EyeEm Travel Guide: Around the World by Bike with Jeremy John
By Guest Author - 6 min read
With camera and tent in hand, travel and portrait photographer, Jeremy John continues to pedal from one photo opportunity to the next. Each leg of his journey brings a new challenge, location and chance to capture stories of extraordinary people and places. Here are his essential tips for preparing for a long-term photography project on the road.
In February 2017, I began planning a year-long trip on two wheels. I have made my way from India, via Southeast Asia and Mongolia, through Central Asia. Now in Georgia the one year mark has flown by and I’m still pedalling.
As a photographer, cycle touring is a unique way of travelling. It provides you with a new lens through which to see the world.
The Ultimate Photographers Guide to Preparing for a Long-Term Travel Project
Here are eight critical, yet totally unforeseen, lessons that I have learnt during my time on the road. I hope whether you be jumping on a trip for one week, or one year, this travel guide will equip you to see your photography project through until the end.
What to Pack for a Long Photography Project? –Minimize, Minimize, Minimize.
In the days leading up to your departure, you may think that you’ve packed the perfect, and most simple set of gear. Although I felt the same way, since being on the road, I realized that I could have striped things down further, and carried less. Whether it be everyday essentials, or camera gear, the principle remains the same – keep it as minimal as possible.
You will find that you don’t need to bring lenses for every situation. When I started shooting portraits back in 2013, I was armed with a 135mm focal length, keeping distance from my subject. Nowadays, I’m comfortable getting close and engaging with the person. For this particular long-term project, I have only used a 35mm portrait lens.
Focusing on becoming intimate with just one or two lenses is a much smarter tactic. You will be a kilogram lighter, plus you are less likely to miss shots because you are taking time to decide which lens to put on.
“an intimate window into their lives that I never thought I would have.”
Making the Most of Every Photo Opportunity –Pushing Through Makes Portraits.
Most of us have been to a foreign country and seen a person you really wanted to photograph. Whether they be a bearded artist smoking outside of his studio or an elderly lady watching the world go by from her favourite spot. However, with this curiosity comes the challenge of approaching that stranger and asking to take a photo of them. I have found that cycle touring is an excellent way of meeting and getting close to local people very quickly.
With many of the places I have been on this trip, certain communities had never seen a cyclist, or a tourist coming through their village. Struck by curiosity, they will often approach and engage with you, enquiring where you are from and what you are doing.
When riding, you are in ‘activity mode’ – your adrenaline is at a high level and you feel ready to tackle anything. On this journey I have found myself frequently invited into family homes for tea, dinner and even a bed for the night. As a relatively shy person, these moments have been precious, and given me an intimate window into their lives that I never thought I would have.
“The idea of being in a tent alone at night in a foreign country can be terrifying.”
Living on the Road as a Photographer, You Are Never Alone for Long
The cycling community continues to grow each year and doing a photography project by bike has meant that I have managed to meet new friends and be a part of an active and creative community.
Thanks to the small number of roads in the region, Central Asia is a bottleneck for Eurasian tourers. Some days I would meet as many as five or six cyclists, mostly going the other direction. But every once in a while, I would catch up with riders who may have been cycling just ahead of me for weeks without realising.
Bonding seems to happen at double speed when you are cycling side-by-side. In those places where there are not many cyclists on the road, social media has been great for keeping connected with the community. Searching hashtags on Instagram is particularly helpful as you can find people in the same area and exchange information about roads, camp spots and where the nearest chocolate vendors can be found.
How to Prepare for a Longterm Photography Trip? – No Plan is the Best Plan.
Having a rough outline of your route and is really helpful, but letting go of the finer details is liberating and is where the creativity can thrive. Although it’s essential to know where the towns and rivers are, the rest should be a slice of earth waiting to be discovered.
This outlook and awareness has helped me stumble upon some incredible moments. Last year in Thailand, I was riding on a hot afternoon, and the road was meandering past a monastery. I glimpsed the most beautiful light display through some trees – strong light beams that appeared tangible by the smoke rising from below.
I scanned down to find the source of the smoke: an elderly monk dressed in orange robes was mindfully sweeping leaves into a fire pit, completely unaware of how spectacular he looked. I moved to get a shot of this fleeting moment and, a few seconds later, I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was a younger monk welcoming me to the monastery and asking if I would like to stay the night.
Having no plan for the rest of the day, I accepted his invitation and spent the afternoon looking around and meeting all the resident monks. In the morning, they invited me on the 5:00am food collection in the nearby village – an experience I will never forget.
Wild Camping May Not Be as Scary as You May Think.
The idea of being in a tent alone at night in a foreign country can be terrifying. My first few nights, I tossed and turned, trying to keep as silent as possible. I spent my time imagining all the potential horrors that every bump or squeak could bring.
This being said, I quickly got comfortable with the nighttime camping. In my experience I began feeling more relaxed and as mentioned before I would meet many people along the way.
As many locals are surprised to see tourists sleeping in the middle of a field near their village, they will often come at dusk or early morning and see what you are doing. Once you get past the startling introduction, a beautiful opportunity presents itself.
An interaction with a stranger who doesn’t share the same language or culture as you unfolds another great photo opportunity to capture portraits. Having the chance to both get to know a stranger and photograph them in such a natural space often lit by golden-hour-light is one of my favourite parts of wild camping.
You Don’t Have to be an Athlete, But You Do Have to be Headstrong
Leading up to a bike trip, friends and family will ask a series of questions like ‘are you training’ or ‘you must be doing so much research!’. The truth is you don’t have to be super fit or super prepared to cycle the world.
The first few hill-climbs can make the legs shake in rebellion, but soon enough, the body adapts. The mind, however, is more challenging to find progress with. Staying motivated when climbing what may seem to be a never-ending ascent is a huge challenge, especially when there is wind in your face, looming rain clouds and insects buzzing around your eyes.
“When you wash the dirt off and finally get some decent sleep, you look back and smile – “Wow, I did that!”.
Boredom can strike during a mundane day on the road. Moving from serenity to high stress moments within short periods of time is common with bicycle touring. For example, this shot looks very serene and inspiring, but in reality, we were experiencing bursts of extreme headwind and were desperate to find a camp spot and get off the bikes.
It is a perfect juxtaposition of extremes; peace and divinity mixed with high stress and physical challenges that leave the mind disregarding all the reasons to stop - cyclists call this Type 2 fun. Where Type 1 fun is about enjoying the moment, Type 2 fun is only enjoyed in the days after the experience. When you wash the dirt off and finally get some decent sleep, you look back and smile – “Wow, I did that!”.
“This authenticity should reflect in your work.”
Self-Care Is Essential for Long Term Travel Projects
Cycle touring can seem like a full-time job at times so it can be challenging to also keep up a photography project. There is no secret to tackle lacking motivation or tiredness.
However, my tactic is to take the pressure off and surrender to my feelings. Some days I just don’t want to take photos, and that’s okay. In the past, I have tried to force it which never turns out well. When you take days off, the days on are much more meaningful, and this authenticity should reflect in your work.
How to Stay Motivated on the Journey? – Adventure Everyday
When thinking about a herd of horses gracefully galloping across the Mongolian steppe, or the endless beauty of the snow-capped Pamir Mountains, it might sound surprising, but the big adventure you are on can slowly become your everyday life.
When I find myself normalising even the most magical sights and moments, I often have to remind myself of the weeks I spent sitting in my London office looking out the window, overtaken with wanderlust.
Being at the handlebars for such a long time can result in your mind often wandering. Meditation has been a powerful tool for me when making sure I don’t get too distracted and appreciate what is happening around me and the moments I get to experience.
Getting used to new things isn’t all bad. Where anxiety and stress might have been overwhelming when jumping into the unknown, now, getting used to the foreign customs and how to live day-to-day on the bike and in your tent has been an incredible experience.
“A long-term photography project by bike, can give you magical moments and extraordinary photography opportunities”
Although progress can appear slow and the daily workout can take its toll, the traversing through diverse landscapes using just your legs allows you to feel fully immersed. I learnt first hand that a long-term photography project by bike, can give you magical moments and extraordinary photography opportunities.
Want to see more of Jeremy’s breathtaking visual travel stories? Take a look at his EyeEm Profile or his online portfolio now. You can also keep up to date with his ongoing journey by following along on his Instagram