Esteban Toro’s new episodic short-format travel film, "Aperture: A World of Stories," is a beautiful watch. On top of the eye-candy, Toro’s film also provides some very valuable insights into and tips for filming internationally.
Toro’s new series is broken down into five episodes of roughly 10 minutes per episode. Each episode takes time to explore the people and culture of the destination at its heart. Toro's "Aperture" also provides the aspiring travel photographer with some interesting behind the scenes and tips to plan your own expedition. Perhaps even more valuable, Toro frames each episode by sitting down with Brent Lewis, Photo Editor of the New York Times, and Scott Gray of the World Photography Organization.
Toro and Sony
Given his current affiliation with Sony, my first question for Toro was what cameras has he used throughout his career. Over the years, Toro has used Nikon, Canon, and Hasselblad.
Given such a wide range of camera experiences, I asked Toro to explain how he initially connected with Sony. While traveling in Vietnam, Toro received an email from Sony’s marketing department asking if he’d like to try out their gear. At the time, he was shooting with Nikon and didn’t have much experience with Sony. He agreed to take some Sony mirrorless equipment and put it through its paces on the condition that if the gear didn’t live up to his expectations, Sony would take it back. As a travel photographer, Toro needs to depend on his gear working through some extreme conditions. According to Toro, Sony was confident their gear would impress Toro. After a few months of testing, Toro agreed. Toro has been a Sony ambassador ever since.
Toro and Hahnemuhle
Toro is always eager to show off his prints and talk about the process of printing. You can see his conversation about prints with Lewis and Gray in episode three, "Traditions," as well as an in-depth discussion of printing in my recent article on Toro’s printing process.
In a digital age, Toro is enthralled with the physical print. Toro equates a print to seeing the act of creation all the way through. From the subject, to your lens, to the camera, to your eye is only part of the equation. Putting the color and depth of your image onto paper is what Toro calls the real final image. As we discussed before, Hahnemühle’s rag paper is Toro’s go-to paper.
Why Travel Photography
I’m a lover of culture-centric travel photography, and so, I was curious as to what drew Toro to the genre. Toro’s answer was empathic:
Permission to see people and places!
Toro explained that he was relatively shy until he found photography:
Photography pushed me to start living.
In order to take the photographs he wanted, Toro had to seek out new experiences. Basically, for him, that meant going outside of his comfort zone to meet new people:
Photography is an excuse for me to go out and understand the world.
In terms of the nuts and bolts of the genre, Toro is effusive that travel photography lets him take images of whatever strikes his fancy. Travel is such a wide genre for Toro that he can switch from taking portraits, to landscapes, to still life, and back, depending on what piques his curiosity.
Cinema Versus Photography
"Aperture" is incredibly cinematic. You’d swear that Toro was really a filmmaker at heart. I asked Toro if he sees a distinction between photography and cinema: if he had to choose one format or the other, where would he land? For Toro, photography is his true passion. For him, the challenge of finding one story, in one frame, in one moment, is the challenge that he loves the most — a bit of an Aristotelian unity, if you will.
For those of us who are working on or want to work on an epic travelogue like "Aperture," Toro’s openness to discuss his methods is gold.
Originally, Toro intended his "Aperture" series to be a set of very short installments. He actually envisioned each episode to clock in at the minute mark. However, when he was in the planning stages, he realized that the places he was traveling deserved more screen time.
As the dominos fell into place, Toro also realized that if he was going to create a longer series, he’d need some kind of hook to run throughout the series to tie it all together. This is when he reached out to Lewis of the NYT and Gray of the WPO. Acting as a constant from episode to episode, Toro talks to Lewis and Gray about his photos as a way to establish and then dive into each location.
With the world getting smaller and more accessible, I was curious about how Toro selected his locations:
We had so many options. But I decided I wanted to focus on India, as it was a place that I knew. India brings you many unique chances to create beautiful pictures.
Once Toro selected his locations, he would often use local fixers or producers to help coordinate his shoots. For Toro, his local fixers were people he could rely on to help find the right location and to get him out of trouble. As many of us know, photographers can often be targets for scammers, touts, or worse, thieves. A local fixer will have more experience and can help you assess your risks. A fixer can also help you determine when you should put your camera away, when certain locations and moments just aren’t for photos.
On the positive side, fixers can also help facilitate certain shots or opportunities. For example, Toro takes the time in "Aperture" to explain in detail that without his fixer’s experience at one particular temple, he would have had no idea that monks are often late for mess hall. Knowing this allowed him to prepare for the moment that turned into the image of a monk running to eat.
Again, as an experienced traveler, I’ve found myself in some difficult, dirty, if not dangerous situations. It comes with the territory. So, I was curious what locations provided Toro with the most trouble.
Although Toro had visited the Holi Festival in previous years, shooting "Aperture" was the first time he took a camera into the mayhem of the temple floor.
I actually felt fear. As soon as it starts, you realize you can’t control anything. I couldn’t even look through my viewfinder. I had to imagine what it would look like and use my experience and intuition to frame shots while dodging water, powder, and beatings.
The Taboo Topic of Paying for Access
Second to Holi, Toro had a hard time getting the photographs he wanted in Varanasi. To put it plainly, there are some places in the world that photographers just aren’t freely invited. Anyone can stand on the public ghats along the Ganges, but there are a lot of places that are off-limits
While trying to get inside the crematoria, Toro was told he had to pay or leave. Confronted with this information, Lewis states in no uncertain terms that the NYT has a policy of not using photos that are the product of any kind of pay to play. Essentially, if you have to pay for access, the NYT, along with most (if not all) other newspapers, will decline your photos.
Toro and I talked about this at length. The crematoria along the river is pretty much inaccessible to anyone other than locals or the direct relatives of those being cremated. As restricted to the public as it may be, these places do hold international interest. Try as he might, Toro could not talk his way in. No explanation of his project was enough. So, like many others, Toro paid.
This practice is frowned upon by journalism, but without payment, (almost) nobody gets in. I’m not sure I can side with the NYT here. I’ll pay to get into one of Canada’s National Parks. I’ll pay to have the only tour company permitted to operate in certain parts of Wapusk National Park take me to see the polar bears. I’ve paid to get into churches, I’ve made "donations" or bought trinkets to take portraits, and I’ve happily paid the foreigner's price to get into events abroad.
I understand the slippery slope argument: pay here, and every photojournalist everywhere will have to pay. But most of us already pay for access to innumerable Western or other established places. Why is it different here? Why can’t a photographer pay what amounts to a nominal fee to get into restricted areas? This conversation could spiral out of control and so would likely be better saved for another day.
The Taboo Topic of Setting Up Cultural-centric Travel Shots
Similarly, while talking with Gray, Toro explained that some of his shots are styled or semi-styled. Posing travel photography is also a bit of a taboo subject. Should a photographer ask someone to pose or should they be restricted to only taking spontaneous, journalistic-type photos?
Toro explained to Gray that his images are often made up of a combination of natural and styled components. For example, while shooting in a temple, Toro noticed the light and dust coming from a particular window. He asked the monks to move from where they were reading to sit in the window. He also asked them to continue their studies, without further posing instruction.
In our discussion, Toro also explained that there are certain instances when he will take subjects to particular locations and even ask them to look in a certain direction, but will otherwise keep his direction to a minimum. As Toro put it:
...a spontaneous way of looking.
Toro agrees that this isn’t pure photojournalism. But, he also suggests that even photojournalists are already controlling a shot when they pick a particular lens to use. Not just that, but the photojournalist is always deciding where to point the camera.
You are already editing and controlling a shot when you pick a camera and lens. You are deciding what to show and what not to show.
This begs the question: are posed photos of different cultural moments exploitative? Can they ever be photojournalism? Is unbiased cultural photojournalism even possible?
Learning From Industry Leaders
Getting advice and input from industry leaders like Lewis and Gray and then sharing it with his followers in "Aperture" is generous. As a follow-up, I asked Toro what he learned from his time with Lewis and Gray:
Be bold and share your images. Tell your stories.
Beyond that, Toro explained that, because Lewis is a photojournalist and Gray is a fine art collector, responses to any particular image are often dependent on who you are sharing your work with. Toro suggested that you have to find your passion and work for yourself. If your works fits with the NYT or attracts the attention of a fine art collector, great. If not, keep shooting your own stories. Eventually, your work will find a home.
This kind of attitude reminds me of Steve Martins’ comment:
Be so good they can’t ignore you.
What’s Up Next
With the first series of "Aperture" in the can, I was curious where Toro was going to head next.
Time is short, and I still have many places to photograph.
Toro hopes he can make his second season of "Aperture" in a slightly longer format. He’s aiming to produce episodes as long as 30-40 minutes each.
Toro said he has ideas for locations and will be beginning pre-production in later September, but intends to keep the locations a surprise.
All images used with permission of Esteban Toro.