Iran, a country shrouded in stereotypes, is not a typical tourist desination. Traveler and filmmaker Pete Rojwongsuriya recently spent two weeks exploring the country from Tehran to Shiraz. We talked to him about Iran’s cultural history, friendly people and stunning architecture.
Where are you from?
I’m from Bangkok, Thailand. Born and raised.
What do you shoot and how long have you been shooting for?
I shoot all my travel videos with my Sony RX100 M3. I have been shooting since I started traveling alone 3 years ago. I wanted to immortalize the time I took the leap of faith and went to hike the Annapurna Base Camp alone in Nepal for 7 days without a porter or a guide. It was one of the best decision I’ve ever made and defined who I am and how I travel ever since.
What inspires you about shooting video?
My passion for shooting videos grew naturally from being a traveler. I was inspired by all those cool travel videos on Vimeo, the motivation to memorialize all the good times, and wanted to show that some countries aren’t what they seem. Iran, for example, is labeled as a dangerous place to travel to, but I have never felt safer. In fact, Iran was one of the safest countries I’ve been to and I want to show that to the world.
What is your favorite part about traveling and experiencing new cultures?
My favorite part of traveling is the wealth of knowledge we can draw from one another from different walks of life. I like putting myself in people’s shoes from different background, culture, and religion so that I can learn from them, grow as a person and expand my world view a bit more. This also goes both ways as the best thing a traveler like me could do is to have a positive impact on the people I meet along the way.
How long were you in Iran for and what was your itinerary?
I was in Iran for two weeks in total. My trip started off in Tehran as I spent 2 days exploring the city and getting used to how friendly the people were. I went up north after Tehran to Qazvin and spent a day exploring Alamut, the fortress of the assassins. I then came back to Tehran and went straight down to Shiraz and made my way up to Yazd, Esfahan and finally Kashan before flying off from Tehran again.
What surprised me about Iran was how old everything was. The history of the Persian Empire began right in this land and all the ruins and history I was able to see were gigantic and very well-preserved. Not to mention how extremely friendly the locals were. In Esfahan, two minutes after we walked into a park, a family of 6 invited us to sit with them, fed us food while curiously asking us questions about our home country. These encounters seemed to amplify the further you spend time in the country. It was a breath of fresh air to have locals going out of their ways to help you out without expecting anything back. Iran is definitely one of the most fascinating countries in the world.
What was your main reason for going to Iran? What about this destination inspired you to make this video?
The media has painted Iran as a country of terrorists, a country not suited for travelers, and just in general, a bad country to go to. But through words-of-mouth from travelers who have been there, I heard a completely opposite story. From what I heard, the Persians are the friendliest people in the world. Iran has stunning historical sites and one of the most attractive cultures one could experience, and this is what drew me to the country.
Did you face any recurring challenges while traveling around recording what you saw?
The challenge I often encounter was getting the shot I wanted of myself doing something, like running or climbing rocks and mountains while the camera follows me. As you can see, I need a companion to take it for me and I often have to brief them why I am doing this, what I want from the footage and what they have to do. Not many travelers I met are filmmakers so you can imagine how difficult it was to get shots I wanted. To combat this, I try my best to get as many of these shots as possible so I have more material to work with at the end.
During the trip, did you have an inspirational moment you captured in this film? (timestamp and story behind it?)
The most inspirational moment I captured was the birthday of a little girl I accidentally stumbled upon at the hostel (1:38). As you know, Iran is one of the most conservative country in the world. You rarely see people enjoying themselves that much in public but that night, as I was sitting at the hostel reading my book, more and more people were pouring into the courtyard. They started preparing for a party. At that moment, I realized that I would need my camera to capture this moment to show just how happy and how fun the locals can be. That, I think, was the most authentic and genuine footage I captured in Iran.
What were some of your favorite locations you got to travel to while you were there?
In Iran, I like the fact that wherever I went, it always felt like I was off the beaten track just because there weren’t many people coming here in the first place! My most favorite place would be Shiraz. The Nasir ol Molk Mosque found in Shiraz is one of my favorite mosques in Iran. At around 9am, the sunlight would shine through the beautiful mosaic glass, creating colorful rays of light shining down onto the carpet. It was like watching a light show without all the routine and technical work required.
Shiraz is also near the once prosperous ancient ruin of Persepolis. The Persepolis is a 2000 years old ruin that stood the test of time since Cyrus the Great stepped upon the land and chose it as the capital city of the Achaemenid Empire. It is one of the oldest and most well preserved ruin in Iran. Walking through it made me felt like I was walking through time. North-west from Persepolis was also the Naqsh-e Rustam Necropolis, a complex of shrines built on a side of a mountain. It was quite a sight to behold.
Describe one of your most awe-inspiring and memorable experiences you had there.
I have had many memorable experience in Iran, but one of the most memorable experience was when I was in the Nasir ol Molk Mosque in Shiraz. I saw a local woman dressed in full burqa, sitting in front of the colorful mosaic glasses with her back by the pillar and reciting the Quran from the book in her hands. That was one of the most peaceful moments I had in Iran.
What was it like interacting and working with locals while you were there? Describe 2 memorable experiences you had with them. Any tips or suggestions to get the best shots?
Iran is hands down the easiest country for a photographer or filmmaker to interact and work with the locals. People are so welcoming here that sometimes you don’t even have to ask and they will pose for you.
One time as I was sitting in a hostel courtyard in Yazd, I was approached by two students asking me to fill in a survey. They were students from the University of Yazd and they were conducting a research on the interests of art installation in the desert. I mentioned “Burning Man” and how the survey reminded me of it. To my surprise, they were quite well-versed on Burning Man and we got to talking. I was able to learn more about the life of young female students in Iran and what they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. It was one of the most genuine moments I had with the locals.
Another memorable time was when I was in Esfahan. The first night we arrived, we went to Imam Square and after 5 minutes we were invited by this lovely family to join them. They fed us juices and beans while asking us all sorts of question. Before we departed, I took a shot of them and my friend interacting and their genuine friendliness and authenticity can really be seen from it without them even trying.
My tip to get the best shot is to have your camera ready at all times, be patient and let the randomness of travel work its magic while you shoot as much as you can. Usually the best photos and videos come when least expected.
What was the one of the most surprising things you learned about the country while you were there?
Even though I went into Iran knowing how hospitable the people were, I did not expect the kind of hospitality I got the first day I arrived in Iran. The people were offering us free cakes and drinks as we walked around the Grand Bazaar. We were surrounded by locals on a metro asking us all sorts of questions- from where I was from and sadly, if we think they were really terrorists. We then laughed at how absurd the media was and joked with each other like we were friends.
The Iranian hospitality is as legendary as it is rumoured to be and one can only know how friendly Iranians are by going there and experiencing it for oneself.
How did this specific trip differ from your other travels?
Iran is a country like no other. This was the first time I genuinely enjoyed interacting with every locals I met. I was able to open up to everyone without being vulnerable to scammers and thieves, which was refreshing. From my 3 years of traveling, I have never put so much trust into random strangers more than in Iran.
What type of gear did you use to capture the video (video, audio, stills etc)
All shot from my Sony RX100 M3!
Do you have any tips for getting the type of footage you got shooting locals, landscapes, time lapses?
Hyperlapse is a good technique to change the pace of your film, but it can be difficult to do while traveling with limited gears. To solve this, I decided to come up with a way to shoot all my hyperlapse handheld. All I had to do was enable the rule of third grid, center a certain point of the subject to the grid, snap the photo, take one step, align the subject again to the same point and snap again. Continue to take a step, align and snap until you have enough photos to compile it into a timelapse (I used GoPro Studio for the compilation). Once I got the footage, I would import it into Adobe After Effects, stabilize the footage with Warp Stabilizer, and import it to the film I’m making.
When on location and shooting, do you have a specific narrative in mind you want to capture or do you just go with the flow and shoot as much as possible?
I usually have a few shots I wanted in mind but that is only 20% of the footage I usually take. The rest is footage of random things that I think might work in continuity with the planned footage. So 20% planned, 80% go with the flow.
What makes a good travel video in your opinion?
The perfectly synchronized flow of music, transitions, and footages that makes sense. The Watchtower of Turkey is a good example of this.
After coming back from a trip with tons of footage, what is your process with piecing it all together and telling a story?
I would start off by looking through all the footage. Then I try to come up with a theme from the material I have and stitch it up in a way that the transitions make sense. For example, the footages with similar pan movement, similar colors and in similar places are perfect for the transitions.
What did you use to edit all your footage with?
What were you hoping to capture after editing your final cut of this video?
I hope that the video shows how misinformed we were about Iran and how beautiful and amazing it is to travel there. There is no place like Iran and I hope the video captures what a unique country it is to travel to.