Brent Foster was living and working in Toronto when he got what he thought was his dream job at the Los Angeles Times. After spending a year working in Southern California for the paper, he decided to change his life and move to Delhi, India, to pursue his dream of being an international photojournalist.
That was seven years ago. Since then, he’s returned to Canada but continues to do the kind of exciting grassroots photography and cinematography work that first took him to Asia. A commercial shoot in India presented him with the perfect opportunity to complete a personal project. His video takes us through Rajasthan, introducing us to a host of people and places. Read on for a Q&A with Brent about his career and how he made this video.
What was the purpose or intent of your trip to India?
I received a call from a production company that was looking for a Director/DP to join them on very short notice for a commercial shoot. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to travel for a commercial job, and then take time to shoot a personal travel film afterward. I’ve always mixed paid work and personal projects throughout my career, so this was a natural.
Seven years ago, I lived in India for a year and a half. Using Delhi as my home base, I traveled through the region freelancing and working for magazines and newspapers such as TIME and The New York Times. I was itching to go back and visit, so I took advantage of this trip. I have always shot a mix of traditional photojournalism with cinematography mixed in, which wasn’t all that common at the time. I feel like I’ve grown as a filmmaker so much in the time I’ve been away, so I was excited to return with a different perspective and a set of fresh eyes.
This summer was insanely busy with commercial jobs, and I was feeling a little burnt out around the time I went. I decided to put down my larger cameras after the hired work was over and simplify my kit to a small camera/gimbal combo for the film.
I hired a fixer (local guide/translator) and made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t turn any opportunity or invitation down. Typically, I’m very focused on the story I’ve set out to tell in my work and I try to avoid distraction. In this case, I decided to simply see where people would lead me through Rajasthan, and the film is the result of my exploration there.
Where did you go in India and how did you travel there?
All filming took place in the state of Rajasthan. I traveled to Jodhpur, Bikaner, Pushkar, and rural villages in between over the course of about five days.
What were you expecting when you first boarded the plane? How did the reality compare to your expectations?
Having spent about a year and a half in India, I knew to expect sensory overload. India is the type of place that you need to embrace and accept for what it is. It’s a visual artist’s paradise, but also a great test on any traveler. It’s one of the those places where you have to recognize that you have no control over what goes on around you. It’s an amazing place, but it’s so dense in population. If you aren’t used to that, it can be hard to push yourself out the door to face it head on. You have to mentally prepare and let go of your expectations. You can have a schedule, but you’ll soon realize you’re going to have to change it. Some people love every second they spend in India, and it’s just not right for others. It takes the right kind of person to flourish here.
I was excited to return. Returning is really special because every experience is different. India has so much to offer. It’s the ultimate assault on all senses. From traffic and pollution to masala chai, sandalwood incense, and fresh flowers, it truly has the some of the best and worst sounds and smells you’ll ever experience in your lifetime.
We really like the amount of people you included in your video! How did people react to your camera?
I feel like you get to truly experience a place through the people you meet, and I like to take that approach when I travel. I’d rather spend time observing and listening to people in a new culture as opposed to trying to see the next tourist attraction. I try to approach filming with that same mentality. I’ve spent my entire life (since the age of 14) concentrating on telling people’s stories with a camera. Some people tend to be shyer than others and some simply won’t want to be filmed, but most people are as curious as you are and will be more than willing to open their doors to you if you just ask and show them respect.
Did you ask for permission to film, and if so, how?
Outside of the shots unfolding in front of me on the street, I did seek permission to film in the other locations. Whenever I work in a foreign country, I always hire a fixer. For those not familiar with what a fixer does, they are a local translator/guide, with a great knowledge of the region you are intending to work within. They can get you access to people and places that would otherwise take forever, or be impossible to find. They also keep you safe in volatile areas (not that I had to worry about that during this film) and can truly save your life.
By hiring a good fixer, I was able to easily explain the purpose of the project to the subjects in the film, and also ask them kindly to ignore me and go about their daily business while filming them. It always takes a little time for them to get comfortable in front of the camera. But once they get used to it, you can get them to ignore you and begin capturing a glimpse into their daily life.
Can you describe some interactions you had with the people featured in this film?
Because this was a personal project, there was no set production schedule or timeline. I had the chance to sit and have tea with Sadhus in Pushkar after filming them at sunrise (see 00:43 in the film) as well as experience the Hindu festival Navratri (see 1:10) and learn about chai-making techniques at one of the most famous chai stalls in Rajasthan (see: 00:52). I was able to spend the time to earn the trust of the subjects I was working with, which is both effective and necessary.
Often, photographers can fall into tropes when they photograph in the Global South. How do you avoid making poverty porn with your work?
I’ve never looked at my type of work as something that could be poverty porn, because there’s always a motive or issue at hand. I usually work on an issue using one or two people as a focus or an example. This helps avoid generalization. Also, a lot of this has to do with positioning of the story. For example, one time I was doing a story on access to medication for pain relief and how that related to dying with dignity. We ended up focusing on an area of the country where there was access to opiates and medical care and people were able to die with dignity. That angle made it a progressive story.
What equipment do you use to shoot your videos?
This entire video was shot with the DJI Osmo and X5 camera. I carried about 12 batteries with me, along with a power pack to keep the phone charged as it acted as my monitor through a wireless connection on the Osmo. For those not familiar with this type of setup, the camera is supported by a gimbal, which basically allows the camera to feel like it’s floating and allows you to smoothly move through a scene without shaking. I also mounted the camera and gimbal using a car mount to capture some of the shots while driving through the streets. I could control the focus/pan/tilt of the camera through my phone from inside the car.
Here’s a link to the camera/gimbal combo: http://store.dji.com/product/osmo-pro
What programs did you use to edit your video?
Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2017
Talk a little bit about your editing process.
For the edit, I really wanted to tie found elements from various scenes together. I asked Peter, my colleague who edited the piece, to start to break out scenes based on elements and ways we could bring them together. I also filmed with the final edit in mind and looked for these elements while capturing the footage. Hands and water became two “themes” that really stood out through various parts of the journey, and worked well in the edit to lead the audience from place to place. All the footage was shot at 60 FPS and filmed at a high shutter speed to allow for speed ramping and to create a more intense feel to some of the footage.
Do you have any advice for people making their first travel video?
I want to challenge people making their first travel video to get out of their comfort zone and get as close to people as you can when filming. It’s easy to sit back with a zoom lens and capture life from afar. Try to immerse yourself in the process, and you may be surprised by the results. Photographer Robert Cappa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” I’ve found this to be true. Early in my photography career, my mentor gave me a wide angle lens and sent me out into our community with instructions to fill it with as many faces as possible. That forced me to break that personal barrier and taught me how to be effective when photographing and interacting with people. It’s why I’ve favored street photography and documentary in my personal work.
As a second bit of advice for filmmakers, I highly recommend always having a passion project on the go. This is something I’ve done my entire career. The past couple years, I’ve dedicated my time to creating, “While I’m Here | The Legacy Project,” which has taken myself and a team of friends around the world and has led us to meeting and documenting some fascinating stories about people in their older years who are doing incredible things.
Having an ongoing passion project allows me to be creative, feel fulfilled, help others, and show the type of work I am truly passionate about creating to prospective clients. You can see and learn more about the project at: www.whileimheretheproject.com