When traveling abroad, you may need a driver, translator, negotiator, and guide; here's how to hire one
Think Alison Wright made the stunning portrait above by asking a stranger to pose? Or Ethan Welty waltzed into a Moroccan tannery and started shooting? No way. They got access with the help of fixers—local guides without whom these images wouldn’t have been possible. So should you find a fixer for your next photo adventure?
Hiring a fixer can mean anything from an informal arrangement with a guide to a big production where a fixer-in-chief coordinates drivers, translators, and others. Fixers aren’t for vacation photography, but for serious exploration of a culture.
“I never advise photographers to go to a country where they have to find a fixer,” says Joni Kabana, who shoots for humanitarian organizations. “They should start with an organized tour or someone experienced in that country whom they trust. Even in safer countries, such as India and Nepal, I still would not advise someone to go alone without their own circle of support.”
Wright, whose photo is in her new book, Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit (Schiffer Publishing), agrees. “You can get a feel of the place, and can decide if you want to go back there on your own. It’s also more cost-effective.”
If you decide to go with a fixer, make sure you know who you’re hiring: Contact photographers and journalists familiar with the region, consult with national tourism boards and commercial travel agencies, and work the Web. “I always query my photographer, writer, and intrepid traveler friends first, especially people I know who have worked in the area I’ll be traveling to,” says travel shooter Gail Mooney. “Stay away from the people who randomly come up to you at the airport and tourist places. They are usually there to hustle tourists.”
While pros disagree on the value of the Internet for finding fixers, most call it a good starting point. “Even the smallest guide shacks in Nepal have reviews online,” says travel and adventure photographer Benny Haddad. One resource: the Web community at www.lightstalkers.org. Our sources also cited the forums on www.TravellersPoint.com, www.LonelyPlanet.com, and Matadornetwork.com.
Commercial pro Brian Pineda “scoured the Internet” for horse-travel guides and translators in Mongolia. “I rode on a horse for two weeks straight, with little riding experience, to shoot a personal project. Along with showing me how to ride, my fixer arranged for me to stay with families, eat and drink with them, and photograph their lives.”
Consider social media, too. “I had to hire an assistant/translator for a last-minute assignment in Buenos Aires,” Pineda says. “I put the word out on Buenos Aires Craigslist and Facebook, and found a great translator with photography experience.”
While less advisable, you may find a fixer at your destination. Our sources pointed to hotel staffers as resources. “Higher-class hotels will usually lead to better recommendations, so even if you’re staying at a hostel, you can still stop by the high-priced hotel for a drink and talk to the concierge,” Haddad says.