Paul Harris
Interview Words : The World According To ... | 23 July

The World According to Paul Harris

Award-winning travel photographer and leader of Wanderlust Journeys workshops Paul Harris shares his take on the world of travel

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

Mountains. They are humbling, awe inspiring and give me my sense of place in the world.

First travel experience?

Apart from a memorable yomp across Dartmoor waiting for my A-level results, a mountaineering expedition to Nepal in 1983 opened the world of travel for me. Four of us were squashed into a dilapidated taxi for the ride in from Kathmandu airport. The smell of the late monsoon rain was the overpowering feeling of arrival.

Favourite journey?

Almost impossible to say, but I love the idea of following the natural course of rivers, so a 2005 expedition down the Colorado River and Grand Canyon was very special.

Top five places worldwide?

Kyoto, Kathmandu, Iran, Mekong Delta, Scottish Highlands.

Special place to stay?

The 100 year-old Hacienda San Lucas in the Copan Valley, Honduras.

Three items you always pack?

A travel towel, solar battery charger and a very old iPod, which appears to be defying age.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

Probably Iran in 1996, given that I travelled there at the time of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The country was beginning to open up to group travel but the authorities had a deep suspicion of any outsiders. The ordinary people of Iran couldn’t have been more friendly.

Passport stamp you'd most like to have?

Somewhere very small. Perhaps an island nation with its own identity.

Guilty travel pleasure?

Travel usually revolves around my work as a photographer, and every so often I get to photograph some spectacular hotels with a few nights thrown in for good measure.

Window or aisle?

Aisle, so I can get up and move around easily. Unless I am flying out of Kathmandu, Cusco or anywhere close to the mountains.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

A gecko. I would love to take one everywhere I go, to devour annoying biting and sucking insects who appear to like me very much.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

The best food has to be street food. Arriving in Thailand at one in the morning after my second Himalayan trip, I headed out for a smorgasbord of spicy soup, fried banana and something I couldn’t recognise but tasted delicious.

Also memorable was a seafood feast, which was prepared for a photographic group I was leading in Cuba. Turns out our host in Trinidad was not only a local chef but a great singer.

The worst was probably my first experience of boiled mutton and mare’s milk in Mongolia on my first big photographic expedition. I got used to it after four months.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

In terms of people and culture, Iran was a revelation. I really didn’t know what to expect but was bowled over by the warmth and hospitality of the people. I shouldn’t really have been surprised, given human nature and common traits we all share.

Most disappointing are those places where mass tourism has overrun a site or region to the point where both locals and visitors don’t care anymore about its degradation as long as the locals make money and the tourists get another tick. There are an increasing number of UNESCO sites which might fall into this category.

Where do you NOT want to go?

Where both locals and visitors don’t care anymore about its degradation as long as the locals make money and the tourists get another tick... Unless I am able to use my photography to communicate the issues effectively.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

At school, my geography teacher had a limitless appetite for waxing lyrical about the world, which was inspirational. One of the first proper travel books I read was The Snow People by Marie Herbert. Her account of living with her polar explorer husband, Wally Herbert and their daughter, Kari for a year with the Inuit in Greenland conjured up so many possibilities for travel.

Photographers such as Edward S Curtis, Herbert Ponting and Roland Michaud have all been influential in my travel plans and photographic projects. My travel hero is probably Xuang Zang, the 7th century Buddhist monk who spent the best part of 18 years travelling throughout Asia looking for and studying Buddhist texts.

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I am a huge fan of world music and usually have a wide mix of music on my ancient iPod. I do like to listen to the music of the country I am visiting and if it is live, so much the better. In Cuba, where music is on every street corner, I began to tire of the song, Chan Chan, which is a shame as it is one of the best songs by the Buena Vista Social Club. The Peatbog Faeries and Capercaillie always conjure up memories of travelling through the Scottish Isles.

What do you read ?

I don’t tend to read much when travelling these days given the nature of my photographic assignments, but I remember being riveted by The History of the Third Reich during one of my early travels in Europe, and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler’s, Pulitzer Prize winning account of Vietnamese living in America. This book put a lot of things into perspective for me while I was in Vietnam.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

Women in rural, ethnic and remote communities have that uncanny sense of what needs to be done in most situations.Without their help, I would not have had many wonderful experiences or managed to communicate with my photography. I currently have a touring exhibition called, Mother, Sister, Daughter, which celebrates these women.

On the first of three visits to Kamchatka to document Indigenous culture in the Russian Far East for Survival International, I met a small group of American gold mine executives at a tiny airstrip. They clearly were not expecting to see other foreigners. They asked me what I was doing there. When I told them of my work, they said rather sarcastically, “Have the tribes started to ask for their land back?”

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

The most useful phrase for me is the common greeting in the language of the country you are visiting. They have got me invited into more homes, broken down more barriers and resulted in more good photographs than anything else.

My favourite toast is in Russian - Давайте выпьем за то, чтобы мы испытали столько горя, сколько капель вина останется в наших бокалах (May you as as many problems as there are drops left in the bottom of this glass)

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

I do get impatient with other travellers who think that the world revolves around them. Also I used to get endlessly side tracked when I am in a new country, but photography gives me a real sense of purpose. That said, I feel it is important to be open to what ever is round the corner.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

I was once snowbound in the mountains of Washington State in North America with a couple of ski mountaineering friends and spent several hours trying to explain cricket while they reciprocated by explaining the rules of American football. None of us were any the wiser.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

I am usually happiest when I have done my research on a place, kept my camera gear in tip top shape, enjoyed the company of local people and my photography is flowing.

In 1997, I was travelling along one of the old trade routes from Leh to Kashgar ahead of the Indian expedition I was part of. It had been months of hard work to get the permits to travel in this closed area and I just sat on the edge of an old glacial moraine looking across at the mountains on the border with Tibet. It was one of the remotest, harshest and beautiful places I have been.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

Street food and the smell of the sea.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

When I was in Kyoto photographing Japanese gardens and the theme of water in Japanese culture, I became hooked on the samurai soap operas on TV. It is the only time in my life when I have been addicted to television and the stories conjured up an era that was simultaneously brutal and glorious.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

Calcutta for its people, Valparaiso for its hills and Esfahan for its architecture.

Take a look at Paul's personal website here: www.paulharrisphotography.com