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Choosing the Right Tour Guide or Fixer for an International Project

Choosing the Right Tour Guide or Fixer for an International Project

Over the last two years, I have been traveling quite a few times for a personal project involving the last remaining tribal-tattooed faces of Asia. The results of that project are finding a home at Tattoos of Asia. I still have five or six more trips to make before I can consider the project complete, and I wanted to share my experience so far with finding help for a project like this. Finding the right guide or fixer for your project isn't easy, and can be a lot like hiring a new employee. Let's go through my process for finding and hiring the right person for the job.

Why Hire a Fixer or Guide

When working in remote places, especially those less traveled, you may find yourself in need of help to achieve your goals. A fixer, or even a tour guide, can be a great asset to your team. When traveling in the countryside of Myanmar, Laos, and Taiwan over my last few trips, my guides and fixers have been absolutely essential in getting me to the places I need to be and introducing me to the people I am hoping to photograph.

In Myanmar, I was able to shake hands with commanders at military blocks and walk through where others could not. In Taiwan, the team drove through Class 5 Super-Typhoon Meranti to get to where we wanted to go. In Laos, a persistent guide managed to get us far deeper into the culture of the Brao people than we would have thought possible. These were the tangible benefits to my project at the time. However, all of these people became my friends and advocates as time went on. This is far more than I could have asked for. Let's jump in to how I choose my guides.

Get Recommendations

Search Google for guides or fixers, check travel forums and TripAdvisor, ask friends who have visited the region you're looking into, or talk to a local government office. These methods will hopefully yield you with a good number of people to contact. The best thing you can do once you've found a few you might like to work with is to ask people why they recommended the person. The answer to that question will give you a good idea of who to actually reach out to.

Talk to the Person

Once you have a list to contact, send out emails or call the people. Of course, you want to know if they're interested in working with you and available for the duration of your project, but you also want to know who they are. One of the biggest things you need to know is whether or not you'll get along with the person. During your conversations, try to get a feel for who they are, what their interests are, and how knowledgeable they are. Ask questions unrelated to the project and ask about their previous experiences with foreigners.

Of all the things I've found working with the 10-plus guides I've worked with on my project so far, the one I have found to be most important is this: you need to get along. If you can laugh, joke, and get a beer together at the end of the day, everything else will fall into place. Don't skip this part.

My guide for the Laos end of my project, Somesack, was laughing and joking with us right from the get go. He had also come highly recommended by a trusted friend in Laos. Those two things made me confident from the moment we agreed to work together. I had the right person.

A Genuine Interest

The next thing you'll want to know is whether or not someone has a genuine interest in your project. If you're doing a project on conservation, and your help doesn't give the environment a second thought, they're not likely to go out of their way to make it a great success. The same thing goes for people who are in it for the money. Money as a driving force does not lead to good work. Try very hard to make sure you find someone who cares about your project.

For my first book, the main advocate of the project, my link to the people I was photographing, translator, fixer, and companion was Htwe Kyi, a member of the tribe I was photographing. His love for his tribe and his desire to improve their situation met with my goals and was a huge boon to the project. With both of our desires for the project aligned, we were able to plan easily and work smoothly with the villagers we visited. Even now, we are in touch and planning to do more work together.

Understanding a Photographer's Requirements

Photographers are not like other tourists. We look for light, we operate around it, and don't want to miss a moment of it. Early afternoon is often not an appropriate time for us, and we'd rather be having coffee than shooting pictures. Your guide or fixer needs to understand this and be prepared to work that way.

During my stint in Taiwan, my guide was a budding photographer himself, which meant he was keenly aware of our requirements and able to let people know how things needed to be done. Not only that, but he was extremely personable, both with us and our subjects. His gentle manner and knowledge of our requirements was key to getting the work done.

Are You Confident?

After you've gone through all of this, ask yourself, am I confident in hiring this person? If the answer is yes, you're golden.

After You Arrive

Once you get there, meet the person, get to know them. Do this before you start to work together, it will make the following days go smoother. As you begin to work together, make note of things that do and don't work for you. If you can smooth out these wrinkles early in the process, your work and the atmosphere around it will benefit greatly. Remember, this person is now a part of your team, an employee in your business. You have to work in sync to make the best out of the limited time you'll have together.

These are the things that I have been considering as I find and work with the many people that have supported my project so far. I hope that it has been helpful for anyone thinking about hiring help on their next project. It would be great to see even more suggestions in the comments below.

Dylan Goldby's picture

Dylan Goldby is an Aussie photographer living and working in South Korea. He shoots a mix of families, especially the adoptive community, and pre-weddings. His passions include travel, good food and drink, and time away from all things electronic.

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A great read. I'll definitely be looking into this for my next project. Thanks.

It looks like Dyan lucked out with getting a guide that was also a budding photographer. Win-Win for both.