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On the road: The life of a travel photographer

Beyond the Borders © Ben Roberts for British Airways 'High Life' Magazine

From the Atlas mountains to the depths of an island jungle, Ben Roberts shares the realities of traversing the globe for a living.

The Send Anywhere Awards is now open for entries! Giving one photographer the chance to travel to any location and realise a dream photography project. To mark the launch of the awards, we spoke to travel and documentary photographer Ben Roberts about life on the road and making it in the industry.

Since the advent of the medium, travel photography has enticed viewers and photographers alike. For the former, the genre offers a glimpse into places unknown and, for the latter, an opportunity to explore and document the farthest reaches of the world.

The long and winding road © Ben Roberts for Norwegian ‘N’ Magazine

From gypsy musicians in Transylvania to the interior of an Amazon warehouse, Madrid-based travel and documentary photographer Ben Roberts has ventured through some of the most intriguing and remote places, his work providing an insight into a diverse range of subjects from across the globe.

Represented by renowned photographic agency Panos Pictures, Roberts has worked for an array of international magazines and brands, including the Financial Times, Monocle Magazine, The Guardian and British Airways ‘High Life’ Magazine.

The long and winding road © Ben Roberts for Norwegian ‘N’ Magazine

This year alone he has been on assignment to Athens, Sardinia, El Salvador and Spain, and is due to head to the Dominican Republic to embark on a new body of work. For his personal projects he often visits places in and around his home, and he regularly travels to La Pedriza, a river valley in the mountains of North Madrid, to document the people and landscapes for a series titled El Rio. 

El Rio © Ben Roberts

The long and winding road © Ben Roberts for Norwegian ‘N’ Magazine

The emergence of the smartphone has seen an already highly competitive and over-saturated industry become increasingly so, with lazy travel photography often playing on stereotypes and cliches. Whether working to a brief or on a self-directed body of work, Roberts stresses the importance of approaching the genre inventively, striving to develop unique perspectives and reveal lesser-known sides of places and communities.

Assisting the documentary photographer Zed Nelson for three years gave Roberts a strong grounding in crafting visual narratives and tackling issue-based stories with rigour, and he still applies these standards to every project he undertakes. “Part of the allure of travelling is the excitement of being in a new place, and then attempting to capture this energy through a photograph,” he says.

El Rio © Ben Roberts

One commission for British Airways ‘High Life’ Magazine took him on a twelve day voyage through a new border crossing, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, over the San Juan river. Traversing the region’s verdant landscapes and exploring the different towns along the route, Roberts captured a unique portrait of the area and its people.

Beyond the Borders © Ben Roberts for British ‘High Life’ Magazine

Beyond the Borders © Ben Roberts for British ‘High Life’ Magazine

But while his assignments have sent him to some extraordinary locations, these commissions also come with challenges. “If it’s a personal trip then it’s easier to just go with the flow, but on assignment there is a pressure to create strong images in a limited time frame,” he notes. Translating the character of a place into a photostory in a few days can be difficult, but Roberts has embraced the often tight deadlines, using them to his advantage.

“The first 24 hours in a new country is always special – I try to soak in as much as possible and use all my senses as I find my feet. How a place smells, tastes and sounds definitely influences how I depict a destination, so I like to walk through the neighbourhood on arrival to get my bearings. Something as simple as visiting a small bar or cafe can really help when trying to quickly gain an insight into local life.”

Beyond the Borders © Ben Roberts for British ‘High Life’ Magazine

Roberts has tackled some of the most inhospitable terrains, from the winding, arid roads of the Atlas Mountains to the tangled, depths of a remote jungle on an island in the Great Barrier Reef. But it’s the technical difficulties of working on the road with a very limited kit that he finds most difficult. “As a travel photographer I have to be a bit of a jack of all trades. A week-long shoot could include street photography, posed portraits, interiors, landscapes and still life photographs, all to be shot with the kit from one backpack.”

Beyond the Borders © Ben Roberts for British ‘High Life’ Magazine

Finding ways to deliver his work back to editors and art directors also requires attention. Before the advent of the internet and the ease of online file transfer, Roberts had to post clients DVDs of their photographs. Even now, the process can be a challenge. One particularly tight turnaround saw Roberts racing to retouch and deliver a series of images during a five-hour layover at Singapore Changi Airport.

“I was the last person to board onto my connecting flight, loitering by the gate until the file transfer was complete,” he says. “On the plus side I was lucky to be in a place with decent WiFi and relatively comfortable chairs. If the image order had been 24 hours later, I would have been on an island off the coast of Australia with no electricity, running water or cellphone network!”

El Rio © Ben Roberts

But while these challenges can be testing, he says they’re also part of the fun in a career that is anything but routine. Robert’s encourages aspiring travel and documentary photographers not to be deterred by the struggles they may face at the start of their careers, stressing the importance of persistence.

It took Roberts a number of years and great perseverance to win that first big commission, but, ever since, he has received a steady feed of assignments that have taken him all over the world.

Have you always wanted to pursue a project in a far off destination, but haven’t been able to get there? Now is your chance! The Send Anywhere Award, open for entries here, will give one photographer the opportunity to realise that dream photography project.

El Rio © Ben Roberts

Sponsored by Send Anywhere: This feature was made possible with the support of Send Anywhere. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.