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Q&A with the photographer… Chris van Hove

We talk to the photographer of our Fiji feature about his experience capturing a writer’s journey through the Yasawa Islands

Q&A with the photographer… Chris van Hove

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Tell us a little bit about your experience shooting Fiji? How did you approach the shoot? Can you go into some specifics about how long it took you?

Often I’m visiting a place after the writer has visited a destination and written a story, but on this trip I was able to travel with the writer, Kerry van der Jagt, and work on her itinerary, which was advantageous because I travelled in her slipstream and could document what she was experiencing in the same conditions. This was particularly important as we travelled in the wake of Cyclone Winston, which had created widespread damage, but also brought out the best of the local community spirit.

Before I travel, I often try to limit my research so that I can approach a shoot with fresh eyes without being influenced too much visually of existing photography I’ve seen of the destination. I also try not to have too many expectations.

Were there any difficult challenges that you had to overcome?

The difficult thing about Fiji is it is such a stunning destination and you risk ending up with just perfect beach images. Every island is stunning, but you need to work harder to get a variety of images and capture something of the culture rather than the environment.

You spent a lot of time on the trip on a cruise around Fiji. How did you deal with the time restrictions for when you were on land to get the right images?

Luckily, despite being a cruise, there was actually plenty of time spent on land. Things are pretty laid-back in Fiji and there was no rush or pressure to move quickly to the next place, but rather an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere on the island. Time spent moving to the next island was often valuable for backing-up images and reflecting on what was still perhaps needed for the photo set, or chatting with crew about where we were going and what opportunities there might be.

Did you feel under pressure to produce good-quality photography at every stop-off?

You always start off feeling that pressure — you always want your set to be as comprehensive as possible so you can cover all possibilities. Working with the writer on the ground was excellent, as she would give me a little nudge when she found something she thought she might include in the story. Once I felt I’d covered a lot of the images, it allowed me to free up my head and be in the moment, and capture the creative images I wanted to take, which often ended up being the best images.

Were there any funny moments?

The locals I met were hilarious, informal, with a great sense of humour and they all loved to joke around. The image taken of the guy jumping in the air in a traditional grass skirt happened just after two guests got married. Two of the crewmembers were dressed like this and it was an incredibly hot day with temperatures in the late 30s. They saw me on the beach with the camera and started showing off by running towards me while jumping in the air. One of their grass skirts was too long and it made him trip and fall in the sand, but luckily everyone saw the funny side.

Is there anything you weren’t happy with and what would you do differently next time?

I was fairly happy with the images from the trip, but I always look forward to what I might be able to capture next time.

Kerry’s piece focuses on her experience in Fiji with her husband. How did you make sure you would get images that really portrayed this?

Kerry’s perspective in the story is that of someone who has visited Fiji before and finds a sense of continuity in how the good humour, grace and warm community spirit of Fiji is still there. While a lot of people get lost in the white sands and palm trees, I think both the story and the images show a Fijian experience that is driven by people.

Could you tell us about your shots of people on the beach? How did you go about getting the right lighting for this while avoiding misplaced shadows?

In Fiji, you’re dealing with very harsh light in the middle of the day. For the photo of the guy on the beach wearing the traditional grass skirt, it was very much a spur-of-the-moment snap. He was running towards me and I stepped to the right to recompose the image so as not to blow out the background. By framing him against the tree line I also got rid of some guests lurking in the back of the first picture I took. Changing the composition and angle allowed some nice light to fall across his face, adding details and depth to the image.

What would be your top three tips for our readers on telling the story of a place through its residents?

  1. Slow down. Observe and wait a little bit longer than other travellers, particularly if you’re in a group. I always think it’s best to be the last person sticking around than the first person at the next place — you get to see things settle down and go back to normal
  2. Take a genuine interest in your subjects and keep shooting: often people will pose or clam up on the first image, but as you continue to shoot they tend to forget the camera is there
  3. Do some research on the culture and be respectful of their values, especially when it comes to photographing. Fijian culture is remarkably laid-back when it comes to taking photos, but in other cultures there could be important cultural and religious restrictions you need to be mindful of when trying to capture individuals or places

Published in issue 5 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine

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