For photographer Don Vilfer, viewing the world through a camera lens is a way to not only take home indelible images of people and places, but also to deepen his experience of each destination he visits.
A former FBI Supervisory Special Agent in charge of Sacramento’s Computer Crimes and White Collar Crimes squad, Don has traveled a lot over the years. He left the Bureau 10 years ago and now runs a company that does computer forensics and electronic discovery. Pursuing his photographic interest while traveling is much easier now that he’s a civilian. He recalls, “Once while traveling with the FBI I was in another country – I can’t say where – and I just wanted to go out and exercise my photography interest, but it caused concern with foreign officials that this FBI agent had a particular interest in going to photograph some area. That area was only of interest as a cultural area, but it kind of caused some incident.”
Don, his wife, Pam Hanback, and their two sons recently traveled on a Myths and Mountains trip to Bhutan. “We had been promising our kids since they were five that when they graduated high school, they could pick someplace as a travel destination,” Don explains. “This was what my younger son picked. He was totally absorbed in the culture, the destination. He really had an appreciation for the way of life.”
Meanwhile, Don found ample scope for his photography. “For the whole trip you’re surrounded by interesting people. Their faces, their setting, and their clothing are all obviously different from what you normally see anywhere in a Western country,” he says. “That makes it immediately appealing and gives you photo opportunities around you all day long.”
One of the great things about photography, Don adds, is that it “gives you the mechanism to force yourself to see everything, to see what’s around you. It’s making you see things while you’re traveling.”
Don also found that his photography had an impact on how the Bhutanese saw themselves. He recalls, “Our guide even commented, ‘We don’t even see that because it’s so normal to us, but when I look at it in your photo the people are more interesting, the setting is more interesting, and I begin to see things differently.’ He began to appreciate things that he basically takes for granted.”
Photography can also open doors through the sense of connection that often links photographers around the world. “Sometimes if you’re doing photography and have the appearance of being serious about it, other photographers will engage you in conversation about it,” Don reflects. “They could be local photographers, and then you can learn a lot about the area and get invitations to places you might not otherwise have gone, like people’s homes. Even through casual conversations – watching sunsets with other photographers, for example – you can learn some interesting things about places to go at certain times.”
For travelers who do want to make the most of the photographic opportunities during their trip, Don offers several pieces of advice. First, it’s important to remember that “the people around you are people first and subjects second.” Interacting with people on a personal level before taking their picture makes the experience more rewarding and almost always results in better pictures. “In Bhutan I could have taken pictures of people walking down the trail with their heads down ignoring the guy with the camera. Or I could stop them, have a conversation, show them the camera, ask them if I could take their pictures, laugh with them, and capture some personality.”
Don also recommends considering your shots in advance so that you are ready to get the photos you want when the time comes. “Look at other pictures from the area, not necessarily to emulate – I don’t like to emulate – and previsualize what you want to get and how you want to capture it, and then plan. Getting the picture you want may involve being in a particular place at a particular time, with no people around or with certain light.”
Don also offers a simple but important technical tip: Back up your photos – not just once, but several times. He always makes sure to bring enough data cards that he doesn’t have to write over the cards. “I can shoot 4,000 pictures without a wiping a card and then copy all that to a laptop, and then back up that to an external hard drive, which I always keep separate from the laptop in case my luggage gets stolen,” he explains. “Hard drives are cheap. It’s just a matter of taking the time to do the backups as you’re moving along.”
Of course, there are challenges. In remote destinations, access to electricity can be a major issue, making it essential to plan ahead by bringing converters, plenty of fully charged batteries, or even a solar battery charger.
In Bhutan, one of Don’s most memorable experiences was the climb up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. “That’s an example of previsualizing,” Don notes. “I wanted to get a shot across to the temple and also one looking up at the temple to get a sense of the height and the sheer cliff below. A lot of times when you’re there you’re seeing the whole scene, so if you don’t previsualize you’re inclined to shoot the whole scene. If you previsualize you might focus in and get more interesting photos.”
Another highlight of the trip owed more to chance. The family was visiting a dzong (fortress) when Pam spotted a monkey climbing up the building. Naturally, Don wanted to get a photo, but he had left the appropriate lens in the car. The guide called the driver, who brought Don’s camera bag. By then, of course, the monkey had moved. “The guide escorted me into the building and we climbed over the rafters until I was in the attic looking across at the monkey on the roof,” Don remembers.
Some of Don’s Bhutan photos appear in the new Myths and Mountains catalog. He is also creating his first-ever e-book using photos from the trip, with details on all the camera settings used and the locations where the images were taken. He hopes to have the book ready in October; interested travelers will find a link on his website.