Dutch photographer, Pie Aerts has travelled far and wide, capturing shots of local people in the name of art, he tells World Traveller how he does it…
You’ve ventured to some of the most remote corners of the planet – for those who dream of following in your footsteps, what advice would you give?
Start close to home. Great stories don’t require travelling far and beauty is everywhere. Use your viewfinder as a magnifying glass to find it. Apply your camera as a tool to connect to your neighbours, to strangers and to your own surroundings. In the process try to act like a kid, be surprised, smile to people and try to find joy in the small things in life. Let curiosity lead you. Furthermore, stay close to yourself and don’t create for other people. Find a topic or a niche that you truly love and start becoming an authority in that area by creating your own universe. And last but not least, shoot, shoot, shoot. Shoot as much as you can. Always carry a camera. Practice makes perfect. But always remember that dreams are not made overnight. It requires patience and persistence. Enjoy the ride!
You focus on capturing real people and everyday experiences in extraordinary habitats around the globe. Can you share some anecdotes from some of the people you have met; conversations that have stuck in your mind?
After hearing beautiful stories about Uganda for years, I decided it was time to pay the Pearl of Africa a visit in 2018. I started searching online for inspiring people that have contributed in their own way to rebuilding a nation terrorized by war and conflict for decades. After months of research, I found a man by the name of Albert, a former poacher that made a huge transformation in life by becoming a park-ranger. Day after day he is putting his life at risk to protect endangered species and to catch his former poaching colleagues. After following and documenting him and his patrol unit for 10 days in the field, we were sitting at a campfire on the very last night surrounded by the sounds of wild elephants, lion and hippos. He told me why he made certain decisions in life to feed his 9 kids and why he chose to escape from a life full of crime and violence and exchange that for a life full of justice & good cause. His story put tears in my eyes and has proven once again how powerful the human mind can actually be. Saying goodbye the next day was hard but we became friends for life and I can’t wait to return to Uganda one day and reunite.
On another occasion, we ventured to a monastery in the Nepali Himalayas to document a story about the life of a Swedish Buddhist nun who has been living in a monastery practising Buddhism for over 40 years. Coming from a world where we need at least 2 of something, seeing her peacefully possess nothing after completely giving up her life back home, made an everlasting impression on me. We had incredible conversations during that week about a big variety of social, environmental and political issues. Conversations that showed that abundance is not measured in the things we own, but rather in the strength of our human spirit and in the depth of our connections with the natural world. Being in her presence was a beautiful gift and quite often, when facing challenging situations back home, I remind myself of her advice.
For the average person travelling to a new destination, what are some of the best ways to meet the locals and how do you think ensuring you do this enriches the overall travel experience?
Come prepared! When I travel to a new destination I start reading about the place online first. I do research about which places to avoid and look up work that has been previously shot by other photographers. That way, I try to figure out which parts of a city or which areas in a country can offer me an authentic experience. As soon as I arrive I get out and start wandering around, leaving the camera inside my bag. I search for street markets or school grounds, places where local people hang out. Those places are an endles source of information. Chat to the locals, be friendly and polite. Tell them what you are looking for and ask for directions. Not a single guide book in the world will beat the tips of local people. If they invite you for lunch, dinner or tea, follow them. Trust your instincts. The most magical moments happen when you open up yourself and go with the flow. That is what travel is all about for me.
In your opinion, what are the most beautiful places on Earth that we should all aim to see at some point in our lives?
Nowadays, there isn’t many places left undiscovered and unexplored. Through Social Media every destination seems to be at our doorstep which completely changed the playing field of story-telling. When I was younger, I was very concerned of collecting passport stamps and see the world, while nowadays I prefer genuine interactions by taking the time to actually dig deeper in the places I visit. Perhaps that comes with age, but I like to slow down when I travel. However, when I would have to name one destination that changed me to who I am today, it would for sure be India. It’s a place that puts things in perspective and that changed my outlook on a lot of things in life.
What advice do you have for travellers on better appreciating the culture and nature of a destination?
We’re currently living in very uncertain times as a human race and as a planet. An age in which human society is ever more disconnected from the very things it relies on; nature, resources, wildlife and each other. As a result we are losing nature and culture in a higher pace than ever before. Therefore I really hope that everyone that considers him or herself a traveler, feels the responsibility to be mindful of the impact of our own decisions and of the consequences of our footprint. Something that starts with connection. Be vulnerable, be open-minded, show respect and express love and gratitude towards the people you meet and the landscapes and wildlife you encounter. If there’s one thing I learned along the way, it’s that although we might all look very different around the world, in essence we’re all the same. We all face the same insecurities, the same fears, the same desire to be happy. I think realising that holistic approach and acting accordingly is a fundamental step towards a more sustainable, healthy and peaceful future. And it’s something I always remind myself of when creating stories.
Keen to hear more from well-travelled? Read our interview with celebrated explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, take onboard David Murphy’s photography tips for capturing animals in the wild and see how the AdventureFaktory couple travel here.
Tales from the Road Less Traveled by Pie Aerts, published by teNeues and MENDO. Available at teneues.com