Tell me a little about yourself such as where you live, your family and how long it’s been since you’ve been a pro photographer.
I was born in London, Ontario, Canada, and have lived in rural South-Western Ontario all of my life. I come from families of artists and musicians, so those creative influences have always been the norm for me.
I married my stunningly beautiful wife, Anne, in May of 1976. She is a wonderful pianist with a soft touch. Her passion is sewing and quilt making – learning in her youth, old school techniques from her aunts.
We have 4 grown children and now 6 grandchildren, who we are very close with. All of our children were home schooled starting before it was the “in thing” to do. Our decision was not an issue with schools, but so that we would never regret not having spent plenty of time with them. Our hopes were always to travel to distant lands after they left home.
I hunted down my first paying photography jobs starting in 1979. What I mean by hunted down, was literally going house to house offering family portraits. I had just traded in my Super 8 Sound Movie camera, for a Mamiya twin lens reflex camera and 2 inexpensive light stands and reflectors and Photofloods. My backdrop was a white sheet that I stuck up on people’s walls with tape. My first results were failures because of my inexperience. A few months later I had a large family anniversary plus a couple of weddings booked. Work just carried on from there and I progressed with each job. Although I must say that I never played it safe – always pushed the boundaries in order to keep growing – and learned from the mistakes on each job. I’m still like that really.
Wow, door to door? That is wild! I’ve never heard anything like it. What were people’s reactions to this? Did you present a portfolio? Did you have any prior experience in photography? I’d love to hear a bit more about this because it shows innovation, guts and bravery!
Thank you so much for that compliment, Maggie. As I mentioned, we never had the intention of becoming middle-aged and getting heavier into business and building a larger house just as our children were leaving home – - – and we never have had the inclination to be satisfied with growing old and retiring. So after the last weddings were over in 2004, we were very busy with photography and spent the next couple of years working to pay off the weddings and get updated with equipment.
Around 2007, we started getting bored being alone and knew that if we didn’t take action, we would never realize the dream that we had when in our 20′s, for our older age. So we made plans to go to Nicaragua because friends had recommended it , but ended up traveling to Costa Rica instead because flights were much cheaper. We gave up our home and gave away everything we owned except for about 7 boxes that we stored in our parked van. That winter, we stayed 2 months. The next year, we went back to Costa Rica to discover more of the country. Then, the last 2 years headed to Nicaragua – the first year for 2 months and this past winter for a 5 months stay to see if we could handle staying longer.
Since you sold your house, where do you stay when you come home?
We haven’t totally decided on that yet. It’s something we will concern ourselves with when we get back to Ontario next June, 2014. Our freedom and lack of possessions, gives us many options. As it is – we book portrait and wedding work all across the province of Ontario and travel to do it. Anne and I quite often take 3 or 4 days and make it a mini paid vacation. One weekend, I managed to book a Love Story Session on Friday in Kanata, a large wedding on Saturday and then on the way back home, on Sunday, shot a cool afternoon wedding just outside of Toronto. That is an ideal, when I can get that kind of cooperation. Depending on how heavily booked we are next summer, we could even be occupied a lot on the road, when we get back. Of course we have family who have offered for us stay as well. We’ll see. We are nomads though.
We love the culture. We love the people. We feel quite safe there.
She does. We are a team. Life partners. She always has her small point and shoot in her purse and makes good use of it, but does not claim to be a photographer. Her real interests lie in her quilt making.
Even in business, I have always been attracted to smaller, more insignificant cameras and have never been concerned how I may look to my clients. I want my work to speak for itself. So, in the first years going to Costa Rica and then Nicaragua, I took 2 systems with me. My Nikon D40 w/18-200mm VR) was less expensive and went with me when I was going into areas where the potential for theft or damage was higher. My Olympus E-3 or E-520 with awesome 12-60 SWD (24-120) and 70-300mm (140-600) for reaching into the jungle tree tops or into the streets from a distance, was the setup that costs more, but were more useful when traveling.
Starting in 2011, with our 2 months in Granada Nicaragua, I had my Olympus setup along with the new Micro 4/3 mirrorless E-PL1 body and kit lens. I really liked it for street shooting. This year, my gear included 2 mirrorless bodies with kit lenses along with their very nice, very compact and inexpensive 75-150 (150-300) kit lens. The 2 mirrorless cameras ended up being used for most of my work this past visit. I love how I can be discrete and sometimes people don’t take me seriously. But these little cameras give me serous results and I have one stowed away in my shoulder bag that I always carry with me.
I haven’t come across any real issues. I smile at people, try to be respectful and when people reject my taking their picture, I comply and leave them in a good frame of mind. The biggest thing to be aware of is the possibility of having your gear stolen. It could even be right off your back or shoulder. It amuses me on some level when I see tourist photographers walking around the streets – and even at night – with their big Nikon or Canon mounted with the baddest zoom or fastest prime, right out in the open, sitting on their belly as they walk. Talk about a moving target!
Anne and I have always been street savvy. We are not in a gated or protected community. We live with the locals and make friends with them. But, we are very cautious about letting anyone know what we have in our house or in our possession. Since our first visit to Costa Rica, we have made it a practice to NEVER expose our camera gear until we are at least a few blocks away from our home. That means that I never really get many shots right around our home. On the other hand, I have never had my gear or home threatened – while I know others, where their home has been broken into and they have had computers and wallets stolen.
One thing that you haven’t asked about, that is relevant to my running a business so far away from home – has to do with dealing with online print purchases. This year, I will have all of my art print files with me on portable hard drives. I have set up an account this summer, with a professional photo lab (WHCC) in the United States. One of the reasons that I chose them, was in anticipation of my wanting to fulfill print orders while away. They provide white label Drop-Shipping right to a clients door, for a nominal fee. I get the order, send the file from Nicaragua to the lab, and the lab prints to their normal high quality and delivers it to the purchaser.
We all know that Nicaragua is particularly poor. In your photos, I noticed in your photos people seem to be hard working with smiles on their faces. Tell me about these people.
Anne and I are so humbled by these people of Nicaragua. I doubt that I have seen anyone so hard working, with so little to show for it. And yes they are always smiling, gracious and contented with life for the most part. I have even been embarrassed at times when these very people who may only make a couple of dollars a day and quite often go with one meal a day or may even go a day without eating – - – insist on giving me something in return when I deliver their print to them.
In Costa Rica, I took a shot in the Central Market of 2 sons working their father’s meat market. When I returned with the print and they showed it to their mother and father, the dad refused to let Anne pay for the 4 or 5 smoked pork chops that she was buying at the counter. Really! I expected that I would be asked to pay in order to take these people’s pictures.
The other thing is that they never forget such a simple gesture. And I mean, we are only talking a 4×6 print here. One mechanic’s shop in Alajuela had my little 4×6 print glued on the wall with other prints, the next year when I passed by the shop again. I was deeply honoured.
And what about the children?
Oh the children. Now I have to say that I love children and interact with them well. And so they are my favourite subjects and friends. A few blocks away from our house, there are half a dozen little children that we walk by each day as they look after their stand with their parents or are playing on the street. I call the oldest one that is named Jennifer, Jennifer Lopez and she chuckles. (I will include a shot of a group of them in the tree). We can be walking the streets of the city and we will hear “Anita, Roberto”. Sometimes we won’t see them at the normal place around their home and after passing will hear them calling us from blocks away. It is incredible, and to me a great way to make these Nicaraguans, who will one day be adults – have a favourable attitude toward foreigners.
What about the language barrier? How hard is it to communicate with the people?
Surprisingly – not often. Only a few times, has that happened. But a skill that I seemed to have always possessed in my business, does me well there. I do have an ability to put people at ease and so different times I have been able to get shots even when people initially said “No”.
Daylight is roughly 6:00AM to 6:00PM. So we are up early and tend to go to bed early as well. I am generally awake anywhere from 4:30 to 5:30 and start working on processing all of the images from the day before. If Anne has a story that she is posting for our online Travel Virgins Journal, I get the shots ready that she has requested for those stories, so that she can include them after she gets up and prepares us coffee and breakfast.
I am shooting every day and we travel throughout the countries we visit. Being that we do that by bus (what are called “chicken buses”), it takes a long time to get anywhere. At night, we relax and spend time together or socially with those we know in the city. It isn’t uncommon for us to walk into the heart of the city at night and enjoy the lights, the sounds and a nice relaxing meal.
As it stands now – we are committed to Nicaragua for the next couple of years. We love it there and have so many stories to do and places to discover. We have covered much of Costa Rica. Anne has always had a hankering to travel to Peru or Ecuador – so the future may see us there.
Everyone thinks that we are retired already. The life we have lived for many years, is as if we are retired. Even our simple life at home in Canada was like we were always on a vacation. We aren’t wealthy by any means. We do live simply and within our means and debt free. This is what allows us to do what we do and what we find others with much more means than we have – can find themselves wishing they could do.
I have no idea or plans for the future. I don’t plan on tiring of photography or the life we now live. This year we have made the choice to return for 8 to 9 months though and will only be back home for a few months in the summer. So Nicaragua is pretty well our home as it stands now.
You know, I really don’t consider myself a street photographer. I have always been attracted to photography of people more than landscape or inanimate objects. What I am doing in Central America, is just an extension of how I have shot my professional weddings, portraits and love story sessions for over 30 years now. I want people to feel and look relaxed.
When I look back at my photographs, I have never really understood how young children, in some of my wedding images, as an example – can be totally oblivious to my being just a few feet away from them with my camera pointed right at them. This isn’t the natural reaction. Normally, kids notice you and ham it up or cry and shy away. For some reason, people seem to almost forget that I am there. Maybe because I’m such a big guy, my camera looks insignificant! LOL.:-D
As for “snapshottish”. I do think that I have a keen eye for composition, light, expression and catching the moment. I never just see the subject, but am always aware of the surroundings and get myself into a position where it almost is a controlled environment – even though that isn’t the case. I once posted about getting into the place for the decisive moment. Showing a photo that I would have been fine with, but that a second later was perfectly symmetrical. I look for or wait for elements and lines to come together. That is the difference between photographs being snapshots and the same content and scene being a compelling image.
I always try to look at the positive. There is lots of content that I could use to sensationalize the poverty and dirt and the down and out. I see those situations differently and tend to put an almost glamorous spin on them. Many people see my images and talk about how wonderful it must be to live there. In fact it is a very hard life – very hot and not always comfortable. For Anne and me, the experiences that we are having with the people and getting to know the culture, null the effects of those challenges.
I have noticed this about your work. You never use people in a sensationalist way. What do you think of other photographers that do this.
It doesn’t bother me what content other photographers shoot or how they express their work. I generally enjoy looking at any photography that is well done, even if it isn’t the way that I would shoot it. I have my way of seeing the world and so I suppose that I look for a way to capture and present photographic images that reflects that.
Thinking about this reminds me of a scenario several years ago, where my kids and their friends (all adults) organized kind of an Amazing Race where arrangements were made at beaches, bowling alleys, malls, rock climbing wall and even a Chuckie Cheese across Southern Ontario. I was assigned to a few of the events to keep things straight and help out the participants. At one of them, one of my daughters came along and made the comment that I was the greatest cheerleader. When I later watched some of the video that had been taken, I saw myself encouraging people on, and kind of saw what she was referring to.
So I’m a bit like that when shooting in Nicaragua. I love to see accomplishment and pride in underdogs or those with little or without ability, and let them know how much I appreciate it and how proud I am of them. It is far more appealing than people with success or ability who know it and flaunt it. I am so pleased when viewers recognize those qualities in my photographs.
The rawness, the culture, and the people who are so hard working and happy, amidst what we foreigners would consider an undesirable lifestyle. Anne and I have always said “If you want to see beauty in landscape, lushness, mountains, animal life – go to Costa Rica. If you want to experience the humblest and happiest people, history and culture – go to Nicaragua”.
Another appeal is that we can live well within our means in Nicaragua. What that means, for us currently, is that we can pay our rent, travel and enjoy our life for around $750 per month. We could live like kings for a bit more and we could survive on much less.
For me, both are one and the same.
Well, the one that you like of the dog sticking his nose through the wall, is about one of the best recent stories. Anne and I were heading home with our arms full of groceries and jugs of juice. The walk back from downtown is about 15 minutes in the heat and rough road. A couple of blocks from our home we sat down on a ledge for a little breather, when this nosy little dog sticks his face through a section of concrete bricks in a wall behind us that was surrounding the house.
I saw the possibilities, but was so warn out and loaded down with stuff, that I didn’t feel like setting it all down and reaching into my shoulder bag to pull out my big camera and lens – plus I figured the dog would just be gone by the time I did so. But I’ve missed a few “National Geographic Moments” in the past. And so I put everything down, pulled out my camera, aimed it at the dog and fired one shot off before he disappeared.
We pass this wall every day several times a day, and had never seen the dog anywhere other than in the yard – - – and have never seen him with his head stuck out since. On a couple of occasions I even sat down in anticipation of him sticking his head through again, but it never happened. That is why you have to take the shot. I have had more interest in this image than just about any other.
I think that is why I love it. It’s like a really unexpected moment and you can’t just get a dog or any pet for that matter to just do that, and that dog is cute to boot!
What are some of your photos taken there that you are most proud of and why?
Always the ones with people in them – generally, working. Even though I have only met them for a minute or so, while I asked if I could take their picture and then when I returned with the print – there is a friendship and bond that has developed, that can be revisited years later. One wonderful experience, was returning after 2 years, to the city of Granada. I went to spots where I had photographed children, to see if I could find them again and see how much they changed, and see if they recognized me from that brief encounter 2 years ago. I did – and they did – and I have an updated photograph to go along with the one from 2 years ago.
I don’t think so. Anne and I are very good planners. We know exactly what we want out of the experience. But we are also very flexible. This has allowed us to experience so many things that would never have happened otherwise or that could have been planned for. We have been very fortunate that way.
I believe you have a travel blog about your journey, Travel Virgins, What will people find there?
This year however, I decided to do a complete rebuild and also secure the Travel Virgins domain name to make it easier. So Travel Virgins
Thousands of my photographs during our time in Costa Rica and Nicaragua are available there. We are also implementing a directory of sorts to help travelers based on our experience and knowledge while living there, of great places to stay, eat or visit. There will also be an online store for the sale of photographic prints, e-books and workshops.
I believe that next year you will be offering a workshop in Nicaragua. Can you tell me more about it?
Actually while we were in Costa Rica, we started realizing that a way they we could make a little income while in Central America, was to put on Workshops. Being that we have traveled so extensively in these countries and developed contacts and have found cool people, places and things that others would probably like to photograph – we started looking into the process and making plans to do it some day.
This past year when we realized that we would be returning for quite a length of time, we began putting a rough agenda together. It wasn’t until the rebuild of our website though, that we started to give serious consideration to announcing such a workshop and proceeding with promoting it. The Workshop – which we are calling “Insight into Nicaragua” – will be a 10 day experience. Anne and I have several favourite spots that are unique to Nicaragua. There may be occasions for landscape and architectural photography as well as street and people photography. At the end of each day, the photographs from the day will be processed and analyzed. Most of all, participants can benefit from working alongside me and seeing how it is that I am successful in communicating with those I wish to photograph – and how I get the relaxed images that I do.
Pricing isn’t totally fixed yet, but will be similar to other such workshops in Central America that include the education, hotel rooms and travel around the country. Air flight into Managua, Nicaragua is not included.
Will you also be teaching them post-processing skills or will it purely be about photography?
Is this workshop of yours going to be included with other workshops at the same time?
And last but not least, are you different because you’ve been there. Has this country and its people had an effect on you as a human being, and as a photographer and has it changed your life in ways you did not expect?
Anne and I have always lived our lives in as simplistic a way as possible. We actually feel quite at home in environments and cultures like those we are experiencing. Of course, it has an effect on you as a human being. We love being around such humble and happy people.
However I think that it is important to be realistic about places like ones we are living in – such as Nicaragua. Everything is very volatile there. Economic inequalities and political instabilities can change the landscape in a split second. As has happened in the even recent history, these same people can be driven into war and rebellion. With natural elements, at any given moment the lives of the locals can be threatened by volcanoes, earthquakes or hurricanes. For many of the ones that we get to know, such things have been a part of their life or their parent’s lives.
From a photographers standpoint! I am a people photographer. That is my passion. It has been getting to the point where I couldn’t even enjoy taking pictures for the fun of it in Canada. If I found interesting architectural structures in a mall and went in to take some nice pictures, I’d be having mall security come and escort me out. On a couple of occasions, I was shooting my grandchildren on a ride at the fair with a long lens, and was approached asking what I was doing. It was unnerving. I can’t just take a photo of a cute kid I see in a park or at the beach, without feeling like I will be chastised by the parents or I get the feeling that people might look at me as a pedophile. I had lost my joy in photography (other than my professional work).
It came alive in the Central American countries where I can freely shoot to my hearts content. A technical and creative benefit, is that anytime that you shoot hundreds of images a day and tens of thousands during a trip, photography becomes more effortless and your vision becomes keener. At least that is what it has done to me.
Robert Watcher is a professional portrait and wedding photographer who in the last few of years has taken to living most part of the year in Nicaragua with his wife, Anne. They travel the country, and live among the locals to bring us images that tell stories about these hard-working, kind and generous people who have enriched their lives.
Eye on Nicaragua – an interview with Robert Watcher by Maggie Terlecki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.