A year in the life of a travel photographer
Seoul-based travel photographer Julie Mayfeng has one of the coolest jobs in the world — photographing for Monocle, the United Kingdom-based lifestyle magazine that covers everything from politics and business to fashion and travel.
I met Julie at Monocle’s fifth anniversary party in Seoul last year. She was laughing and talking like everyone else at the party, but would point and shoot her camera quickly in the middle of conversations — without a flash in what was a very dark bar — and talk merrily away in the next moment without missing a beat.
Later that week I saw some of the photos she took that night and I was stunned — she manages to infuse voice and style into the most seemingly bland of photographs, and it’s astonishing to see what she captures at her favorite shooting spots.
We asked her to pick a gallery of her favorite photographs, and to talk to us about her work.
CNNGo: How did you first get into travel photography, and when did you first start working for Monocle?
Julie Mayfeng: I began traveling about 10 years ago, and that was also when I started travel photography. I began working for Monocle in 2010. I had always enjoyed photographing, but became serious about it during my travels to the American West Coast in 2005 and the Mediterranean in 2006. When I came back I published a photo essay book titled “The Mediterranean in Blue” and it was well-received in Korea. I also won prizes in an international photography competition, and began collaborating with a French photo agency.
I go on photo trips every year to keep being inspired.
CNNGo: How often do you travel for work? Where have you been in the past year?
Julie Mayfeng: I usually travel once or twice a year, and when I do I travel for one to three months at a time.
In the past three years I visited India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), Israel, Palestine, Jordan etc. I usually travel to third world countries to shoot.
CNNGo: What cameras did you use to take these photographs, and how many cameras do you usually take with you when you travel?
Julie Mayfeng: I use a Sigma DP2 compact camera and I also use a Canon DSLR and SLR. I tend not to carry a lot of equipment when I travel. Just one or two cameras that are very portable. The bag itself is 20 kilos, so if I take a lot of equipment then it becomes too tiring.
I usually only use digital cameras and film cameras only occasionally. Recently I also started using my mobile phone a lot as well. It doesn’t necessarily take a good pencil to write a good poem, and it is the same for photography.
CNNGo: Do you think you’ll ever be able to travel without a camera?
Julie Mayfeng: Definitely not! For me, my camera is my body, my eyes and my mouth. It holds my thoughts.
CNNGo: Where are your favorite places to photograph within Korea, and your favorite places to photograph in the world??
Julie Mayfeng: My favorite place to photograph within Korea is the Southern coast. That’s where my grandmother lives, so I used to go often when I was a child. While the scenery is stunning as well, I love it for my memories.
Of the places I’ve been, India is the place I’d pick for the best place to photograph.
While the rest of the world is moving so quickly, India still has what I want to see and capture. When I travel through India I feel as if I am taking the lid off of time. Everything we have forgotten, everything that was innocent, and all the different question marks of different lives are sometimes terrible to see, but keeps me going back for more.
For me, observing the everyday life of ordinary people in a place seemingly stopped in time is where I feel the biggest thrills of travel.
CNNGo: What was your favorite travel photography project thus far?
Julie Mayfeng: You could say it was my first trip to India and Nepal in 2009. It was a place I’d always wanted to photograph, and I think I must have prepared for about six months.
I was frequently sick during the trip but I was very motivated and passionate about what I was shooting. I was also satisfied with many of the results.
Half of the photographs in the gallery are from that very trip. Robert Capa, co-founder of Magnum Photos once said, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” I feel like that trip was one trip in which I was close enough.
CNNGo: What is your favorite photograph from this collection? Your favorite travel memory?
Julie Mayfeng: If I had to pick from this collection I would pick the photograph I took in Jodhpur, India — the first picture in the gallery, of the blue house. I like the combination of the morning sun, the cool atmosphere and the blue in the photograph. Capturing the right moment involves effort, certainly, but it’s about luck too. That was a lucky moment for me.
This photograph isn’t included in the gallery, but my happiest memory is of meeting Hmong children in a secluded mountain community in Laos. We were walking along the dirt roads when a shy young girl gathered flowers and made a crown, which she set on my head.
CNNGo: What is an assignment usually like?
Julie Mayfeng: Up until now most of my projects with Monocle have been in Korea. I get my assignment from the photo director at the London office, via email. Through phone calls and email I discuss time and location with the writer and other people involved in the project. On the day of the shooting I meet the writer in advance and we discuss the feature, and go to the shoot together.
A single shoot can take anywhere from one short hour up to three hours. Sometimes I have several photo shoots scheduled for the same day. When I’m done shooting I return to my studio to select and edit, and as soon as I upload the photos I am done with that particular assignment. When I receive an email saying that they like my photos, then the assignment is a success.
CNNGo: To what extent do you use Photoshop?
Julie Mayfeng: I use Photoshop almost exclusively to resize my photos. Sometimes I use the curves adjustment tool. The camera I use comes with its own editing program so I usually stick to that.
CNNGo: What projects are you working on right now? What are your plans for the future?
Julie Mayfeng: For now I will be continuing to travel throughout various developing countries on photo assignments, and this spring I will be working on my ongoing project the “Romance Series.”
With a few more pieces I am also planning on an exhibition and publishing a collection of photographs. I would like to photograph Cuba, Lebanon and Pakistan in the near future.
Photography is my passion, and I always hope that my photographs are memorable and that they move people. Things never work out the way you expect them to, but I live for my dreams.
CNNGo: If you could have any camera in the world, what would you pick?
Julie Mayfeng: Something from the Leica series, and out of that, the M9. That M9 is reputed to be clever and light. How can I get my hands on a Leica? It’s another one of my concerns.
CNNGo: What do you love/hate most about travel?
Julie Mayfeng: I love what stimulates my creativity and inspiration. I love the taste of the air in a new place — perhaps all of these things can be summed up in a single word Freedom.
I hate lodgings without hot water. Long-term travelers (like myself) have to stick to budget lodging, and that sometimes means lodgings without hot water, lodgings that claim to have hot water but don’t have hot water, and lodgings that take forever to heat up the hot water. There is nothing worse than needing a hot shower in the morning or evening and getting nothing but freezing water.
I hate bedbugs — no matter how careful I am, I am always being bitten. They’re not even visible, so there is no real way to prevent their biting. They’re not like mosquitoes, who will bite once or twice and leave. Once they bite they will stay, and their bites are incredibly itchy. Bed bugs — they’ll bite you at the start of your journey and only really leave when the journey is coming to an end. Even thinking about it makes me feel itchy.
And I can’t stand heavy backpacks. It’s especially difficult when trying to walk up from the train station; if your platform happens to be at the far end it’s certain death. And when your train, without warning, is canceled — eek, I don’t even want to think about it.
By Frances Cha, April, 2012