Welcome to Notes on Doing, conversations with people who love what they do.
My name is Jenna Matecki.
Our next episode goes to Ian McNaught Davis. Ian is a documentary photographer. He’s currently traveling around the world and taking photos. Listen to what Ian had to say about following photography, choosing to always be a beginner, and living life without limits.
Ian: Well the crazy thing is – I kind of started off with this whole “baptism by fire” kind of thing because I started the journey by cycling. For six months. So I was on this bicycle… and… to begin at the beginning…
Ian: I had a desk job. I was working as a writer for a magazine and it got kind of…
Yeah, I just wasn’t fulfilled.
And that’s why I was really excited to do this interview, by the way, because it’s on about finding fulfillment in doing your own thing. And that was kind of the catalyst for all of this, so I really appreciated that.
So I was working at this office job and I always had a bit of “itchy feet” and really wanted to focus more on photography.
What happened was, I met this guy on my lunch break. He just cycled from Turkey all the way through Africa, and he got into Cape Town, which is where I was working. He was wearing his cycle gear and he had his bike, and his bags, and everything, and I just saw this dude and I thought “You’re just the coolest person I’ve ever seen.” [Laughs]
Because he just rocked up into the city and… I eventually bought the bike off of him, after talking with him for about half an hour, and… I resigned I think the week after.
And so I had always had this plan of cycling and working on photographs, and then all of a sudden this guy appears and he’s selling me his bicycle. And I took that bicycle up through South Africa for about six months.
In that time I realized that if you’re not going to use your stuff every day it’s not that… I don’t know… it’s just not really worth carrying, you know? And so it was a lot of this case of justifying keeping these extra things, but when you’re cycling you literally have to carry everything. And so I just posted a lot of it back home, and in the end I had very little. I started traveling with a computer but then I decided I’d just shoot photographs and keep them on the memory card. And because of that there was less time editing, obviously, but then that’s just more time shooting. And it was kind of cool because you find these photographs that you forgot that you took. In a way I suppose that’s what it must have been like shooting in film, because you don’t get that instant access.
It was a fascinating way of getting around because… you’re just you. You’ve got less… and it was really liberating.
Having worked from month to month with the sort of safety net of a salary you don’t realize how much you can actually afford to get rid of. And so that basically prepared me for this trip. I mean it’s been 18 months so far. And you know, it’s a small bag that I’m carrying. My camera set up is pretty small, it’s one lens, it’s a camera. I am traveling with a computer now. Whatever you’re not going to use every day, it’s not worth it. I mean there are things you can buy along the way and you know a couple of things for a rainy day is probably important. But other than that it’s been really… it just… frees you up. Less things to hold you down, literally, and I suppose figuratively as well.
Jenna: What… you know you realize there’s so many different questions I can ask you now. [Laughs]
OK – So going back to the start of the story, just because you know, it’s one thing to see a really cool guy on a bike and it’s another thing to be like ‘let me buy that bike off of you, I’m going to quit everything that I know, and then go ride that bike up through South Africa.’
During that time was it just like ‘I really have to do this, I’m on a mission, let me tell my best friends and family goodbye and just go’ or I mean was it… was it really that impulsive a decision for you? Every so often do you stop and say ‘I’m kind of crazy for doing this.’? [Laughs]
Ian: Well I still do that, I still ask myself why I’m actually doing this.
But it sounds a lot more impulsive than it was. I had actually planned to cycle within I suppose a year, and I had always been saving up – I had a kind of rainy day fund because even when I started the job I wasn’t completely sure that was where I wanted to be for the rest of the next ten years. I figured ‘if I have this little rainy day fund it’ll just you know…’ …I suppose it’s got a sort of sense of freedom ‘you know one day I could do something with this.’ And I had done a little bit of cycling before. But I didn’t have a bike and I didn’t have equipment and that sort of thing. And so it was just a case of… of something that was going to happen. And then it just happened a lot earlier than planned.
So I had two months of notice when I quit the job. And then I sold my car, furniture, and pretty much told everybody I was leaving. And that’s how it worked out. But it wasn’t like ‘I saw a cool dude on a bike and it changed my life.’ I mean, I made plans for cycling and looked at roots and things like that, kind of with that idea of photographing kind of everyday moments.
And I thought the bicycle would be quite an icebreaker – that I would be able to rock up somewhere and just look kind of out of place. Because of that it’s a bit of a conversation starter, and that’s led to a lot of photographs.
I’ve since stopped cycling because you’re just cycling eight hours a day, so you don’t really get a chance to focus on deeper photographs. But it definitely taught me a lot. It taught me a lot about traveling, about myself…
It taught me a lot about accepting hospitality – which is kind of a weird thing. It’s quite something, to knock on somebody’s door if it’s raining and say ‘hey can I stay here?’ You know? It’s just… it’s not something that comes naturally to me.
That was pretty cool. You know it really pushed me out of my comfort zone, and kind of forced me to look at South Africa. I was born in South Africa, but there are parts that I just never knew about and all those hours of introspection I think is really good. I think we need that space. We get in this routine, and there’s no real time for good daydreaming. Cycling really helped that.
“We get in this routine, and there’s no real time for good daydreaming. Cycling really helped that.”
Jenna: Good living too, right? It’s like you’re not thinking about all the other crap you have to think about at desk, right?
You’re like ‘Well, I need to get from point A to point B. I need to eat today, you know I’d like to meet some new people…’ [Laughs] What’s your list of daily needs? Now that you’ve stripped out all of the material crap, OK, and you’re just on the road, either on your bike or like now where you just have your cameras… What’s your daily checklist?
Ian: So there’s the basics, being like food and water, and that sort of thing. But… basically it’s to get photographs. And that’s been really cool because this has always been something that I’ve wanted to do.
But working on a full time job, there’s just… there’s no time for it. Or I’ll come up with some other excuse why I need to sit on my couch and watch series or something.
This has really freed up the whole day to walk around and take pictures. And the exciting thing is that it hasn’t got easier taking photographs. So I still feel like a beginner. And because of that it puts pressure on me to go out and get that photograph, because there isn’t… I spoke about the safety net of a salary. There isn’t that thing to fall back on. So… you’ve quit your job, you might as well make the most of it.
And having less… I don’t know… every day crap, you’re not going to fill your day with things that you don’t need to do.
And I realize I can’t do this forever. But this is my time to kind of give it a decent shot.
I suppose my ultimate goal would be to be able to look at things happening around me at home and kind of see it with a foreign perspective. Because you’ll find you know when you go traveling, everything’s just so exotic. It’s got this different flavor and you notice different things. I’d like to reach a point where home looks like that.
“I suppose my ultimate goal would be to be able to look at things happening around me at home and kind of see it with a foreign perspective. Because you’ll find you know when you go traveling, everything’s just so exotic. It’s got this different flavor and you notice different things. I’d like to reach a point where home looks like that.”
Jenna: What are some things that you’ve learned about yourself that you can think about in terms of just… you know there is a certain harshness to travel and doing what you’re doing, I’m sure at times you’re roughing it if you’re knocking on someone’s door and asking if you can stay there. Looking at the person that you were before you took on this adventure to now, what were some really poignant lessons that you learned, about you?
Ian: Sure… well something that sticks out is the idea of making plans, and structure, and having a routine. Because the Ian 18 months ago was very into ‘today I’m going to do this, and that, and that,’ and to do lists, and ticking them off. And that’s really no way to live your life.
So the original plan for me was to ride a bike for three months through South Africa, which turned into six months, which turned into traveling in Turkey, and Georgia, and Armenia, and then I came back, and then I hitchhiked, and got all the way from Cape Town to Ethiopia and in Kazakhstan, and you know… but the point is that was originally a sort of… you know I even wrote it down, I had ‘day one I’ll be here, day two I’ll be here,’ and that’s just…
Life and traveling, you know, doesn’t work like that.
And I’ve realized the importance of not making plans. I don’t mean that in a kind of flippant kind of way, but genuinely I think if you can afford not to make a plan, then don’t.
I think so many times we put limits on ourselves by planning things that could be left up to chance or could be left in… in somebody else’s hands. It is the idea of trying to control everything. And that actually becomes more real when you travel.
Because they’re just things that you can’t control, where you’re a bit more exposed to other factors, and the idea of not having a plan means you can go beyond your limits and into different orbits, and you’ll meet… weird people.
And I like the idea of being out of your orbit. The kind of life I lived before, or at least at my office job, it just revolved around colleagues, flatmates, friends, family…
It was just one weekly kind of circle, and here… it just kind of opens up your life to chance, to random encounters, and coincidences, and things like that.
And a lot of that, I kind of only regret discovering it now.
But you know if you look at something like photography, or maybe more specifically documentary photography, where it’s a spur of the moment kind of perspective… There’s so much that you can’t control that it’s almost kind of liberating to just let go, and see what happens.
“There’s so much that you can’t control that it’s almost kind of liberating to just let go, and see what happens.”
And I can’t control… I don’t know… a Buddhist monk appearing out of nowhere, cracking open a beer, or something like that, [laughs] you know with perfect lighting, and with this amazing kind of compositional background. But you just got to be present and wait for it, be ready for when it happens. And so I think that’s the biggest thing for me. It’s the importance of not making plans.
And obviously there are times where you do need to plan things, like if you’ve got a wedding speech, or you’re making a baby, or something. Plan THOSE things, you know? But if you can afford not to, the rewards just outweigh the idea of being restricted.
Jenna: Going back through your work can you identify some moments where you unexpectedly got a great photograph? So in the vein of not planning things, but being at the right place, at the right time, and what it was like to capture that – in your process of discovering what you took. So there’s the act of taking the photograph, then there’s the act of reviewing it later and saying ‘I’m proud of this. This is something that captures that moment.’ Right?
Ian: Let me try and think… I’m trying to think of a specific one. There were a couple of moments where I just…
OK, let me tell you the story about the ‘One That Got Away.’
What happened was I arrived in Georgia on this border town called Batumi on the border with Turkey and Georgia, and on the day I got in, I heard this story, somebody was talking in the hotel where I was staying, that there had been a flash flood in the capital in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and it was a very specific flood and it only managed to flood the zoo. Right.
And so it broke like the gates, of the zoo, and these animals were running in the streets! Yeah. And I couldn’t believe it. It was like Jumanji. [Laughs] Yeah. And I just thought ‘well this is ‘National Geographic’ stuff, you know? And I kind of imagined that I’d get there, and I’d see this tiger walking, but in front of like a McDonald’s or something, [laughs], and obviously the light would be perfect, and you know, nobody would be in the way or anything. And so I kind of envisioned this. But apparently it was crazy, there were wolves, and there was a bear, and a hippo that had just… run amok. [Laughs]
“And I couldn’t believe it. It was like Jumanji.”
And so they closed down the streets, and there were police and army trying to, you know, chase these wild animals.
And so it was a case of ‘the one getting away.’ I got a train that day, and I managed to get there, and I kind of lied and said I was from foreign press, and I was taking photographs of the zoo with the hope that some tiger would appear somewhere.
It never happened. But that would be an example of just something that I wouldn’t even think would even be possible in real life.
But it is, and it did happen. Unfortunately I didn’t get my picture. But that just shows you that not having plans and to being able to hop on a train and then be in the capital a couple hours later, in the scene where it happened – that’s something that I’m grateful for. But I would like to have got the shot, but you know, it’s up there.
Jenna: You know I would say ‘there’s always next time’ but I don’t really know if there’s going to be a next time for that one so… [laughs]
Going through your biography online, and you know your pictures are incredible, but in trying to paint the picture of you as a person before we kind of get more into your work…
The list of things that you’ve done – ‘cattle driver in Australia,’ [laughs], ‘carpenter,’ ‘teacher’… So is this how you make ends meet? Like do you take up an odd job in each place, or you know is it like ‘save up a lot of money, and then spend all that money, and then go save it all up again?’ What’s your… how are you… I’m still fascinated by how you’re making this work. [Laughs]
Ian: Basically the exciting parts of my life, at least you know the ones that I bring up at barbecues or dinner parties, are working as a cattle driver, and as a carpenter, and then you know being unemployed, and traveling the world, and taking pictures. Those have kind of happened at sort of quarter life, midlife, or early midlife I like to think, crises. They happened in between steady jobs.
So I studied journalism at college, and then ended up working a job, at a Men’s Magazine. And yeah. I kind of had enough of that. And I hadn’t traveled before and so I was, I think I must have been about 23 then, or 24, anyway, and I quit and I went to Australia and I worked on this cattle ranch mainly because I thought it would be cool to play cowboys for a while.
Then that led on to working in Borneo for a bit, and teaching in Malaysia. Then eventually my money ran out, as it did, and then I came back and I got another grown up job again, sort of working at a magazine, and just kind of… As I said earlier, I just felt a bit unfulfilled. And it wasn’t so much ‘itchy feet’ like I felt before, because there was a case of wanting to play cowboys and see the world. This was a case of following photography.
“As I said earlier, I just felt a bit unfulfilled. And it wasn’t so much ‘itchy feet’ like I felt before, because there was a case of wanting to play cowboys and see the world. This was a case of following photography.”
And you know I don’t want to call it a ‘calling for photography’ because I think that’s a bit airy fairy, but it’s something that I’ve done for a while now, and I feel a lot of… I just feel content doing it. And it’s very… I suppose the word is also “liberating.”
It’s a very liberating thing for me.
And I realized I was turning 30 before I left, and this really is a kind of window period. No debts, no… I’m not married, I’m not… I don’t own property. If I’m ever really going to give this photography thing a go, now is the time. So yeah… they have happened in between steady jobs these other things.
But I think traveling in general, maybe you’d agree with me, it just alters your perspective on many things. And for me the big take up from travel is that our similarities far outweigh our differences with other people. You get decent people and you get difficult people all over the world. We’re a lot similar than we think. And so I think traveling has helped me develop that, and made me more interested in people, and specifically photographing them.
And so, yeah, that’s the story so far.
Jenna: Are you documenting these people, or is it more of a document of your trip? How do you view what it is you’re doing? You’re taking a photograph, you’re in the process of doing that. Is that documentation? Or is that art? Are you painting a scene? Revealing how you see the world? All of the above, none of the above?
Like what would you say it is that you’re doing and why are you compelled to do that, specifically? Photography, specifically?
Ian: So I think… I think looking back at the idea of people being more similar than we kind of imagine they are. I think there’s a leveler in that, and that is everyday life.
So throughout the world there are people playing, people working, people mourning, people cooking, people buying things, selling things. We have these universal themes of our daily life everywhere. And we might not look the same, places might not smell the same, or sound the same, but we have these rhythms. And so I’m interested in bringing these similarities together by showing people just going about their business, every day.
“We have these universal themes of our daily life everywhere. And we might not look the same, places might not smell the same, or sound the same, but we have these rhythms. And so I’m interested in bringing these similarities together by showing people just going about their business, every day.”
It’s not… I don’t know. It’s not concert photography, it’s not deep, ‘fly on the wall’ photography. It’s just like ‘this is what it’s like in Kazakhstan,’ ‘this is what it’s like in Ethiopia,’ and it’s always going to seem weird, and exotic, and appealing, but it’s more similar than I thought, you know just by being there myself, and that’s the message that I want to bring back in these photographs, that it’s not a… it’s not a case of, I don’t know, ‘other-ing,’ or making something seem more exotic. I’m using the example of the Buddhist monk again, but it’s a Buddhist monk taking a selfie. That’s no different than know somebody taking a selfie on their morning commute. These kind of ideas.
That’s what really excites me, those are the kind of photographs that I like to watch, or not watch… to look at.
And it’s also, I’m drawn to the intimacy of taking a picture. Just being in somebody’s presence and them allowing you to take a picture. Because a lot of the time for me there’s been a language barrier. And kind of reading the situation, when is it OK to shoot, when is it OK to just walk away, when is it OK to just kind of sit there and let people get comfortable with you. And that’s something that I’d like to, or least that I’m working on, but it’s also something that I’d like to see in a picture. That it’s not a case of a sort of ‘hit and run,’ and you take a picture and disappear. It’s a kind of… side effect of a relationship. It’s a result of somebody making a connection.
“It’s a kind of… side effect of a relationship. It’s a result of somebody making a connection.”
Jenna: How do you handle impermanence in what you do? You might not be in a place for an extended period of time, right? You’re always on this journey forward, so it’s only a short period of time. That moment that you took a photo of will never happen again, right? You know you’re doing this trip because, really you only get the opportunity to do this type of trip once, and that’s at the period of life that you’re in now, right? So there’s this, at least in the way that I’m listening to it, it’s like there’s this sense of impermanence in everything you do. It is destined but in the sense that you don’t know what’s happening next.
Ian: Exactly, yeah. So that’s something that’s pretty much on my mind all the time. You know it’s the idea…
You know, that’s a really good question by the way. So I used to work as a writer, as I said, and I did a couple of interviews, and when whenever somebody said ‘that’s a good question’ that means that they couldn’t answer it, and they’d answer something else. But that’s generally a good question.
Jenna: Thanks! [Laughs]
Ian: I always knew that if somebody said ‘mmm! good question!’ I knew that whatever follows is going to be something completely different.
Jenna: [Laughs] You know now you have to answer the question on impermanence, right? I’m going to force you to. This is on the record. It’s a question about how you deal with impermanence in your everyday life because it’s happening a lot for you. Impermanence that is.
Ian: There’s no going back. But anyway, seriously, good question.
Jenna: Thank you! [Laughs]
Ian: So with something like… this is for real. A real answer… the impermanence of it, it’s kind of similar to that to the idea of not making plans.
So my mindset has changed a bit in that I’m kind of expecting… Well I’m not expecting to get something specific. So it’s being aware of what is happening in and around you. And because it’s not… you’re not drawing or you’re not painting, you can’t make it, so it’s less creative, it’s more reactive. You’re kind of just more aware of what’s going around, and, you react to it.
But 90% of… in fact man maybe 95% of the photographs don’t work. And it’s really frustrating because they’re near misses.
So in regards to this sense of impermanence… It’s kind of taught me to deal with failure, because I can’t control these things, or the light might not be right, or the all the composition isn’t working, or somebody walks in front of your shot, and it’s kind of, it’s in a weird way made me relax a little bit, and to… I suppose what the word, just to, to be less, to have less of a tunnel vision, to realize that a lot of this is out of your control. And so the idea that they’re all fleeting moments can drive you a bit crazy because you’ll never… You’ll never catch them all.
And I mean like even today… I’m trying to think of an example… Oh, today! A perfect example –
So they have this tradition here in Cambodia that you buy these, what are they called, I think they’re called sparrows, you know those birds, and there’s people that sell them in cages, and you buy them and then you release them. That’s part of what they believe. And I had this sunset going down over this river, and there was a person selling these birds, and then there was, I suppose his last customer of the day, who came in and bought these birds and was just about to release them.
And then I’ve kind of lined everything up and I’m going to get this perfect sunset, and it is very symbolic, and you know it looks really good in my mind, and then when it happens I realize my camera’s on the wrong setting. It’s on a slow speed and everything’s a blur and it just doesn’t work. And these kind of things happen to me every day.
And they happened when I started, and then I’d kind of take it personally, but then it’s ridiculous to take it personally if cool stuff doesn’t happen in front of you, you know? Or interesting stuff. It’s just kind of self-limiting. So it has helped me get over that.
This has been a long way to answer your question. But it’s taught me to deal with failure and to kind of… Just accept what you can control, and that you’re not going to nail all of these photographs every time.
Jenna: Looking at the story of what you’re doing, I always think it’s fascinating to see someone’s ‘call to action’ and then ‘the hero’s on a journey’ right? You’re on this journey, you’re on this adventure. And then there’s always supporting cast or characters that are really strong that kind of add color to the story. When I say ‘really rich characters’ or ‘people that you’ve met along the way’ who comes to mind, and what made them so special?
Ian: Well somebody that comes to mind would be this guy I met… it would have been three weeks into cycling. And my head was still very much in that sort of daily routine of a 9-5 job.
And I met this guy who… he must’ve been in his 60s, and he had a near-death experience. He sold everything, sold his house, sold his possessions, and he’s been walking for 15 years around South Africa.
And just to hear the guy’s stories because he, I mean he really is kind of simple, minimalistic. But it’s just opened up my idea of streamlining your life.
He cared very little, relied a lot on just sort of split second decisions, and was just really independent. You know it’s nothing that, I mean I wouldn’t do that. It doesn’t rock my world. He was just, I don’t know, I suppose quite an influence in the idea of getting rid of stuff because early on in the trip I was really packed, all of the bicycle’s was really packed, and so I think that’s just something that’s stayed with me.
And then another thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is that the people you meet when you’re traveling tend to be kind of weird, you know? Like there’s a fair amount of crazies out there. And I was thinking, you know maybe that’s because we’re all a little crazy, and our routines make it normal. And everybody is as interesting, but if you see them every day you kind of get used to ‘that’s how they are.’
“And I was thinking, you know maybe that’s because we’re all a little crazy, and our routines make it normal. And everybody is as interesting, but if you see them every day you kind of get used to ‘that’s how they are.'”
But I seemed to come across a whole bunch of really weird people, and it’s not to say that they’re sitting out there waiting for travelers. And I mean “weird” not in a bad way, just you know, just a kind of eccentric way. And it really got me thinking, maybe we’re all a bit crazy, but we’ve just made it normal.
And it was kind of cool to be once again in a different orbit where you can you can encounter these people and it’s not a case of seeing you know the same cast of people every day. You’re seeing new people, and that’s really cool, that’s been quite energizing.
Jenna: What have been the reactions of people that you’ve met along the way when you tell them what it is you’re doing?
So whether it’s someone that you’re taking a photograph of, or perhaps you know, people, these travelers, these eccentric people that you’re meeting along the way, what are some reactions to you? I mean you know similar to: you met this guy as you were biking you thought he was the coolest guy in the world.
Now that you’re doing this type of adventure yourself, how do you… what are you noticing about how others view you? No matter what country you’re in.
Ian: So I think that… well at least on the cycling part of things, most people thought I was *very* weird. A lot of people said “Why? Why are you doing this?” Interestingly enough there was a lot of, I suppose paranoia, about safety in South Africa. South Africa’s got a reputation of being quite a violent place, and unfortunately a lot of the time people would say “Have you’ve been robbed? Have you been mugged yet?” And you know, nothing happened.
And I’d cycle for six months and it would be pretty easy to rob me because I was going very slowly. And you know I was shown all sorts of hospitality and people who were incredibly welcoming. I don’t know one bad story from that part. And so there was a lot of paranoia, which obviously doesn’t help your confidence – people asking you “when have you been attacked?” But that’s also a story that I try and tell people, because that’s the story that isn’t being told – that you can actually travel around Africa, and cycle around South Africa, and be without any kind of bad incidence.
“But that’s also a story that I try and tell people, because that’s the story that isn’t being – that you can actually travel around Africa, and cycle around South Africa, and be without any kind of bad incidence.”
Anyway. So a lot of people thought it was weird in that way. Two people asked me if I was an orphan… [laughs]
Jenna: That’s horrible! [Laughs]
Ian: This poor kid! He just obviously lost his parents and now he’s on a bicycle. So there’s two separate occasions where people thought I was an orphan. [Laughs]
Jenna: It’s like ‘poor you, you must not be loved. That’s why you’re doing this.’ [Laughs]
Ian: Exactly yeah. [Laughs] So a lot of people just thought “Why are you out there?” Which, fair enough, it’s a good question.
When I say I’m taking photographs, with a view to building a portfolio and taking the photographs that I want to take as opposed to taking photographs that I’ve been commissioned for, people also kind of ask “why would you do that?”
And so I see this as more of an investment, with the idea of maybe not affording the money, but affording the time to travel and to really explore this this idea of photography and getting my message across through photographs.
And that has also confused people. “Why are you not working for someone? Why are you working for yourself?” I mean like I said earlier, it does sound like I haven’t… It was very spontaneous, this idea. But there has been a lot of planning. I put some savings aside, sold a couple of things. So it’s not like I’m kind of going in this without thinking about it. But I think a lot of people are surprised that I do this for myself, versus doing it for an income first.
“But I think a lot of people are surprised that I do this for myself, versus doing it for an income first.”
I have been able to write a couple of stories and have sold some pictures along the way, but I’ve never wanted to make that my first priority. Once again this goes back to the idea of this being a kind of window opportunity. And I don’t think it’s worth compromising on that, just yet.
Jenna: So you asked yourself a question throughout that answer, which was “So why are you out there?” which is a good question right, and you get that question…
Why are you out there? It’s one thing to say “I would like to take the photos and make a portfolio” but… it seems like, I don’t know, I think there’s multiple reasons why you do something, it’s not just one.
You know you could take photos, anywhere, and get a portfolio anywhere, right? You could travel on a vacation and not be roughing it, whether you’re riding your bike miles and miles a day, or camping in someone’s backyard, I mean it’s another thing to do it, this way.
So my question for you is “Why are you out there?” What’s the answer that you didn’t really want to give to the person that was asking you about whether or not you were an orphan. [Laughs]
Ian: I think it was a couple of questions back – we spoke about traveling and the world seeming more exotic and more appealing and more interesting. So a little bit of that is that.
A little bit of why I’m doing this is because it seems more exotic, and everything’s new and shiny, and all these different alphabets make you feel like you’re… just you’re completely illiterate, and everything is just… and I keep saying this, but exotic. So that does have a little bit of a kind of pull for me. But I think the real reason for doing it, and I probably only discovered this later, was to see how life would be like without limits. Without that return ticket.
“But I think the real reason for doing it, and I probably only discovered this later, was to see how life would be like without limits. Without that return ticket.”
[Jenna’s phone rings.]
Jenna: DAMN IT!! AGH!!!!!!!!
Ian: No worries.
Jenna: Sorry. Okay. All right. I’m going to smash my phone! Damn it. That’s like the worst interview interruption I’ve ever had… AGH!!!! All right, all right, all right. Life without limits. Please continue on this beautiful tangent you were having.
Ian: Right. Okay…
OK, so this this exotic nature of traveling, which is going to draw you in. And so that I find appealing. But the idea of living without limits. Yes. That’s where I was, wasn’t I?
I think it’s a… yeah it really does come back to the luxury of having no house to pay off. No kids. No serious debts or anything like that. That has obviously given the window to do it.
But just to kind of live life, if only for a while, without these… without these things that I’ve kind of felt held me back.
So as helpful as a Saturday was, it didn’t push me beyond… it didn’t make me any more productive than I really was. And something that I want to bring in here is the idea of what is called “The OK plateau.”
There’s a psychologist called Anders Ericsson and he works… he’s based somewhere in the States I think. I think in Florida or… anyway you might have to check that, but his name is Anders Ericsson, and he studies achievements and people’s potential and measures that.
And there’s that Malcolm Gladwell idea of a hundred thousand hours… I can’t remember if it was a hundred thousand or like a thousand hours, but you need to put in a certain amount of time to get proficient at something. I think that’s a kind of simplified way of looking at it.
This Anders Ericsson guy, he has a theory of “The OK Plateau.” And that is, when you learn a new skill, you master it kind of quickly, and then you reach this level where it just kind of plateaus.
So my example for this is learning the guitar. So I play the guitar, and I have learnt a couple of chords and I can play a couple of sing-along songs. But I have been playing guitar for about 15 years, and I haven’t gotten any better than I got after 6 months, and that is because, the theory goes, you reach this level where you just go auto pilot.
A famous example is with typing. So when people type on a keyboard you start off with your one hand going at it like that, and then you move on to two, and then looking at the keyboard, and then eventually looking at the screen. So for me, I just reached the looking at the keyboard phase, and I’m okay with that, and then I’ll just kind of stick at that. It’s the same with the guitar. I don’t want to play amazing solos, or learn scales, or read music, I just want to play a few chords. But if you want to get better you have to be in that beginner phase the entire time. So the difference between me and a professional musician is that the musician will practice the stuff that’s difficult for them. They’ll do scales they’ll do music theory, they’ll do those kind of things. With typing, you’ll look at the screen and become better at it. And so I wanted to see what it would be like to be a constant beginner. To kind of just always be in the beginning.
When you’re traveling, you’re in foreign environments, you can’t read. You can’t read the alphabet in some cases. You can’t speak the language. They ride on the other side of the road. It’s just weird. The temperature’s all wrong, and the food is weird. You’re constantly at five years old. Everything’s new, everything’s different. And that’s, that’s what I wanted.
“You’re constantly at five years old. Everything’s new, everything’s different. And that’s, that’s what I wanted.”
And when I started out, I didn’t really know… I didn’t really understand why I wanted to do this and it’s only really made sense to me later…
But it’s the idea of “what are you OK with? Are you OK with just staying at home in an office, in an office job scenario, or do you want to go further than that?”
The consequence of that is that you’re going to be a beginner for the whole time.
You know the same, and I suppose this works in with the impermanence of photography, of these fleeting moments. You’re not going to be in control, you’re always going to be learning, you’re always going to be missing the shots with the bird in the sunset. That kind of thing.
And so it’s the idea of me saying “I’m OK with just playing the guitar every now and then. Or typing the way I do. I’m not ok with just taking holiday snaps. I want to get better at that.”
“I’m OK with just playing the guitar every now and then. Or typing the way I do. I’m not OK with just taking holiday snaps. I want to get better at that.”
And in the same way I want to be a better cyclist, I want to be socially better at asking somebody if I can stay in their house if it’s raining. You know I want to be financially better that I can live off a tiny budget and stretch things and carry on and just…
I want to explore more of this planet, and that means I’m just going to have to be a beginner.
So once again, long answer to your question. But it’s a case of me just wanting to be to kind of embrace being an amateur, you know, embrace being a complete newbie, and that’s something that I… I like I said, I didn’t know before. But that’s really why I’m doing this.
Jenna: What are some moments where you’ve seen the best of humanity. Like just people being really, really good people.
Ian: So something that happened to me while I was cycling in South Africa was –
There’s a section of the South African coastline, which is about 300 kilometers. I’m not sure what that is in miles, but we can figure that out. Anyway –
It’s kind of long and it’s pretty much uncharted… well when I say uncharted it’s not… there are no roads that go through it, and it’s tribal land, and it’s called ‘The Wild Coast’ and for good reason.
And I decided I wanted to walk up it, and camp along the way. So I had a little one-man tent, and I left my bicycle with a friend, and I walked up. And it took three weeks of walking, and there were days where I wouldn’t see people at all. And like I mentioned earlier, there’s a fair amount of paranoia, just maybe due to news headlines, and things like that. A lot of people said “you know, this is pretty unsafe.” But it did feel right what I was doing, and I’ve always been prepared to turn back if things haven’t felt right.
Anyway what happened was, I was about to camp for the night, and I hadn’t seen people for two days and there was this cave, and I thought ‘well, let me camp in a cave’ and so I did.
So I was just about to go to bed, and two people appeared at the end of the cave, and I thought “Whoa… I’m on the wrong side of the cave. For this. This could mean problems.” And I also hadn’t seen people for two days before so it was kind of a shock to the system. And the sun had just gone down, and there was a language barrier. They couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak their language. And one of the guys said “you come with me.”
And I thought, well you know all these people telling me how unsafe The Wild Coast is, this is where I lose all my stuff, and I kind of made peace with the fact that was about to happen. I packed up the bag. I packed up my backpack, and my tent, and I’m kind of holding my pepper spray the whole time. But I haven’t used it, so I don’t know it works. [Laughs] Do you spray once, or do you spray a lot? Or do you spray when you’re in a cave?
“I packed up the bag. I packed up my backpack, and my tent, and I’m kind of holding my pepper spray the whole time. But I haven’t used it, so I don’t know it works. [Laughs] Do you spray once, or do you spray a lot? Or do you spray when you’re in a cave?”
You know all these things I don’t know [laughs] and so they started walking with me, and I had a torch but they didn’t have any lights so we’re walking through the dark, and we walked for 15 minutes and nothing happens, and I’m still kind of waiting, and basically they walked with me for an hour, to this the campsite, which wasn’t even on the map, and it was way out of their route.
They basically walked me to the campsite and then they were like “there you go!” and they disappeared.
And for me that was really touching, just because I’d been really alone and I hadn’t seen people for a long time.
I’d kind of gone past the point of no return, because it got pretty lonely, but I realized if I go back it’s going to take three weeks getting back. And then when I saw these people I thought well, this is this, this the end of my stuff, best case scenario. And it really wasn’t. So that was really cool.
And you know when you open yourself up to needing help along the way, by being this goofy foreigner, it’s really touching when people make an effort to help you.
So that stands out for me.
Jenna: In the work that you’ve done that’s been commissioned, what were some projects that you really enjoyed? So not like the ‘oh I’m selling this photograph, great, here you go’ but assignments that you had whether they be writing, or photographs, that just were like ‘you know, yeah, I could do this.’
Ian: So there was one that I did on one kind of lessons that I learned a lot along the way. And basically just the idea of streamlining your life, caring less, and you know maybe not following any kind of too rigid a routine. That was pretty cool.
Beyond that, I’ve written a couple of columns along the way for a travel magazine, and that’s been kind of cool, just because I haven’t been able to see my experiences from the outside, so just kind of to sit back and write about these weird things that happen when you travel.
I recently wrote a column about getting arrested in Kazakhstan, because that’s what happened. [Laughs]
I was in this area where… well every tourist in Kazakhstan has to register with the local police. But they only tell you this in Cyrillic writing. So I didn’t know that was a rule, but apparently this is what you’ve got to do, and I was in an area where I don’t think they’ve had tourists in a while, and the migration police got a hold of us, and I had to go to court.
I managed to see the lighter side of it. I got assigned this lawyer who said “I WILL FIGHT FOR YOU!”
But it turns out that was the only English she could speak, and as far as the fighting went, that’s what happened. I think she saw it on Law and Order and then she just just used that line. She used it about three times, but that’s all she said. And she didn’t really get around to fighting.
So it’s been cool to kind of see… obviously at the time I was kind of freaked out, and I thought ‘well, I’m going to end up in Kazakh prison’ or ‘I’m never going to leave the place’ and so at the time you don’t really get to appreciate how funny it actually is. And through seeing it in hindsight – that’s been pretty cool.
Jenna: Are you are you going to be putting together a book, whether it’s a photo book or a book book, about your adventures? Are you driving toward some type of conclusion at the end of all this? Or is this kind of an ongoing, never going to end, ‘this is my portfolio’ kind of thing.
Ian: I’d like to think that it’s never going to end, but it probably should end sometime.
The plan is to bring out a photo book. I’d like to also write about these things. The only thing is, I don’t think I’d like to mix the photographs and writing. Just because I like to see photos without captions, sometimes. The kind of open-ended photographs. I think if you’re told what’s going on in too much detail, it kind of takes away from the photograph a bit. I like the mystery of just leaving it as it is.
“I think if you’re told what’s going on in too much detail, it kind of takes away from the photograph a bit. I like the mystery of just leaving it as it is.”
I don’t think I’d name them. But I’d definitely like to bring out a photo book. I think these little stories, that’s something that I’d really like to do. I think the only thing I’m struggling with is to make a format, would there be a bunch of short stories, or one chapter, one story, that sort of thing. That’s something that I’m definitely going to do.
First the photos, and then looking back on these events. They get funnier, or they get weirder, and I think that’s kind of cool.
So I’ll be taking advantage of that.
Thanks for listening to Notes on Doing episode 032, with Ian McNaught Davis.
You can check out Ian’s photography on his website at https://ianmcnaughtdavis.carbonmade.com/.
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Until next week! In the meantime, always do.