We are pleased to showcase this interview with humanitarian photojournalist Karl Grobl. He spends 10 months of the year trekking around the globe, leading workshops, and shooting for NGOs. Not an average path nor an ordinary photographer. One thing that resonated with me about Karl during our conversation is his immersion and enjoyment of the photographic process, and how he would be doing it even if he wasn’t getting paid. If you’ve ever been in that moment while taking pictures while on the road or exploring new places, then you know exactly how great it feels. Karl has lots to tell, so read on to find out more what it’s like to be living the dream of traveling and taking photos for a living. And be sure to check out a few of his images at the bottom of the page, and of course his website and blog.
Note: this interview was conducted via Skype, so while its not 100% verbatim, it should come pretty close.
Where are you now and what are you shooting?
I’m in Bangkok, Thailand. I’ve got several photography workshops that I’m leading, as well as jobs for humanitarian aid organizations. Starting this afternoon I’m leading a tour through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. I’ll be staying until April.
How did you get into photography?
A long time ago while working for an orthopedic company, I was selling total joint replacement, standing around with doctors in surgery. I was at a trade show, and next to our booth was an NGO booth called Health Volunteers Overseas. Their booth was severely lacking in visuals that would attract people to them. I offered to photograph indigenous cultures for them, which was already my hobby. I started to provide them with images to promote their NGO. After a while I thought to myself – there could be a job in this. This was more than 10 years ago, and there weren’t a lot of people doing it, especially as a freelance thing. I got an agreement with them, and I got a grant from an orthopedic company to do that. I pulled the plug on my full time job, took a year to create a portfolio of images, and used them to promote myself. During this time, I was also doing freelance work, shooting the occasional wedding and newspaper story. But then I caught a few breaks. After 3 or 4 years of working hard, I got to a point where I could support myself doing this type of photography.
(On running a business) It takes 50% taking good pictures, and 50% being a good business person. Knowing how to promote yourself, knowing how to price yourself, refusing to give things away. The business side of things helped me a lot. I had a fairly strict business plan. I don’t sell photographs, I sell services. At this point, I guess I sell less than 50 images a year, and those are to people who come to me. I find that my time is better spent selling my services to my clients. I like the process of creating the images and getting the story, so much more than sitting at a desk emailing back and forth about selling images. curriculum.
Take us through one of your typical workshops.
For this one, I’ll be leading them through some of the highlights of SE Asia, including touristic spots and street scenes around Bangkok, up to northern Thailand for indigenous hill tribes. Then trek into Burma for a foray into a border town. Then a two day boat trip down the Mekong River to Laos where we photograph the monks that go out every morning to get their alms. We’ll do some nature photography. And ultimately to Siem Reap for the highlights of the Angkor Wat complex and finish up at Phnom Penh.
We don’t have any classroom type of instruction on this particular tour although I do offer a workshop for serious amateur and professionals who want to get to the next level of their photojournalistic storytelling. This tour is more casual. We do day activities and on the spot training. Its pretty much non-stop instruction and help, although without any rigid
How do you deal with being away from your family on the road?
It’s not the easiest thing, but I certainly manage. I try to be back for the Christmas holidays so I can be with my family. My wife is fairly independent and used to the fact that I’m gone a lot. I have a week here or there where she can fly out with something touristic to do. I’m on the road so much, and I just seem to be getting busier and busier. I’ve chosen this lifestyle, I guess that’s what it is.
Why do you never shoot with light, fast primes such as a 50 1.4? (Karl shoots with a 17-35 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8)
I am perfectly happy with the setup that I’ve got, because I’m so used to it. Between 35-70mm I have nothing other than my feet to move forward or backward. About 6 months ago I got online and ordered the Nikon 50 1.4G with the intention of taking it to Haiti for an assignment to make some low light, shallow DOF shots. When I got there, I never took it out of the bag, and returned it to B&H when I got back. Although that lens has beautiful bokeh and makes fantastic images, I consider it a specialty lens. I rarely take the time to change lenses in the midst of something. I don’t want to carry something around that I’m only going to use once or twice a year.
If you don’t have a lens, you make due with what you have in your hand, and pay more attention to the subject matter. It’s limiting in one respect, and really frees you in another way. After a while, I don’t have to look through the lens any more. I know my 17-35 will get X, Y or Z. I’ll shoot kickboxing tomorrow, and won’t even need to stick the camera to my face as I shoot from below.
What is your favorite country to shoot in?
I would say Burma, India, and Cambodia are my top three. I love those countries because of the diversity and the genuine sort of cultural aspects that are still in place. Burma is really just an amazing place for photography because its sort of been closed off to the rest of the world for quite some time. It’s strikingly different than other locations that are very homogenized.
India is a no holds barred, no personal space kind of personal immersion, and that’s why I love it. You can photography anything from any distance. The reaction from you being there is more often than not very welcoming. Folks are used to doing everything in public: defecating, having weddings, burning their dead, etc. They think nothing of having a photographer amidst them – they take no exception to that. You have to also understand that since they have no personal space, neither do you. You’ll be doing something and people will be inches away staring at you. Sometimes I lead tours there and people are besides themselves with anxiety. You have to also agree to let that non personal space apply to you as well, in order to enjoy India.
What’s the most dangerous experience you’ve had on the road?
I was in Haiti one time and I got behind schedule and was trying to get back into the city. Shouldn’t have been on the road. Came into a road block by people with guns. There was discussion going on and I knew it wasn’t good. I think some money changed hands, but my driver was able to talk us out of it. Disaster was averted and I continued along.
The most dangerous situations are when there is not a stable government and some sort of rule of law. Whether its crowd gatherings in Haiti or where there is no one in charge. I was in southern Sudan before the elections and it was very tense there. The last thing you wanna do is end up in a prison in Sudan. It’s always good to have a fixer or someone who can help you through things, or else you’ll have problems. It’s things like that that are nerve wracking and stressful, and that kinda wears on you.
I spent a few weeks in Afghanistan. The experience of being on edge all the time completely wears you out. You’re always looking over your shoulder, and its hard to stay focused on your work. I think of our troops that are constantly under the threat of attack or roadside bombs while we are sleeping on a Saturday morning. But thank goodness I’ve never had any really nasty encounters with anybody.
Have you been to China before? What are your impressions?
I have been several times. Been to Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Taiwan, but I haven’t really done any of the touristic spots. I’ve been working for NGOs and going to places that are typically lower on socio-economic ladder, such as villages where people are being infected with HIV and such. What I’ve seen of China is not typically what other people see, and I’ve seen some excellent work from other photographers. I just haven’t been given the time to explore it, other than at work.
What do you do with your down time on the road?
I usually do preparation for upcoming jobs and blogging for the website. That mostly fills the free time that I have. Occasionally you’ll find me swinging on a hammock drinking a beer on a beach somewhere. It’s nice to be completely and totally disconnected from technology occasionally. But I’ve got enough things on my to-do list that I don’t have a lot of free time. I’ve got all these ideas for projects, and you know how ideas are.
How do you know Ken Rockwell?
(Laughs) I can tell you stories about Kenny. He’s a friend of mine from, oh my god, from like 1985. We lived in the same apartment complex in San Diego. He’s the ultimate geek. He had a handlebar mustache, worked for some hi-tech company, and he was a nerd. We were both into photography and got to know each other because of that. We were both members of the Sierra Camera Club. After meetings in the parking lot, we’d talk about how great it would be to make a business out of photography. Long story short, look at Ken Rockwell now, and he’s one of the biggest names in photography.
Funny guy, he’s like a savant. In one respect he’s a genius, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to have dinner with him. He’ll come up with some crazy stuff. You kind of have to understand him.
(On his controversial nature) He’s getting so popular and it can make a big difference for people who are trying to sell stuff. He sort of protects himself by saying that his website is a joke. He also wants to keep people guessing. He knows that if he goes against the tide that he will create a lot of buzz. For example, while everybody is about digital, he’ll go on and on about film. He will say something and then message boards and chat rooms will light up. The bottom line is that all of that drives more traffic to his website.
He really tries to show people that “you don’t need stuff that costs 10x as this” – in this way he does a good service for people helping them to choose equipment. But the pros tend to dump on him for what he says. I don’t disagree with him most of the time, but I do know that the consumer cameras, as good as they are, don’t cut it. If you’re really trying to make a business out of them, you have to go the extra mile to get the extra quality and durability.
How was the switch from the Canon 1D series to the Nikon D series?
I started digital photography back in the days of the D1. I was a D1X person back in 2000 or 2001. So I shot with Nikon for quite some time. Then I had a little mishap in South America and I was relieved of all my gear by two very friendly gentlemen. At the time that occurred Canon had just come out with the 1Dmk2, with a CMOS sensor and 1.3x crop. It seemed to me with the way technology was leapfrogging, that Canon had a significant advantage. From the standpoint of getting the best equipment, I switched from Nikon to Canon. Used them for 6 years until they were beat to death. After an evaluation of what was available, I wanted to get into a full frame sensor. Canon only had the 1DsMKIII, and the 5D2, which wouldn’t stand up to the kind of abuse I would give it. The Nikon D3s had a high ISO capability that was the most significant advancement in digital photography in my opinion. It made sense for me to move back to Nikon. I’ve enjoyed learning both systems and I like both systems. The one thing that drives me nuts is that the NIkons have a toggle wheel on the back for moving the focus sensor around. The Canon has a wheel and you can just spin it very quickly. It’s probably just a quirky thing for me – I got so good at it with the Canons, that I could spin the wheel without even looking through the viewfinder.
Does traveling the world ever get old? Do you ever wish you had a studio back home?
No, not at all. Traveling the world does not get old. Being at home gets old. I would much prefer to be living out of a suitcase. There’s a sense of freedom in being able to pack everything in a 24” roll-on and move on to another location. I’ll continue to do this until I can’t stand anymore. It’s the worlds best job, a dream job, and I get emails that remind me of that every time. I am privileged and pleased that I’ve been able to pull it off.
Do you ever work with off-camera flash?
Not really. I use an SB-400. It’s a tiny flash that I use to get myself out of binds. When I need to get some light on a subject I’ll bounce it off of something. I’m intrigued by these banks of LED lights that you can slap on top of a camera. Many years ago, videographers were using them, and I would use them as a source of light – so I can see it being used in dark environments. I am very much amazed that people do such wonderful lighting with artificial light. It’s a lot of work. I tend to get blessed by whatever light I’m able to find. And I look for the light. Phil Borges does amazing stuff with light though.
If you were not a photographer, what would you be doing?
I don’t know what I’d be if i wasn’t a photographer. It’s my passion, I love it. I derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction shooting for NGOs and leading workshops. If I couldn’t do that I’d probably be a mess. I feel fortunate that I’m able to do it. A lot of people are doing jobs that they don’t like because they need to survive. I feel lucky. It’s the ultimate win. If I had enough money that I didn’t have to charge clients, I’d still do it, with or without pay. It’s not about what I earn, its about what I get out of doing it. It’s like winning the lottery. I’ve got the best job in the world.
There was one time that I was driving across Sudan with a couple of reps for an NGO, the dust was blowing, it was like a National Geographic moment. They were talking in the back and they were asking “what would you do if you won the lottery?” and saying they’d do this and do that. I said, you know what, Id be doing the same thing I’m doing right here and right now. So I’d essentially already won the lottery as far as I’m concerned.
What have you learned by traveling the world?
What I have learned is that there are more similarities than there are differences between people. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from. If you strip everything else away, we are similar. The guy working on the stock market in NYC is very similar to the guy cleaning gutters in Calcutta. They’re trying to make the best of themselves, to support a family, to put food on the table, etc. They really don’t want to fight with anybody, don’t want to be in conflict. They just want to do those things that we derive enjoyment from. Some of us have different opportunities and different things. Another thing I am constantly reminded of is that you really don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy. You basically need time to enjoy that which you have. Sometimes all of the stuff makes it harder to enjoy what we have. Sometimes I’ll come back and go into my closet/garage/office and stare at everything in there and figure, what can I get rid of. I’ve been liquidating and giving away stuff because I’m finding that its not the stuff that we have but the satisfaction that our jobs and family give us.
Some of Karl’s photojournalism work: