m going to use it in different kinds of places. I might go from being in the jungle to walking into a corporate environment, and I want to look professional. It has to look stylish and clean, not run down and worn out. There's nothing worse than having a bag that looks like crap after a couple months because it's been shredding or it holds dirt.
If it has pockets, it shouldn't have so many pockets that it looks ridiculous, but it should give me easy access to things. I also don’t want it to obviously look like a photo bag.
AB: How do you store your image files on the road?
William Vázquez: I bring a couple of G-Tech hard drives. I like them because they're durable and have multiple connection types. I always carry one with me so if everything disappears, I still have all of the information that I've shot. After every shoot, I back up to both drives, and they travel in separate bags.
AB: What kind of paperwork do you bring to the airport?
William Vázquez: Everywhere I go I get a business visa. It's a hassle, but if I ever get stopped, it won’t look like I'm trying to pretend I'm a tourist. The minute they open my bag, they’ll know I'm not a tourist.
The advantage of having official-looking paperwork when you travel is that you can wave some papers at people and they’ll let you by. If I have the time, I go to customs at the airport, and they stamp everything, including my equipment list. I bring a list of my equipment, and I'm always prepared for the eventuality that someone at the airport might not let me bring all my equipment into a country. If I did get jammed up, I’d have a list of my gear, and I could negotiate about how much I could bring in.
AB: How did you manage to find clients that need photography involving travel?
William Vázquez: When I first started out as an assistant, I worked for a travel photographer, so I just got really good at traveling. Not everybody can get on a plane and do a shoot in Shanghai next Tuesday while staying on budget and not giving the client a lot of trouble. Not everybody can go to different cultures and manage.
If I show up someplace and people aren't cooperating, for whatever reason, clients don’t want to hear that. It's my problem. I have to make sure I get what my client needs without rubbing anyone the wrong way, because when I’m working, I’m representing my client.
AB: How do you prepare to visit particular locations and make local contacts?
William Vázquez: I ask people I know who travel, or I look at websites. I’ve joined some Yahoo! groups for photographers and journalists to ask people who are working in an area questions and get references to local fixers.
My client generally just gives me a project, and then I connect with the local people. I try to lay as much of the groundwork as possible before I go. I don't have a lot of time, so I need to make sure that when I get there I'm really going to work. I can't be sitting around the hotel waiting for somebody to call me.
AB: Are there any special items or gadgets that you always keep in your bag?
William Vázquez: I get the cheapest Walmart or Target pocket knives and put them in every bag I have. I also have pens in every bag, and I always carry some kind of little light. I’ve fixed more problems with plastic nylon zip ties than anything, so I always carry those.
I also have a Pacsafe mesh and cable luggage lock that I can wrap around my backpack and lock to something.
Sometimes I have to travel to different temperature zones in one trip. I’ll be in Shanghai and it's wintertime, and then I’ll fly to Mumbai and it's 90 degrees. So I pack galoshes—just the old-fashioned rubber booties that you put over your shoes. There's no space for extra shoes. Sunscreen and a hat are very important, especially at high altitudes. I have olive skin, so I thought I didn't need sunscreen. Then I did a shoot in Bolivia, and I was purple by the end of the day.
If I'm going to places where the food is really iffy or I'm going to be out in the bush, I bring my own food. I tend to work the whole day, so I'll miss meal times. In a lot of places, you can’t just stop any time, anywhere and get something to eat. There are regimented meal times, and if you miss those times, you're not going to eat. I bring Clif Bars, little pouches of tuna, and a bottle of water, and I'm good to go.
AB: What's the most unusual thing you've eaten during your travels?
William Vázquez: Ducks’ feet. In China, I went to a fancy restaurant with a client. There were about fifteen of us around a big, round table. The waiter came in and handed out little plastic gloves, like the ones that come in hair dye boxes, and another two guys brought in a big cast iron pot full of bubbling sauce.
Then one of our hosts grabbed a pair of tongs and pulled out a duck’s leg with a foot attached to it. You'd be surprised how big a duck's foot is. We ate the ducks’ feet with our hands, with the gloves on. I was told it was a Shanghai delicacy: ducks’ feet with abalone. What a weird combo, right? But I’ll try anything once.
William Vázquez has 20 years of experience telling visual stories for a wide range of clients. He's traveled on five continents to photograph all kinds of people, from scientists, doctors, and businesspeople, to families, farmers, and monks. Vázquez specializes in advertising, lifestyle, people photography, documentary, and motion directing. He is president of Visual Waves, a photography and multimedia studio, and is also co-chairman of American Photographic Artists, New York (APA|NY).
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