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Chris Stevens isn’t your typical backpacker. This 27-year-old Englishman travels the world as a surf coach, snapping pictures and blogging about his travels while striking deals with sponsors around the globe.
I caught up with Chris Stevens of Backpacker Banter to discuss his travel photography, his globetrotting lifestyle and his latest projects.
Hillary Fox: Tell me about how you got started. When did you first begin to document your adventures?
Chris Stevens: Well my whole love affair with photography started quite young and I was always documenting the surf and skate lifestyle of my buddies (a less successful Glen Friedman wannabe I guess!) and then I headed off to uni where I actually studied documentary photography. As part of my final year I headed to Ecuador and did a project on eco surfing which was the first time I’d really travelled properly with my camera.
After graduating I headed to Oz in 2009 for a year and it all kind of spiralled from there really—I started a blog, shot heaps of pictures and decided that I wanted to travel long term… Five years later I’m still living the dream!
What compelled you to take up travel writing and photography while you were surfing around the world?
Surfing is without a doubt the biggest driving force behind my travels (although diving and freediving are now close behind it!) and I knew that my photography was a valuable tool for earning on the road, so I started using it to gain access to festivals, get free accommodation and generally lighten the need to spend heaps of cash to enjoy myself.
I soon learnt that writing the articles to accompany my images was another way to boost the pay I got from it—so I suddenly found myself drifting into the world of blogging. It wasn’t until maybe a year later that one of my travel buddies (Amar from Gap Year Escape) helped me realise the potential income and business I had created.
You’ve been to 22 countries in the past 5 years. Where was your most inspiring place to shoot?
I’ve actually explored relatively few countries given my time on the road and compared to how many some of my other traveller friends have hit up. I’m the first to admit that if I find a place I really like I tend to revisit a few times! Take Ecuador for example, I’ve been back three times to the surf town of Montanita! My surfing means I tend to stick to a limited few places, too, but I’m totally cool with that—it’s my adventure after all so why shouldn’t I do what I want and spend my money on what makes me smile!?
When it comes to the most inspiring places to shoot it’s tough to narrow it down! The Galapagos, South Africa, Iceland and New Zealand are some of the top spots that spring to mind, though it’s so difficult to choose as everywhere inspires for different reasons!
How do you fund your travel costs? How do you keep costs down?
Well I’ve juggled numerous ways to make money on the road—from hostel work to photography, bar work to surf coaching. Heck I even ended up in a nudist movie (not porn I hasten to add!) when I was running low on cash… easiest $500 I ever made, hahaha!
These days I’m lucky enough to earn most of my income from the blog through advertising and sponsorships and I’ve recently launched my own online travel agency, Epic Gap Year, to help other make the most of their adventures too.
I guess the key is to be flexible and one of the best pieces of advice I can give is to remember it’s not about making money, it’s more about not spending it… so if I can trade taking some photos for a 5 day dive live-aboard in Thailand I’m happy to deal on that rather than demand money. I think it makes for better long term business relationships, too.
What’s your advice to other photographers seeking sponsorships and work opportunities abroad?
Hmm that’s a tough one! The whole trade thing is a great way to get started though, build up a portfolio and get some good name drops into your pitch email. Fair enough, you won’t be raking in the cash—but you’ll still be having a blast and gaining contacts. Some of the best paid work I’ve had has been through people I’ve done trade jobs for—it opens up a lot of doors I think.
Obviously a website is a must, too—get yourself online and start blogging, even if it’s just images, at least it showcases what you’re up to.
A good pitch email is key as well—make it personal, though. Yes you need to drop in some names, maybe some stats traffic-wise or some rates, but also make it personal, too. The travel industry should be fun after all! Don’t be afraid to approach people and companies. The worst they can do is turn down working with you… so you’ve nothing to lose!
I know you prefer to pack light. What gear do you typically travel with?
I loved the last part of 2013 when I travelled for most of it on 25 litres of rucksack—the Dakine Photo Mission pack actually. It was liberating!
Kit-wise I had my iPhone, Macbook, GoPro (I freaking LOVE my GoPro – I’m now shooting with the Hero4 Silver which is amazing!) Canon 7D, 18-55mm lens, 10-20mm lens and 50mm lens which covered pretty much everything I was shooting or wanted to shoot.
I occasionally travel with my Sigma 50-500mm (mainly for surf stuff!) but I’ve grown tired of lugging it around these days! I’m currently working with Canon having tested out their G7X camera before it was launched and it’s currently in my kit bag—a really unique camera to shoot with and a really powerful backup camera, too.
Apart from cameras and tech it’s mainly boardies, flip flops and a dive make really, haha!
Working on the go can be tricky. How do you stay on task from the road?
It’s certainly a tough balance with work and play on the road and there have been patches where I totally lost track of what I was doing and found it hard to keep on top of stuff. The main change I’ve made is travelling much slower these days, not cramming my itinerary and basically looking at it as a lifestyle rather than a holiday.
Slowing down works well for two reasons. Firstly, I have so more time to pencil in work and keep on top of things but secondly, it also means I really appreciate the place I’m in and get to know it much better.
I also have a few spreadsheets I use to track jobs I’m working on and payments and have downloaded the app Listastic onto my iPhone to help keep track of ideas, people I need to email and shot lists on the go.
Wifi on the road is the main cause of stress though—it’s all well and good basing yourself on a tropical island for a while but sometimes you just need to book yourself into a hotel with fast fibre optic connection to smash out a heap of work quickly!
How has social media helped you connect with and grow your audience?
Social media is a huge necessary evil these days—I love it and hate it in equal measure! The best thing for me is that it’s a more interactive way to connect with people than just a mailing list and also allows me to share my images and stories in real time. If you pay attention to what people are saying it’s also a great tool for producing content they want, too… text and images! Heck I even ask people for blog post titles and things sometimes if I get stuck!
For me it’s also a great way to realise that people are listening—which is a great bit of encouragement. I limit myself to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at the moment (and even Twitter is something I’m not too bothered with) because for me they’re the most visual and interactive mediums. I’ve played with Pinterest but it lacks the human interaction element I think.
What has been your greatest challenge with this lifestyle?
Probably the greatest challenge is explaining it to people! To start with, my parents and friends simply couldn’t fathom what the hell I was doing and how it was funding my travels—it wasn’t like I had a plan either, I was just making it up as I went along! Still, I stuck with it and had blind faith that I could make something work from it!
What advice do you have for other photographers seeking the digital nomad lifestyle?
Don’t expect it to happen overnight or pay very well! I’m basically life rich and cash poor, which I’m totally cool with that. All my income gets spent on exploring the world and getting to the next destination. If you need to save money you juggle another job on the side or base yourself somewhere cheap (like Asia) for a bit and let the cash slowly pile up. It’s not for everyone, but if you can make it work it’s totally worth the sacrifices!
Tell me about your current projects. Are you working on anything special?
At the moment I’m working on two main projects. The first is the one I mentioned with Canon and their new G7X. I’m putting together a short video as part of their “Come And See” campaign followed by some blog content about testing the camera out on the road and highlighting how it’s fitting into my lifestyle. It’s been a really fun project to be involved in and I really enjoyed filming at their secret location in London—it’s been a big boost working with such a worldwide name too… kind of like a stamp of approval!
My other big project is something I also mentioned, Epic Gap Year. For me it’s the culmination of all the business contacts I’ve made and the amazing adventures I’ve had myself. Basically it offers surf, dive, snow and adventure experiences across the globe that help you either indulge a passion, learn something new or open up an alternative career path.
I only launched it back in June (after nearly a year in the making) but it’s already gaining great traction and we’re sending people from all over the globe, well, all over the globe!
I’m stoked that it’s been received so well and I’m really enjoying travelling around to source new suppliers. It’s brought a new focus to my adventures and is helping me make the most of my photography, blogging, website and social media skills too. I built the entire site myself and I’m currently running all the marketing and product sourcing too! Busy times!
Where will we find you next?
Well I’m currently out in the Philippines, which has quickly become my new favourite place in Asia. But next month I’m bouncing back to a firm favourite of mine, Indonesia, for heaps of surfing fun over xmas and new year! Yeeewwwww!