Behind the Lens is an ongoing series of articles and interviews exploring the thought process behind successful and excellent photographers. It brings you behind the lens of a particularly excellent image and explains the technical and creative elements that went into creating the photograph.
This week on Behind the Lens we meet Alex Pflaum - A travel photographer, writer and outdoor enthusiast who’s thirst for adventure started at an early age. Alex seeks to create a mysterious and enigmatic feel to his images to truly capture the spirit of travel and adventure. He’s currently working on Overland; a book borne from an epic 12,000km journey across Central Asia.
Click and Learn Photography: Hi Alex, firstly can you tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you been interested in photography and what drew you to the camera in the first place?
Alex: I got my first camera pretty much 3 years ago to the day. Initially, it was just a way for me to make some money on the side by taking pictures of events around my university campus. But around that time, I started getting more and more into camping and hiking. So this symbiotic relationship of sorts developed between my camera, and my spending time in the outdoors. Where the two hobbies would motivate each other to try harder, and go farther.
I'd say when I initially started, I was most interested in Astrophotography, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Pretty quickly though, I started to develop a style that I enjoyed, and branched my interests outwards. I still love the process of taking astro photos, the freezing cold sleepless nights, excessive planning, and the star tracking, but it is definitely no longer a focus of mine.
As for who I am, I'm 24 years old and about a year out of university, now working on a way to make travel photography and storytelling into a full-time vocation. I grew up in a family that was constantly on the move, so travelling is something that was ingrained into me from a rather young age. I think a big result of that is my feeling of not necessarily being connected to a single country, nor feeling the need to be so.
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Click and Learn: It's obvious from looking through your images that travel is a huge part of both your life and photography and is something that has been brought about by your upbringing. Do you think you'd have the same thirst for adventure without that nomadic childhood?
This image in particular just encapsulates everything about the genre of travel photography for me. The mystery, the intrigue, and the awe-inspiring sense of scale is just perfect. Could you tell us a bit more about the story behind the image and why you took it?
Alex: It's hard to say to be honest. I do think that my upbringing prepared me mentally for this style of life, but it wasn't until I started to venture out on my own in university that I really developed a thirst for it.
Mystique and Intrigue are big for me. It's easier now than ever to find a quick answer to a question. Helping people develop genuine curiosity is one of the main things I hope to achieve with photography. I love when a photo begins to tell a story, but gets no where close to telling a full one.
That's definitely what I'm trying to do with this photo, which I've tentatively titled 'frozen, but not freezing'. Thats my brother on Lake Karakul along the Pamir Highway. It's an absolutely massive lake that spends most of the year frozen over. With just a little bit of cloud cover, you've got no idea of just how expansive it really is. That's really what I tried to capture here, that sense of an undetermined scale. That white space is there for the viewer to interpret the rest of the scene. Interpreting a scene is something we had to do a lot whilst traveling through Central Asia.
Click and Learn: It's certainly a lot more interesting than the millions of fairly cliche, golden hour sunsets that are uploaded to social media every day. Your portfolio and what we've seen of your upcoming book, Overland, also look really cohesive together in terms of both composition and post processing. You seem to use a lot of cooler tones as well as utilising negative space really well. Are these cooler tones just more appealing to you instead of the warmer colours often favoured by photographers?
I'd love to hear more about the Overland book as well. What motivated you and your brother to decide to drive an old 4x4 12,000 kilometers across one of the least visited areas of the world? I sense a fantastic story behind that!
Alex’s Overland book is currently raising funding on Kickstarter. Learn more about it and how to pledge here.
Alex: Cheers mate. Yeah I definitely prefer those colder tones, I really enjoy the visual effect they have on the eyes. It may not be as comforting or inviting, but I find the softness to be more visually pleasing. I'm also an absolute sucker for cold climates, so that is probably coming into play here as well.
So the idea for the book initially came about whilst I was spending some time on a farm in Iceland. I had wanted to go to Iceland for so long, and it was an absolute ripper of a time, but I was also somewhat dissatisfied as a photographer there. It has become such an incredibly hot-spot for all levels of photographers, it can be really difficult to take your own image there, and not just imitate the hoards of content already coming out of there. I felt like I wasn't adding to the creative community by spending time there. So I began to think of where I could better spend my time. The two biggest questions I asked myself were:
1. Is the story worth telling?
2. Are there a lot of people telling the story?
If I'm answering yes to the first, and no to the second, I know I'll be on the right track. After a little bit of research, Central Asia and the Silk Road really came together and ticked all my boxes. After some further deliberation, I decided that a Coffee-table book would be how I want the story to be shared (A decision that was undoubtedly swayed by Jimmy Nelson, and his book Before They). Once the decision was made, I spent about 3 months putting the trip together, and soon we we're on our way. My brother and I met up in Istanbul, took a 24 hour bus into Georgia, and just a few days later, we were the owners of a severely beaten-up 1998 Mitsubishi Pajero. The rest is a story waiting to be told.
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Click and Learn: I understand and agree with that completely. So many people flock to those photography hotspots, and let's be honest it's going to take some once in a lifetime conditions for anybody to get a truly surprising image of locations like Jökulsárlón Beach or Skogafoss. Of course, these places are still beautiful, but in my opinion the crowds of people standing by their tripods every morning somewhat detract from the beauty for me.
Still, photographers feel the need to make these 'pilgrimages' and bag the iconic shots. I think it's great that you're making a coffee table book full of stunning shots from an area that most photographers won't have even considered visiting. Hopefully it can inspire more and more people to go off the beaten track and find their own iconic images rather than following the road of tripod holes!
Obviously you don't want to give the whole book away, but do you have any more interesting stories behind an image that you mind sharing with us from your epic journey?
Alex: Yeah, and I in no way mean to talk down to the people following the 'road of tripod holes', if that's what gets you stoked, then by all means go ahead and chase it. But that's just not how I'm looking to personally contribute.
Sure, i'll share a little bit about our time in the Ak Sai Valley of Southern Kyrgyzstan. This was right at the end of our trip, just about our last adventure.
The valley sits within an autonomous region of the country, so we had to get special permission visas to enter. Even though they were surprisingly easy to obtain, we were told that these were just the second permits of the year that had been issued. We drove in mostly unclear of what to expect, knowing only that there was a beautiful hidden alpine lake that we had to go see. Driving through, the landscapes reminded me a lot of Iceland actually, cold, barren, and seemingly otherworldly.
After about three hours of driving, we saw no more than ten yurts / farmhouses. It was very clear that few people live here, and with temperatures sometimes dropping below -50c, it's not hard to understand why. We set up camp not too far from a farmers home, and planned to hike up to the lake the next morning. Before long, a young man shows up after rounding up his sheep for the night. Initially we weren't too sure which direction our conversation would go, but within about five seconds we could see how stoked he was to see us. Through incredibly broken English and hand gestures, we did our best to communicate for the better part of an hour, exchanging food, teas, and anecdotes of our journey so far. He told us to come see him in the farmhouse early in the morning, his dog decided to spend the night on our sheepskin rug outside the tents.
We show up shortly after sunrise and meet the whole family, and a few more dogs, and a lamb no more than a couple hours old. The young farmer had rounded up a pair of horses, he wanted to take us to the lake himself. As it turns out, there was no way we could have made the hike (something that the farmer obviously had known), constant river crossing deeper than my waist, heavy winds, and considerable snowfall were in store for this lovely day in the middle of May.
About 90 bumpy minutes later we arrive at a lake not only frozen over, but mostly none existent. As it happens, the lake dries up sometime in the fall, not to be restored to it's former glory until the middle of July. No matter for us, we were in it for the general experience, not the final view, and this young man had already given us more than we could have possibly hoped for. After some time spent exploring on ice, we make our way back just before the weather begins to worsen. Before a final goodbye, the family invites us in to share a lunch, where a bowl of hot soup is wonderfully appreciated to our mostly frozen fingers.
We leave the family with a few Polaroid pictures taken moments before, and finally close the door on our time in Kyrgyzstan. Driving away feeling both satisfied with what we achieved, and humbled by what they allowed us to experience.
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Click and Learn: Agreed. As far as I'm concerned photographer's can shoot whatever makes them happy, but standing side by side with a dozen other photographers just isn't for me.
That's a fantastic story. It's always great to hear the tales of unexpected and completely out of the blue generosity and is one of those stories that really makes you want to get off the beaten track and explore the local culture away from the more tourist-laden zones.
I'm hugely looking forward to the Overland book, and obviously that is likely to take up a big chunk of your time over the next six months. Do you have any plans beyond that? Whether it's plans for another epic adventure or an exhibition of some sort?
Alex: Right now i'm definitely fully focused on bringing this project to life. If all goes to plan, I'll have the book distributed in March, and from there I will look to do a few talks and exhibitions ideally in a few different countries.
I know that by August/September 2019 i'll be itching to get going on the next big project. As to where that project would be, Greenland calls to me the most. Some close seconds would be Patagonia, Northern Canada, and Siberia. Most of the cold places really.
Click and Learn: The winter weather certainly seems to agree with you. Just to say that I'm massively looking forward to the Overland book - It's such a breath of fresh air to see a beautiful portfolio of images from a location that I'd never even considered visiting before and I'm sure it will be a success.
Finally - Do you have any tips or words of wisdom for aspiring travel photographers who want to break away from the norm and visit some of the less well travelled areas?
Alex: We live in a world where traveling is now more accessible than it has ever been. All you've got to do is put in the time, and do your research. I can almost guarantee that getting out to these places is not as difficult as you may be imagining.
So find out what makes you burn up inside with curiosity, and go out and chase it.
Click and Learn: Thanks Alex. It’s been great talking to you about your work and adventures and I wish you all the best with the Overland book.