It has been so long since I’ve actually written a blog about anything that I almost can’t remember how it all works. I had to go back to my ‘Downstream Chimp’ blog just to check what I had written at the end of my last expedition, some two years ago now, and discovered this unwittingly dark sign off:
‘The best is yet to come for Sierra Leone and Liberia’.
I jolted reading that line.
That project, the first raft descent of the Mano river and the subsequent series for BBC Radio 4, had been the absolute centre of my universe at the start of 2013. The people I met, the friends I made, and the forest environment I encountered, had, at that time, all combined to make it my most successful project. Not even catching malaria and vomit-inducing surgery on my left hand could dampen my spirits – this felt like a huge story and, as far as I was concerned, the Trans-Boundary Peace Park was poised to be as famous as the Kruger.
I returned home to recover and set my sights on getting back to West Africa as soon as possible. Then the phone rang and my life was suddenly set on an entirely different course.
It’s only now, re-reading that last blog, that I realise how easily the passage of time and a change of projects can turn your head. Ebola would soon ravage the region and all those positive messages I reported-on ceased to be relevant. Last month my friends have been able to return to their work in West Africa. Mercifully, none of them were killed by the virus, but many lost family members, and the sheer scale of the tragedy understandably places conservation low on the list of national priorities.
There is a point to all of this, which will become a bit clearer as I get to the crux of this blog, but fundamentally it is a pertinent reminder that life goes on after you finish reporting in a place, and just because you have a neat sign-off to your programme or project, it is unlikely to correspond to long-term real-life in your host country once you have left.
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In spite of taking strides professionally since Sierra Leone and Liberia my website is still an utter shambles. Under the ‘blog’ tab you can now see there are three URLs: one to the Trans Papua expedition in 2012, one to the Sierra Leone – Liberia project, and then this new one, which I’m hoping will be a place to share ideas and thoughts.
One of the major changes of the last couple of years is the sheer volume of correspondence I now receive. I am so sorry I can’t reply to all your emails but I do try and read them all, and (mostly!) love hearing from you. I am hoping this new blog can act as a space to answer some of the most frequently asked questions, starting with the inspiration for today’s piece:
Can you give me advice about getting a career leading my own expeditions or starting out in adventure filmmaking?
I’ve lost track of the amount of emails asking this so, I thought, rather than give you an inadequate three-line reply each, I could write something slightly more thoughtful here for you all to read.
In truth, in spite all the expeditions of the last eight years, I feel in no place to be giving career advice – I am actually still a bit of a novice (and just one cog in a big and highly skilled wheel when it comes to producing a TV series) – but I can see why you have got in touch to ask how I got to this point at least, and recognise that, ten years ago, I would have done the same. So, what follows is a bit of general advice I wish I had had starting out and something on what I specifically did. Be warned though: everyone’s path to their goal is very different (often your goal changes mid-journey, so watch out for that one too) and I am wary of giving guidance that might be out-of-date or could take away some of the satisfaction of finding your own path. Take what follows as you wish then, and feel free to get in touch if you need to ask anything else or if you have something to add, also let me know if you want to see a blog on something new.
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It may come as a surprise but the filming for ‘Hunters of the South Seas’ was done and dusted in October last year and since then it has been very much back to the drawing board. Despite the wonderful public and critical response to the series there still are no guarantees of work for any of our team, including me. That ‘uncertainty’, I am afraid, is something you will have to get used to if you are serious about this path. There has been no point in my life that I’ve been able to sustain myself purely from any one aspect of my job. I’ve always had other work on the go. In the past that meant Teaching English whilst I was getting started, or more recently, researching for other people’s projects as I waited to see how ‘Hunters of the South Seas’ did. None of that means that I’m not 100% committed, it just means I have bills to pay and must try to be as sensible and pragmatic as possible. You should try to do the same.
You need to be a generalist and not a specialist. Get a wide base of skills: Can you film and record sound? Can you write and edit? Can you talk? Can you take a good photograph? Can you meet deadlines even when you are knackered? Making this job work requires enormous amounts of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. I burned the candle at both ends for years whilst trying to find grants and sponsors – and burned through relationships and stable jobs as a result. If this doesn’t sound like it is for you then there are far other less-committing ways of starting out. You can self-fund your early projects for instance. Whilst holding down your rent-paying job, and saving hard, you can easily get out there and then make a start – but without building the skills to produce and present your expedition or film effectively you will really struggle to make an actual career just from your expeditions and films further down the line.
You certainly don’t need much in the way of kit these days. I used to hit-up army surplus stores, but today ebay and gumtree are great resources for last year’s field kit. Equally, the very basics in filming equipment don’t need to cost an arm and a leg. Even with the resources we had on ‘Hunters’ I still self-shot the bulk of the video-diary stuff (which made up a quarter of the series) on a Sony Handycam that cost less than £300. Making a film or photograph look pretty has its place for sure, but what is of far greater importance is that you capture compelling content – believe me, no one will care if your footage is slightly shaky if you have recorded something remarkable.
You don’t have to travel to the ends of the earth to capture really great human-interest stories either. Genuinely, one of the greatest things about making films about people is that the slate is constantly being wiped clean the world over. Society is in a constant state of evolution and there is always something interesting to report on. Think about what you can work on closer to home to build up your experience without crippling your bank account on your first project: scour your local newspapers and become familiar with the flight paths of low-cost airlines (and the routes of the megabus!), watch other people’s work and join groups where you can discuss your interest and get inspired. The best films are the ones that target the most interesting stories, not the ones that cost a fortune.
There is no ‘magic bullet’ solution for combining a passion for Human Geography, Journalism and Filmmaking – it is a niche set of interests with very few jobs and opportunities – but it is far from impossible to get a foot in the door.
When I first started out I had no formative experience in filmmaking or expeditions, nor any relevant academic qualifications or contacts. My way into television came with a successful application to the BBC work experience program with little more than enthusiasm, bar work, and several short stints in the factories of Wisbech, on my CV. It is still a good place to get started if you have mates with couches you can sleep on, but many adventure series these days are also made by independent production companies – check the credits of the programmes you like and apply for work experience or entry roles at those places – you might find something even better much closer to home.
After I completed my month at BBC Science I undertook a TEFL course and headed straight to West Papua to work as an English Language Teacher. English teaching was a great way of immersing myself in Indonesian culture for an extended period, and West Papua was a fascinating province full of stories for any novice filmmaker/adventurer. There was a chance I might have found work at the BBC, had I opted to stay after my work experience, but I believed I needed to develop my skills by working on projects I was directly interested in – and at that early stage no one was going to allow me to produce an entire film, or trust me to take the lead on an expedition – I needed much more hands-on experience.
I hardly set the world on fire that year but it didn’t set me back either. I found employment as a Runner (an entry level job) at the BBC on return, and the year away gave me enough confidence and knowledge to secure my first expedition grant to return to Papua the year after.
Learn the language…
The seven years that followed that first stint in West Papua as a Teacher saw me build my experience, complete more expeditions, and start work for an independent production company that specialised in adventure films, but the single most important thing I learnt during that period were the language and communication skills relevant to working alone in the field.
I didn’t learn every local language and dialect (New Guinea has hundreds) and my Indonesian still needs real work, but I could never have found the stories I did without some language skills, and my time would have been a lot duller without the ability to socialise and make local friends.
If you are going to travel and work abroad, even if you are going on an expedition where you don’t anticipate much human contact, it is always worth brushing up on the lingo. It will significantly cut down on the frequency of misunderstandings and will help you explain yourself, and what you are hoping to achieve, in a much more effective way than non-verbal communication and hand gestures. Also, in my experience, it generates a tremendous amount of local goodwill.
We were lucky to be able to afford to employ a superb local fixer for Hunters of the South Seas, and the usefulness of a trusted local guide should not be overlooked for any expedition (if you have the funds) – but neither should be a replacement for doing your own research into a culture and learning, at least, the most basic of greetings.
If you are interested purely in the companies and organisations that were kind enough to lend me gear or financial support on my expeditions then there is a list of them here, but I learnt the hard way that you need a clear, original, and well thought out idea (that preferably can be explained in a few sentences) before making any approach to third-parties for funding.
Your first expedition or film project doesn’t need a cool strapline, website, or hashtag, nor does it have to be big, dangerous or a world-first. There’s an awful lot of noise in our world from people actually doing more-or-less the same sorts of things. Really try to do something that sets you apart, and certainly forget about fame, money, or recognition, as none of those should be motivators if you are serious about making films or executing projects with intellectual merit.
Don’t over rely on social media…
A fair few people have asked me about promoting themselves on social media. Anyone who saw the debacle over what hashtag we were supposed to use for Hunters of the South Seas can probably figure out I’m not the greatest social media manager (in fact, the majority of the tips I pick-up come from my mate the ‘tweeting farmer’ up in North Wales).
However, in general, I think social media can be a great way of building a quick audience, but isn’t a very good barometer for whether something is actually good or even building momentum – just look at the polls that used it to predict the recent general election for example.
A lot of people with big followings tend to pander to the low attention span of people scrolling up and down a newsfeed looking for a momentary distraction. This ‘click-bait’ approach, with its motivational clichés, animal attacks, and incessant pictures of cats, might generate you a lot of followers but I guarantee if you actually ask your new audience about you or your work you will be quite shocked at how unengaged they actually are.
Promotion is a necessary evil but, if you are interested in making films about remote communities or expeditions with human geography at their core, you should aim to be a conduit to telling your subjects story, not the subject of the story. Keep that central in your mind whenever you enter into any exercise in self-promotion.
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So there we have it, I hope you found something of use in there and I hope I haven’t put you off a career in television or making a living in expeditions. I genuinely love what I do and feel immensely lucky to have worked on so many different projects, but I still feel that all I have really achieved is ‘a good start so far’. Perhaps that’s a healthy attitude to have generally, but I certainly hope I don’t ever lose the enthusiasm you guys all clearly have at the start of your careers.
Never lose site of the fact you are recording and working with human beings not just ‘subjects’ of your film. Find time to put the camera down and just talk, or listen. Laugh and share your own life. Try, really try, to understand what it must be like for them, to have you in their life: a total stranger with an intrusive recording device and opposing cultural point of reference. Would you be okay with throwing your own doors open to such a person?
I miss Sakba, my guide from Sierra Leone, like I miss Kabei and Lobu from the Bajau, and am well-aware that I probably over-invest emotionally in my work and the people I meet.
But I think it is an important part of who I am. For me, if I ever lose touch with that fundamental empathy, I’ll know it’s definitely time to walk away.