Asher Svidensky is a photographer. But more importantly, he is a storyteller. He is also an adventurer and a traveler who truly embodies The Global Commute’s mission to Journey beyond the Bucket List.
His work has been featured on BBC and National Geographic; and earlier this month, Tedx invited him back for a second Talk, after his moving first appearance “Heroes in Stories.”
His work, a mixture of art and documentary photography, is powerful and compelling storytelling. And whether you are interested in photography or not, Asher is full of inspiration and wisdom for us all.
Let’s hear from Asher himself as he shares his personal story and his advice for traveling and connecting to cultures around the world.
Take us back to the beginning. How did you become the adventurous, traveling photographer you are today?
It all began to develop back in 2009, when I was enlisted in the army. For three years, I was fortunate enough to be drafted as a military photographer at a small base in the desert that trained new soldiers. My job was simple: try to document the daily happenings of the base. I took advantage of my time there and worked on myself as a photographer, really experimenting in different styles.
After my service I worked as a commercial photographer – even though I didn’t enjoy it at all. Photography became a “job” and slowly I started hating it. I noticed that my camera changed from an “instrument” that I used for my passion of photographing into a “tool” that I used for work.
Upon reflection, I didn’t like the way my life was going. So, I decided to change my path. I took a bag, a few shirts and my camera and set off to Asia. I wanted to give myself the opportunity, just like I had in the army, to grow as a photographer in my own way, hoping to find a different future for myself and my passion.
Now, I don’t really have a home base, I just keep moving from place to place; looking for stories, planning my next adventures and sharing my work with others. I guess in a way, I can say I have no fixed address… I am wherever I am welcome.
I love what you say in your “Heroes in Stories” Tedx Talk about capturing profound moments where ordinary people can become heroes. Tell us more about your storytelling photography style.
I think I still don’t have a fixed style. Every time I go out for a shoot, I try to adapt myself to the only thing that matters – the story.
Sometimes I use a pure documentary-style of photography to show what is happening in front of me. Other times, I approach reality with a more artistic style – trying to create a visual that expresses my feelings and understanding of what I see.
In my recent shoot of the Miao tribes of China, I used both styles.
While shooting the Miao ethnic tribe, you worked with two layers of interpreters in order to speak with them in their unique Chinese dialect. What would you say is the most challenging part about connecting with local people as you travel? How do you create that bond so that you can more easily tell their stories?
Yes, it was a very “wordy meeting” that day. The language barrier is just one of the things that a documentary photographer has to overcome. I think that the most important thing for anyone who wishes to connect with cultures around the world and to do meaningful work as a storyteller is to invest the time. It is a very rare thing that one can just pop in to someone’s house for a few minutes, take images and leave with a good story. Sitting down and sharing who you are, what you do, and listening to the person you are photographing is a key feature in my work.
I don’t believe in walls. I love having the people I’m photographing as an active part of the creative process.
If you wish, you can check out my story from a different place in China, where I shot the Yin-Bou fishermen. Sometimes just talking and sharing isn’t enough to break all walls…
What tips do you have for travelers who want to also connect with local people while traveling, perhaps with or without a camera in hand?
Other than spending time with people and not rushing everything, I think the best advice I can give is – shut up and listen!
There is an amazing TED Talk done by Ernesto Sirolli where he talks about his approach to helping young entrepreneurs in remote countries as a foreigner – just stop what you are doing and watch it! It is a great talk and I truly believe it is relevant to anyone who wants to understand and connect with local communities – with or without a camera…
… just listen, make a friend, get yourself into their world and don’t expect them to go into yours.
Thank you so much for that advice. You have been in a Ted Talk yourself! Tell us about the young Mongolian eagle hunter you describe in your talk. How did you feel the first time you saw her with the massive bird?
I was amazed by her comfort and ease as she began handling the grand eagle for the first time in her life. She was fearlessly carrying it on her hand and caressing it somewhat joyfully.
When I was photographing 13-year-old Ashol-pan, I always compared her to the other boys that I had shot for that photo project. Most of them were the same age, also with very little experience in these early stages of training with eagles. All of the kids I met were a bit afraid of the wild golden eagle, and rightly so. Partially because the idea of holding this predator, which is almost their own size, still felt terrifying for them.
Even though they would not admit it, it was clear that they felt some relief when the eagle flew away from them… but not Ashol-pan. She was the least experienced of all the children I had shot before her, but I saw she was unique. She was strong and proud as if she was a warrior from the past.
Her strength made her a hero and a story worth sharing.
What unique place and people group are you searching for now for your next project?
I have a few things on my mind for my next voyage – I would really love to see East Russia. I love traveling into places where the elements and harsh terrain covers the people. There we can see the radical changes of the 20th and 21st century. I believe that in these places one can find stories not only on “Indigenous people” or “Lost cultures” but stories that due to their simplicity can be shine a light on our common humanity.
I hear you have just appeared in another Ted Talk? When can we watch that online?
Yes it is true! The event was on the 12th of October under the name TEDxTheWhiteCity. I’m not sure when will the videos will be released online, but as soon as the lecture will air online I will share it on my Facebook page and website!
All photos and video in this article are copy write – Asher Svidensky.