03 Mar, 2017
10 : 00
As part of the Yew Chung International School of Beijing Primary School’s Literacy Week, a celebration of reading, literature, and storytelling, the school invited award-winning travel photographer Richard Sobol to speak with students about his work and experiences. A world traveler constantly looking for new stories relating to wildlife, international cultures, and environmental conservation, Mr. Sobol has worked with numerous high-profile celebrities, politicians, and Nobel Prize winners during his decades-long career.
We had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Sobol about his some of the more memorable events he’s covered during his storied career. He also shared a few tips for our older students looking to start their own careers in photography.
What inspired you to become a travel photographer?
I liked travel, first and foremost. I also liked thinking on my feet, and I liked the idea of having the freedom of deciding what to shoot and what stories to tell when I arrived at a place; while I don’t get a lot of logistical support, the finished product is entirely on my shoulders. It’s a challenge that continually invigorates, and occasionally frustrates!
What has been the most memorable assignment you’ve worked on?
I was really lucky to be able to spend some time with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet dissident who was exiled and tortured, a sort of Russian equivalent to Nelson Mandela with a similar trajectory. I can remember every minute I was in his presence. I’ve met a lot of famous people, including presidents, actors, and other celebrities, but no one who had that power of presence and who changed the world in such a profound way. Mr. Sakharov himself was actually very soft spoken and understated, but the depth of his conviction and what he was willing to sacrifice in order to make change during the worst times of political oppression in the Soviet Union, and what he gave up personally during that time, have been matched by very few people in history.
What about the most challenging assignment?
Some of my most challenging projects to document are regarding conflict with wildlife populations that are threatened due to people either hunting or trading them illegally at the center. There have been some moments where I was definitely in a hurry to get home safely!
How do you hope your photographic work impacts others’ lives and the world?
A big part of my time is the aforementioned wildlife work. I work closely with international conservation groups, animal welfare groups, and others, who use my photos to try to change opinion on illegal animal trade and other topics related to wildlife conservation. While not all my projects are related to this theme, they are certainly a big piece of it.
What is the biggest misconception people have about your profession?
That it’s fun 24/7. They don’t realize there’s an awful lot of tension around traveling. Even now I still get nervous with every trip I take until I get to where I’m going and am settled in. It’s still no fun to go through that whole process!
What presentations did you deliver during your two days here at YCIS Beijing?
They have revolved mostly around specific wildlife or wildlife conservation stories. For Secondary School students, I gave a presentation on how to make a story, how to shape a narrative to make it interesting, and how to make non-fiction feel fresh.
What are some ways in which students can improve their own photography?
One tip is to be self-directed and to look for stories or subjects that are meaningful and interesting; once you know what you’re passionate about, keep photographing it!
Another is, if you’re lucky enough to get commissioned for something that you’re not necessarily familiar or comfortable with, just say yes! I spent four years working with the famous architect Frank Gehry while he was undertaking a project for the Massachusetts Institute for Design and Technology (MIT). I got offered the project even though I didn’t know anything about architecture or construction, but having the courage to say yes got me a lot of valuable experience.
Thirdly, I would say that nowadays with photography, it’s not enough to just be a photographer. You need to be a videographer, and a storyteller, and a writer; it wouldn’t hurt to know sound editing, too! The more elements you bring to a story, the better the story will be.
The final piece of advice I would give is that photography involves a lot of practice to really learn the craft. Everyone has a phone and thinks they’re taking photographs, but they’re really just making snapshots. You have to work at the technique; owning a fancy camera does not make you a photographer!