Interview with Travel Photographer Mark Edward Harris

From The Merv Griffin Show to North Korea, photography has taken Mark Edward Harris to many unexpected places. We sit down with one of our Travel Photography Scholarship Judges to chat about his career so far, and learn why a location is not a story.

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How did you get your start in travel photography?

While I was in college, my love of travel combined with my fascination of how the camera has the ability to freeze a moment in time.

I'd always enjoyed documenting family trips when I was growing up, using my dad’s equipment under his tutelage, but it was the time spent in the darkroom at California State University, Northridge where I really discovered the magic of our medium and started to plot a course for a career as a documentary/travel photographer.

How has your travel photography evolved over your career?

My first major work as a professional photographer was doing the “stills” on The Merv Griffin Show. Part of this initial path was because I grew up in Los Angeles, the heart of the entertainment world. 

After three and a half years on the show, it went off the air. So, before going out on a job search, I decided to explore the South Pacific and Asia to build up a travel photography portfolio.

Back in Los Angeles, I did a lot of assisting work to build up my knowledge of strobe lighting while doing freelance assignments.

Eventually, I got to the point that I could venture out working full-time on domestic and international projects for magazines and advertising agencies.

You’ve traveled to some really far-flung destinations for work. What appeals to you most about getting off-the-beaten-path and shooting these stories?

I consider myself an urban explorer.

I have nothing against mountains and mammals, but there is something particularly exciting about exploring an old city or town, camera in hand, not knowing what’s around the next corner.

I just got back from Iraqi Kurdistan, which is an incredible place to work. The people have had to deal with so much hardship over the years, but they've continue to keep their vibrant society very much alive and intact. 

Tell us about one of your most challenging assignments

I’ve been to North Korea 10 times. The more tension between the US and the DPRK, the more I have to tread lightly when I’m there.

That said, most of the people I’ve encountered throughout the country – I’ve traveled throughout six of the nine provinces – have been great to meet and photograph.

Anyone who has traveled knows that people all over the world are basically the same, and the citizens of DPRK are no different.  They are curious about where I come from, what I do, and what life is like for me in the U.S.

Obviously, we avoid talking about politics; it's a very sensitive subject to say the least.

I can read and write in Korean and can speak, to some degree, though it’s amazing how much I still struggle with the language, despite all the years I’ve put into it. 

I think my French, Spanish, and Japanese language skills are still a lot stronger.

 

You’ve interviewed a lot of photographers over the years, can you share what traits and practices you see cropping up over and over again in these pros?

I’ve had the good fortune to interview many of the greatest photographers of our time for books and magazines, from Alfred Eisenstaedt and Sebastiao Salgado, to Mary Ellen Mark and Helmut Newton.

They all have interests and knowledge outside of photography, and are able to infuse their work with this awareness. I see this time and time again.

For instance, Salgado’s study of economics shows itself in all his projects. He understands the causes and effects of  economic influences on everything from migration to pollution.

What tips do you have for shooting and putting together a great photo essay?

First, study the work of photographers such as W. Gene Smith and his photo essays, such as Country Doctor, Spanish Village, and Minamata.

See how he created establishing shots, incorporated environmental portraits and detail shots, and then how he used photos to act as closing shots.

Just like a movie, these elements are not shot sequentially; they are put together when the project is paginated.

Also, write an introduction to the photo essay that will set the stage for the photos that follow. 

Susan Meiselas’ Carnival Strippers is another example of a powerful photo essay. The resulting book is considered one of the hundred most important photography books of the twentieth century.

In your opinion, what makes a great photo?

That’s a simple question, but one that is tough to answer. It’s a combination of a strong composition with an interesting subject matter.

This could be of something subtle that most of us pass by on a daily basis, but the photographer is able to find and capture something interesting in it.  

We look at the image and think, “Wow, I never realized that was there.” It gives us insight and pause for reflection.

 

What wisdom would you like to impart to the next generation of travel photographers?

Develop your own projects, and don't wait for the phone to ring or an email to come in with an assignment.

Also, delve into a project and don’t leave it too soon. Give it the time to fully mature.

For the most part, a general location is not a story, unless it is really off-the-beaten-path such as North Korea. Be specific.

For example, rather than trying to do a photo essay on Japan, I did one on the country’s obsession – for good reason – with hot springs (onsen). My book The Way of the Japanese Bath has been printed in two editions, the series producing hundreds of tearsheets, exhibitions, and print sales, and has given me a much deeper appreciation and understanding of Japanese culture.

What’s next for you? Where do you hope to take your travel photography in the future?

My new book, The Travel Photo Essay: Describing a Journey Through Images is coming out this fall. It’s my first “how to” book.

As for travel, my next stop is Greenland and the high Arctic. It’s a bit of a departure from the cities and towns I tend to focus on, but that’s one of the amazing things about being a documentary/travel photographer – we have to wear many photographic “hats.”

In this particular case, I’ll be acting as a wildlife and landscape photographer in addition to documenting the indigenous people I encounter.

It’s healthy and exciting to be out of our comfort zones.

Do you have what it takes to become a professional travel photographer?

Apply for our 2017 Travel Photography Scholarship and you could be the emerging photographer we're looking for to capture Myanmar's Thingyan water festival, ancient temples, and traditional tribes.

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