Travel photographer Macduff Everton has been around the world to cover stories for National Geographic Traveler magazine. His most recent assignment took him to the island of Shikoku in Japan for a January/February feature story. Photo editor Krista Rossow asked Macduff to tell us more about his experience while photographing the island.
Krista Rossow: You first went to Shikoku as an 18-year-old hitchhiking around the world. Were your impressions different this time around?
Macduff Everton: There’s a world of difference. Japan was much less worldly then — I was the first foreign hitchhiker that many of the Japanese said that they had met. There wasn’t the U.S. influence of McDonald’s, KFC, television, MTV. No one had been to Disneyland. A lot more people worked on farms and lived in the countryside than now. When I went around the world, people talked about culture shock as if it was a symptom that every traveler would come down with, especially upon returning home. You rarely hear that anymore. So I was pleasantly surprised on this trip to discover that traveling around Shikoku was probably closer to my first experience than I expected, especially once I got off the high speed motorways.
KR: You shot with your panoramic camera and a DSLR camera for this assignment. How do you determine which camera to use? Do you have a personal preference?
ME: I think that the panoramic camera is very good for giving a sense of place — it covers what the human eye sees with peripheral vision. But you don’t always need that, and the DSLR camera is best for everything else. As far as my preferred camera, it really depends on what I’m covering.
I think my two new photography books answer your question by example. The Modern Maya Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatán documents the lives of my Maya friends over a period of four decades. There are 385 images in the book and most were intimate images taken with a 35 mm SLR, with only a few panos. Patagonia, La Última Esperanza covers the Chilean province of Última Esperanza, which is larger than Switzerland but has only 20,000 inhabitants. There are 144 photographs in the book and nearly all are panoramic in order to capture such wild and sweeping vistas.
KR: Did you feel that the language barrier was a problem while in Shikoku? How did the locals receive you?
ME: I remembered a few words and phrases from previous trips, and my wife Mary knows a few words too, mostly from ordering sashimi. Very few people speak English on Shikoku, but it wasn’t a barrier at all. Most traffic signs are in both Kanji script and Roman letters, so I could find my way around. Our rental car had a GPS device that could be programmed in English, but it would stop giving directions once you were within a mile of a place! You’d get this computer voice saying, “Your hotel is coming up soon,” and that would be it. In one town, we were looking for our hotel and I finally stopped the car in traffic and got out and there was a truck behind me. I repeated the hotel’s name to the driver, hoping he might understand. He told me that he didn’t speak English, but, using his hands, suggested that I follow his wife, who got out of the truck and walked down the street until she could point to the hotel. We both ran back to our vehicles. I offered profuse thanks, made a U-turn and proceeded to the hotel. No one honked their horns in anger or impatience — they were so nice and gracious. Obviously you can’t get into a deep conversation using gestures, but you can have a wonderful time while also learning something.
Don George, the writer, suggested places that I should go to photograph. One was an early morning fish market. I wanted to find it the night before, so I could drive straight to it the next morning, but we were having trouble finding it. So Mary drew a picture of fish and a man that we’d stopped understood what we were looking for (or we hoped he did), pantomimed for us to follow him, jumped in his car and drove us to where the fish market would be. Maybe this goes back to your first question — about the difference between Japan then and now. This is the Japan that I remembered and loved.
KR: What was your favorite discovery while on this assignment?
ME: We were not expecting to find the geological sandstone coastline near Cape Ashizuri. That was amazing! The shapes that the rock had been worn into were so intriguing. And then, just down the coast, there was this futuristic Jetson-like building sticking out on the water that seemed so incongruous, but there it was (you can see it on page 73 in the magazine). Another thing we discovered were stalls selling octopus grilled over coals at seaside stands. It was so good!
KR: Do you have a favorite image that didn’t make it into the story?
ME: This coastline near Cape Ashizuri was so interesting. I don’t even like this one better than the one that ran in the story — they are different and everywhere I looked it was special. My wife and I really loved walking around and exploring, and of course it changed as the light changed.