The thing that excites most of us about travel is that everything is new and different. Different landscapes, different cultures, different languages, different faces. They provide a dramatic change from the daily same-same in our everyday lives.
Of course, those differences can also be some of the biggest challenges of travel photography.
As a travel photographer, the very things that draw me to explore and photograph a particular place are the same things that drive me crazy.
Language barriers, cultural norms, local laws, and geographic differences can all contribute to a lot of frustration when you’re on the road.
You need to be flexible and adaptable with travel photography. I get a great sense of satisfaction when I can overcome these challenges, but sometimes a little help can go a long way. That’s where a fixer can come in.
What’s a fixer? A fixer is a local that can help with many tasks that you may be unable to do yourself, or will be limited in doing as a foreigner.
Think of them as your man (or woman) on the ground who knows the language, culture, and laws, who has contacts and access to places you wouldn’t get on your own.
They have local knowledge that you won’t find online or in guidebooks. They can often drive for you, and some can even act as an assistant.
Fixers not only open up opportunities for you, but can help you avoid problems and potential dangers.
Do You Need a Fixer
This depends on a few different things. Are you going to a place that is vastly different to what you’re used to?
For example, being from New Zealand, I never even considered a fixer when going to Australia, Canada, or the United States. The language and culture in those countries are so similar to my own that hiring a local is unnecessary.
On the other hand, there’s no way I could’ve seen and photographed the things that I did in places like Ethiopia or Brazil without the help of locals.
It’s also worth considering your subject. If you’re planning to photograph people, a fixer is a no-brainer. They will help to break down communication barriers and can often gain access that would be impossible on your own.
Whether you need a fixer for photographing something like landscapes or street photography that don’t need a lot of communication is up to you. A fixer can still help with things like driving and showing you interesting places, but you might prefer doing these things on your own.
How to Find a Fixer
There are many people out there who offer their services as a local guide, but unfortunately most of them will not be appropriate for your needs. Their communication needs to be excellent.
They need to have the right type of local knowledge. They need to have an understanding of the needs of a photographer. And they need to be honest and trustworthy.
Most importantly, you need to be able to get along with them. You could be spending a lot of time together, and they could make or break your trip.
There are many different ways to find a local to assist you. The first, and most reliable, is to ask for recommendations. Contact other photographers who have worked in the place you’re going to and ask for recommendations.
Travel forums like Lonely Planet Thorn Tree or TripAdvisor are great places to ask around.
A Google search can go a long way to find companies or individuals that offer their services. Be careful of travel guides, though. They can be valuable, but more often than not they offer their services to tourists who don’t have the same wants and needs as photographers.
A fixer and a guide aren’t the same thing.
It’s also worth considering trying to find local university or photography students. They will often tick many of the boxes you need plus understand the needs of a photographer. Being students, their rates may be a lot lower than a professional fixer.
You could also wait until you arrive at your destination to find a fixer. I would avoid anyone who approaches you as they are unlikely to be the sort of person you’re looking for, and could even be unsafe.
Try asking for recommendations from locals who work at your accommodation.
Contact and Interview Potential Fixers
When you’ve found one or two potential fixers, you’ll need to make contact and try to get an idea if they will work. You’ll need to know if they’re available for the dates of your trip, and you need to also get an idea of whether they will be the right fit for you.
What do they know about the needs of a photographer? Have they worked with photographers before?
Ask them personal questions about themselves, their family, their education, etc. You want to know if they’re someone you can spend a lot of time with. You also need to discuss expectations around what they will and won’t be responsible for, and of course, payment.
I also recommend scheduling a video chat before you agree to work together. They will effectively be your employee for the duration of the trip, so treat it as an interview. It doesn’t need to be formal, it can be a friendly, casual chat.
You wouldn’t hire any other employee without meeting them in person or over video, so I wouldn’t hire a fixer without having a real conversation with them either.
Are they someone you would like to sit down and have a meal or a drink with? If not, they’re probably not right for you.
How to Hire Your Fixer
If you think you’ve found your fixer and they’re happy to work with you, it’s time to come up with an agreement. It doesn’t need to be a signed contract, although some photographers prefer that. It does need to be in writing, though.
This could be a simple email outlining what you’ve discussed and agreed to so that you both have a copy to refer to. Ask them to read it and reply with a confirmation.
Keep in contact with them as your trip approaches. A fixer can help a lot with planning before you ever arrive at your destination, so make the most of their knowledge.
They can save you a lot of money. They can arrange accommodation, pick you up from the airport, even have you stay with their family.
The benefits of finding a fixer for your travel photography are countless, and many you won’t even consider until you try it. You can get great tips, make lifelong friends, and they will open doors into countries and cultures that you never knew existed.
They can make the difference between seeing a place from the outside looking in and seeing it through the eyes of a local. Money can’t buy those experiences.
Before you set out on your travel photography adventure, check out our posts on essential travel photography accessories or finding great gifts for travel photographers.