Quit your job and become a travel photographer: meet Conor MacNeil

In Interviews, London by Claire

When I first met Conor MacNeill he was a web developer. Now, he’s just packed in the day job and turned nomadic photographer. I went to talk to ask him some questions about how his adventures had reached this point. Just before he hopped on a flight to Burma we grabbed a coffee. Conor reckons everyone has a ‘top five’. We talked about what his own are, the predictive powers of photographs as trend-setters, and getting off the beaten track. He told three good adventure stories about snow storms, running up the Great Wall of China and the fact he was off to Myanmar later that day.

When I meet Conor, he carries a rucksack. It’s smaller than the overkill variety you take on a gap year travelling – you wonder what they’re packing. He’s armed with an iPad, camera, and a few clothes. He is hopping on a flight across the world in a few hours. We discuss four main points before he heads to the airport:

1. Icelandic Snow Storms
2. The top five places to travel
3. Running up the Great Wall of China
4. Why photography is basically travel trend-forecasting

The Land That Time Forgot - thefella photography

Story number 1: Icelandic Snow Storms

Hello Conor MacNeill. I would like to hear how you got into photography with your shit DSLR. At what point you suddenly thought ‘I’d like to do more of this?’ and began to put real effort in.

Okay. Well, that’s a difficult one. I started because of travel. I’d always wanted to travel – well, not always – but as I was getting older I really wanted to see the world more. I’d never travelled when I was younger because all my friends wanted to go clubbing in Ibiza and things like that – Faliraki, or whatever was cool at the time. And that really wasn’t my scene. So I didn’t get to travel that much when I was a kid. And I thought I’m just going to start travelling. I was tired of trying to get friends along and they’d go ‘oh yes this date might work or that might work’ and then it’d fall through. And then you don’t end up going because they can’t go. So, that’s when I decided I was going to start travelling and going on my own. I’d make travel plans and if people wanted to come along they could do and if not, i didn’t care.

So I thought that’d be my new year’s resolution. And then i thought ‘what happens if I get bored travelling by myself?’ because there was no one to talk to. So I wondered if I’d enjoy photography. I found a cheap camera on Amazon. I bought that, and then I took that out travelling with me. I quite enjoyed the photography. First year’s photos were pretty rubbish but i tried my best and my photography started getting a bit better.

I started enjoying it a bit more and thought I’m going to get a better cameras. Spend about 6 months researching it and really started honing my work and seeing what really excited me about photography.

When did you make that New Year’s resolution?

New year’s solution was 2011.

Where was the first place you went?

I went to Copenhagen and/in Denmark.

That’s a nice choice.

Well, it wasn’t my choice. That year I didn’t know where I wanted to go. So I thought that each month that year I’d go away to somewhere in Europe and tweeted out my idea. And said I want to go travelling, it’s my new year’s resolution – anyone wanna come at the end of this month? My friend’s sister tweeted back let’s go to the Copenhagen Jazz Festival at the end of Jan. A couple of weeks later I went off with this random girl that I didn’t really know before. We went round Copenhagen. It was quite good fun, and my photos were dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.

At what point did it actually start getting quite good?

I think in the first year I was struggling to find my style. Most people, when they excel in photography, they do so in a particular genre. There are very few people that do everything well. They might do many things well but there’s usually one genre that they’re excellent at. It took me a long time to work out exactly what I love doing.

What was that for you?

More travel landscapes. Night time photography. Stars, Milky Way, Aurora.

One of my questions is ‘what is your obsession with the northern lights?’

Have you seen the northern lights? [I shake my head] Well there you go. Ask me that when you’ve seen them.

Conor Macneill - thefella photography

Was Norway/Iceland area your favourite place that you’ve been?

Iceland’s one of my favourite places. It was, until recently, not particularly touristy. There are lovely people, with interesting weather that changes every five minutes. It’s got waterfalls, volcanoes, fjords.

When I read about you going to Iceland, you were using nice phrases like ‘rocking sandstorms’ and ‘near zero visibility in Icelandic locations’ and they sounded like good stories. I’d like to hear a story about those please.

Well, the thing with Iceland is that – we went in March, which is generally just after winter – they’d had a very late, very wintery winter. A very harsh winter. So we went in March and it was -25/30’ in parts of it. Not in Reykjavik, but when you got out into the more wilderness areas it was very cold. Sometimes you’d get these snowstorms that would come in out of nowhere and you could barely see a couple of feet in front of you. We were driving along the road and had to just pull over and stop, but you don’t know what’s at the side of the road because you can’t see.

How long did that last?

It’s hard to tell time when you’re actually going through them. Probably an hour or two. The good thing is that when you’re caught in bad weather after maybe half an hour you’re out of it, or the weather will change.

So we went to the east fjords, in the east of the island. It was a gorgeous wintery sunny day – quite cold with bright sunshine, and clear skies. We were going along the edge of the road that winds round them. We got to the tip of the fjord and there was snow everywhere – a snow storm was on us. We had to drive with the speed right down, slowly to get around the fjord, and then on the other side it was sunny again. It was just a snowstorm in this fjord.

That sounds beautiful.

That’s how localised the weather can be. I guess some clouds get trapped in between the high mountains and the weather just happens on that one spot. I guess rain and snow have to stop and end at some point. It’s like the excitement when you’re driving down the motorway – it’s like a wall and it suddenly hits you. But with snow. There was no one there. You can literally drive for hours in Iceland and see no one. There are 320,000 people in the whole of Iceland – I think – probably about 200k of them Reykjavik and the surrounding area. Which doesn’t leave that many people around the rest of the island.

Why do you have such a good working knowledge of the population of Iceland?

I run workshops there and it helps to know little bits and pieces, plus I have a curious mind and I like to research things. I’m the kind of person who’ll get lost in Wikipedia.

Conor MacNeill Namibia

Story number 2: The top five places to travel

I think everyone, whether they realise it or not, has a list in their head of countries they want to visit. Usually they have a number in their top five, top ten that they’re really keen on. China was really high mine and my friend Greg Annandale‘s heads. It came up in conversation. So, we went to China.

What are your top five at the moment? Right now, today.

Number one: Myanmar. I’m going there later on today.

How convenient. What else is high?

Number two: places in South America.

Number three is Southern Argentina with Greg Annandale and another friend called Dave who lives in Seattle. We haven’t explored South America yet. We’ll go to Patagonia to Southern Chile as well.

Number four: After Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia this week, and South America after that, I’d quite like to do some of the Stans; the Stans being Kurdistan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan.

All three? How are you going to approach them?

Well, I’ve got a little route worked out in my head. From Kazakstan mountains to Kurdistan, to a place called Bishkek. There’s a mountain route that goes through the big Almaty Lake. So I might spend a long weekend doing that.

Number five: Japan is quite high on my list. New Zealand I’d quite like to go to. I’d like to see a bit more of Africa as well.

That’s an awesome list. I’m surprised you haven’t been to Japan.

To get to South American next year I’ll go to see autumn in South America you have to go in March/April, but that’s also at the same time as the cherry blossoms in Japan. I tend not to get very original photos – the famous photos that other people do.

What are you going to photograph in the next week?

The temples of Bagan. I’m going to take a wooden bridge in Mandalay. I’ll take a few reasonably famous temples in Thailand. I’ll photograph the Yi Peng lantern festival lantern festival and I’ll be taking Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Which bit are you most excited about?

Bagan. It’s quite a famous scene for photographers. Myanmar is a country that’s not hugely touristy at the minute and I’m looking forward to seeing it, because a lot of places are over-run by tourists at the minute. I’d like to be ahead of the curve.

So in three years you can look smugly at everyone else going there.

Pretty much, yeah. I ideally would have liked to have got to Myanmar a few years ago.

Would you have preferred it to have felt more ‘off the beaten track’?

Really, I’m more into the exploration than the travel itself and photography is a huge part of that. As a photographer – especially with the kind of photography I do – you can spend days or weeks in a place waiting for the right conditions to get the photo. With my photography I don’t add in different skies or have composite shots – what you see is what happened there. If the right conditions happen then I try desperately to capture that. Which involves running to places more often than not. Literally, physically running to get somewhere for the sun setting, or falling off the wall of china – which is surprisingly high.

TheFella - Yangshuo, Guangxi, China

This was very, very early in the morning. Myself and Greg had arisen at about 04:00 and Sam drove us to this point on the river. I pulled out the camera and tried shooting this cormorant fisherman, but it was so humid, even at this time in the morning, that my lens started fogging up.

Story number 3: Running up the Great Wall of China

Tell me about that.

The bit I was in was a run-down part of the wall. There was no real wall on the side of it – just a bit drop on the other side. When there’s two of you running backwards and forwards trying to get an angle, it can get a little hairy. On that bit of the great wall – I think it was a seven hour hike we did in about five hours and we didn’t see anyone else there, apart from an old Chinese man in a village.

Why did you chose that part of the great wall and why a seven hour route? And why in that direction and why that specific bit?

I felt that when people go to China, especially the Bejing area, they tend to go to an area called Badaling which is very touristy. Thousands upon thousands of people go there every day. They’ve rebuilt the great wall and it’s exactly how it would have looked, and you can get your photo there. To me, that’s not the Great Wall; that’s a replica of the Great Wall. It’s in the same spot the great wall is but when you renovate something like that, it’s not what it used to be. But I really wanted to see the great wall of china and I found a place about 4-5 hours north of Beijing, which was a bit of a mission to get to. But we got there.

And you felt compelled to do the route at really high speed?

Well we got lost a little bit trying to find our way up to a particular mountain top, and some Chinese guy gave us directions by pointing and we ended up walking through a swamp. By the time we figured out it was the wrong way we’d had to come back again and the sun was almost setting. Then we found the right path and we had to literally run up the side of the Great Wall of China trying to get to the high point trying to get some photographs.

Then the next morning we went back, but went in the opposite direction. We started hiking in the dark so we could gain a decent position by sunrise. We went off on one of these hiking routes that you can do in a day or half a day with a loop, or with quite an easy way to get back to where you started from in a day.

We found this seven hour hike which brought us round to a renovated part of the great wall, where we could get a taxi back from. It was interesting to see some parts: it was just a very tall dark path. Sometimes you had the watchtowers that were just crumbling down and we had to scramble up them with bricks falling past you. It was in that much disrepair.

We had to take a detour because an army base were using the great wall as part of their defence. So we hiked through this forest – it was quite an unpleasant detour – it took us into this little village and there were no sign posts, as you’d expect. We got a little bit lost – we were wandering up and down these dark paths for about half an until this Chinese guy poked his head out of his house. And he waved at us, and we waved back, and he pointed in a certain direction.

Towards the swamp.

And we were like ‘Oh’ and we nodded thanks to him. And he waved as we walked past, and shouted something. I thought he said ‘cold drink’ there, and he shouted again. He was actually saying ‘cold drink’. And I thought ‘that’d be nice.’ We wondered what would happen if he actually offered us tap water because you’re not supposed to drink the tap water in China. So we worried about this and went into his little kitchen and sat down. He kind of nodded at us, we nodded back again. And he went up and he opened this massive freezer where he had ice creams and cold drinks, and tins of coke and things like that. That was quite pleasant. Then we finished off the rest of the hike and got on, ending up in the renovated section.

Story number 4: Why photography is basically travel trend-forecasting

Where have you been that you wouldn’t have expected to ever go? Where would have surprised you that you’ve now gone?

There are some places that I wouldn’t have gone to before but now, having just seen amazing photographs of the places, as a photographer, that’s made me want to go to places. Earlier this year I went to Namibia. I don’t know if that’s high in many people’s lists. South Africa is pretty high on many people’s lists but I really enjoyed Namibia. I thought it was amazing.

This is on no scientific basis, but I think that photographers can often drive tourists trades. If a photographer goes somewhere and gets some really nice pictures, then all his photographer friends and fans see that and go ‘well I want to take the same photos’. Because some of them are quite new and all these photographers go and take photos of these amazing places, and they hit the mainstream, and people want to go and see these amazing places. Then the tourist trade comes up.

But I know I’m not the first person to take photos of Namibia.

I saw some nice photos of the there – it’s got some really clear skies for my star photography and I thought why not. And I’ve seen more and more awesome photography coming out of there. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next year Namibia starts to become the next tourist place.

Where else do you think is going to?

Obviously Myanmar and Burma are getting that way. Mainly because it’s opened its doors two/three years ago and again, often some of the first people through are photographers, releasing these amazing pictures of Myanmar and people want to go there. And I think Taiwan’s getting quite popular, too.

Thanks for the chat. Enjoy Myanmar.

No problem. Where are you going on adventures this year?

Mount Hood, in Oregon, in August. I’m running a race called Hood to Coast. You run a relay from Mount Hood, 200 miles from the mountains to the sea.

I’ve taken a photo of Mount Hood.

"The Lost Lake" - Mount Hood - The Fella

He has, and it’s ace.

ClaireQuit your job and become a travel photographer: meet Conor MacNeil