Photographer Aundre Larrow (@aundre) interviews New York City-based photographer and graphic designer Saunak Shah, @saunakspace. Saunak's passion for making portraits is evident and the 10-year advertising industry veteran uses travel as an influence in his professional work. He's currently a global associate design director at IBM Interactive Experience, where he works on transformative ideas and experiences using a creativity first-hand approach to today's cognitive era.
What was the first trip you ever took? What did you capture? What did you learn?
My first big trip was to Scotland when I was studying in England in 2001. Edinburgh and the Highlands were the perfect backdrops for a trip of firsts. The vast expanse of the Scottish moors tapered with occasional houses and medieval castles were picture-perfect. I would try to compose my photos with a house or a castle or a boat in them. Only now I realize how that subject in the composition has changed into being a person or a human element.
What’s your mentality while you’re traveling?
My mentality is if I were to make a friend on the trip in a new place or town, I would basically find a window into how they viewed the world outside that place. So many people I've met on my trips have never left the town they grew up in, let alone the country. So to be able to listen to that experience is priceless. It makes that place even more special.
Essentially, I like meeting new people on my travels.
What are your essentials for each trip you take?
A light tripod, camera gear (needless to say) and a flashlight.
Do you research before you go? How do you decide where to shoot?
I always like to research before any trip, and I like to read reviews from other travelers.
I feel more prepared when I've canvased an area even before I'm there. And when I'm there, I'll be open to exploring even more. I try to find the places only locals know. On several of my trips, I've connected with Instagrammers in that town, so I could visit the off the beaten path spots!
Where haven't you been yet?
I haven’t been to South America, Africa, Australia, China, or Japan.
What is the best travel advice you've been given?
"Don't assume every stranger is your friend." No but really.
What photographers do you follow that have inspired you to go to a new place?
A Hong Kong-based photographer named Yin (@kacozi), a young Vancouver-based crew called Local Wanderer (@localwanderer), a creative based out of LA named Ravi Vora (@ravivora), and my good friend David (@syntax_error), who recently moved back to LA.
You've been to dozens of states and countries: Where are you most at home?
I've felt most at home while I was in Mexico City and Havana.
If I wanted to travel with you, what would you tell me are your basic tenets?
There will be 6AM wake-up calls and/or sleepless nights.
Window or aisle seat?
Under 6 hours, I opt for window seats. Over 6 hours, I sit in the aisle.
Do you rent a car, take a cab or try public transit?
I've done a few cross-country trips and I couldn't have done it without a car rental. But while I’m in a city, I'm always up for hustling alongside the local commuters.
Iceland, Iceland, Iceland: you've been a lot in the past year, right? Why?
I've been to Iceland twice already this year. I go because it calls me.
Have you visited any locations more than once in all your trips? If so, why?
Yes. I love frequent the same spots. It's like a second date; there's always something new to discover... something you missed the first time.
From what I can see, Iceland looks like a serene place because of the lack of people. Do you feel that way? What else about Iceland impresses you?
Iceland is therapeutic because of the diversity of geology, the raw untouched topography, and the sparse habitation by humans.
These factors together make it serene and almost outlandish. What impresses me the most the process of daylight. During the summer months, the sun is visible for almost 21 hours, and during the winter solstice, on the other hand, the days are dramatically shorter, with only 4 hours of daylight. The phenomenon of the midnight sun is fascinating.
Do you ever just feel small and insignificant as you look at glaciers, waterfalls and all of Iceland’s wonders?
All the time, but it makes it so much more magical. The concept of existentialism, and feeling your presence within your surroundings, cannot be understood any more perfectly.
What are must-see spots for first-time travelers to Iceland?
The capital of Reykjavík is a beautiful, walkable city. But on our recent trip, we went out of the city to drive over 9 days along the ring road, stopping at multiple places both on and off the road. We went to the West Fjords, Siglufjörður, Hverarönd, Eskifjörður, Skaftafell, Þórsmörk, Vík í Mÿrdal and Dyrhólæy. Those places included some of my favorite sights, and others include waterfalls, such as Dettifoss, Svartifoss, Selfoss, Skógafoss, and Goðafoss. Glaciers are incredible, too! My favorite glaciers were Skaftafelljökull and Sólheimajökull. The black sand beach at Reynisfjara and the sight of the famous Sólheimasandur plane crash are must-sees. If you go during the winter months, Jökulsárlón is a great place to see the Northern lights.
As primarily a portrait photographer, what challenges do you have (or have you had) capturing the breadth of landscapes in Iceland?
If anything, my biggest concern is to find new subjects to shoot. In a city, I could easily stop someone on the street, but out in the unknown of Iceland, it's just you, your camera, and your traveling companions. I'm an environmental portrait photographer, so finding new concepts to shoot the same subject is what motivates me in a place like Iceland.
Is it hard not being able to get photos of yourself since you're so busy snapping?
It can be hard, but I'm seldom complaining. Like some photographers, I'm most comfortable being behind the camera. Although don't get me wrong, I love getting photos of myself taken, and once I'm in the element, I have to be stopped.
What's your ideal group number for travel buddies? Why?
The ideal number for me would be 4, only because activities can be split into halves, and no one is singled out. But then 3 seems ideal, too. In this scenario, I could be singled out and could use some personal time to explore on my own.
As a photographer, how do you combat the cold and elements in a place you're visiting for the first time?
There is always that cold spell that hits you right amidst a trip and there is nothing you can do about it. And somehow, even though you checked the weather before the trip, it somehow doesn’t end up being warm and sunny like the weather reported. It's always wise to carry a set of thermals, woolen socks, and a good winter jacket. Apart from all the clothing items, I've found a best friend in a bottle of brandy or Jack Daniels – a shot a night can go a long way.
What do you hope to show your followers when you attempt to capture new places?
I hope to tell a story, or at least plant a seed of a story.
When is the last time you just stood back and said, 'wow', before you captured something? How do you capture wonder in your images?
There were so many 'wow' moments on my recent trip to Iceland. It’s truly hard to pinpoint a few, but one of my all-time favorite waterfalls is Svartifoss in Skaftafell. It’s a preservation area in Öræfi in southeast Iceland. Even when I'm not shooting a close-up portrait, I'm always trying to incorporate a human subject in my photos. I feel it makes it more real and adds a sense of scale. This shot, in particular, was hard to get since it was midday and the light was harsh. At the same time, I wanted to get a long exposure to offset the subject in front of the waterfall. I remember using a neutral density filter while squatting over a rock in the middle of the river – with a tripod. All in all, the shot was a real challenge, but I think I got the mood right.
Where have you traveled that has given you that 'wow' moment? What makes you say wow? are there any places you haven't been but have seen images by other photographers that make you say wow?
I recently also traveled to the Pacific North West in the USA, namely Oregon and Washington State. There were "wow' moments there at every turn. When I visited Havana, Cuba, there were "wow" moments at every street corner. The road trip in Italy was a "wow" experience. I think natural beauty, architecture, and the hustle and bustle of cities filled with complex history speak to me most. I'm a sucker for people and places. I've seen photos of the Tepuis in Venezuela and it chokes me to see how beautiful that place is.
Where are you off to next?
Peru, Bolivia, and Chile or Indonesia, then Vietnam and Laos.