WorldRider Allan Karl interview


Allan Karl is a motorcycle traveler, writer, photographer, musician and public speaker.
In 2005 Allan packed up a few things on his BMW F650 and left behind his home in California. 
He rode north to Alaska to properly begin his ride the length of the Americas. From Brazil he crossed the Atlantic to traverse Africa before finally pausing in Istanbul. 


On this last trip Allan visited thirty-five countries and photographed the people, places, and experiences he found along the way.


I was inspired by Allan's WorldRider trip on ADVrider to take-up motorcycle travel, so I was really happy to catch-up with him to ask a few questions.


Anthony: 
So when you first set out on this trip, did you have any travel experience from before?

Allan: 
I convinced my parents after graduating college that I wanted to move to California. I was always a fan of road trips and this cross-country cruise in a borrowed car ignited the travel bug that'll be with me until I die.

Just a few years later an older friend of mine was planning a trip to Indonesia. and asked if I'd like to go. That trip - when I was just 24 - lasted two months and involved cruising eight Indonesian Islands. On each island we rented motorcycles, small 125-175cc two-stroke Japanese bikes.

I made every effort to travel, by motorcycle when possible. Before I embarked on my WorldRider trip I had been to about fifteen countries and traveled to forty-five American states.
Travel had become more important to me than any material possession, except maybe my Mac and my camera!

WorldRider is the culmination of my dream to see the world. And I'm not done yet.


And how about the whole photography thing, was that something you were into before the trip, or was it the trip that sparked your interest?

When I was a seventh grader in a small town in Connecticut, I was one of those guys - though not as geeky as many of my brethren - who loved to hang in the audio/visual department at school. Whenever we had a field trip, I borrowed the best camera and promised to document the trip.

In high school I worked for the local camera store and during the summers while in college worked for a photo lab. So photography has been in my blood even longer than travel.




We know there just ain't a lot of room on an overland motorcycle, you gotta pack light! What photo gear did you bring with you and how did you pack it safely on the bike?

I brought a DSLR with three lenses, a point & shoot and an HD consumer-grade camcorder. At the time it was the best gear available: 
Cameras:
Canon EOS 20D SLR
Canon S80
 Compact/point & shoot
(Replaced by a Canon SD870IS after the S80 was doused by firemen at an Argentina soccer game)
Canon HV10 Camcorder
Lenses:

Canon EF-S IS Zoom 17-85mm
Canon EF-S Zoom 10-22mm
EF 70-300 DO IS 70-300mm




I packed an Aerostich lightweight motorcycle cover inside my top case. I secured the DSLR and lenses in padded Tamrac cases on top of the cover, inside the top case. The motorcycle cover provided dampening and slight pressure to keep the camera gear from moving around in the top case.

The point & shoot was in a small case that I velcro'd to the straps of my tank panniers. I had this positioned strategically so that in a moment's notice, even while riding, I could whip out the camera and grab the shot.

A fellow rider and photographer kept his DSLR more handy in a tank bag. But I'm averse to tank bags, and if there is one problem with my set-up, it's that it takes more work and a commitment to pull out the DSLR. I usually took out the DSLR on more extended photo jaunts. So it's amazing how many great photos and opportunities for those moments by using the pocketable point & shoot.






You had an unexpected intermission after you broke your leg in Bolivia, did your gear or packing in general change after you got back on your feet? 


That's a great question Anthony. I was disappointed that my trip was cut short so early on, but the surgery and rehabilitation gave me time to rethink my gear and packing strategy. I will say that I consolidated quite a bit. For example, I had way too many tools. I had brought a socket wrench and sockets, a full complement of spare nuts, bolts and other odds and ends. These I left behind.

I also had brought a heavy, but very good, Manfrotto tripod. I broke down and bought a carbon fiber Gitzo. I had an extra pair of shoes and too many extra shirts, and pants. I simplified dramatically. 

 

So like most motorcycle travelers, you were documenting all of your experiences; Landscapes to food photos. But what jumps out at me are your photographs of the people you meet. In your ride report It seems like you can put a face to damn near every name you mention! Were you shooting these with a compact camera or the big SLR?

You know Anthony, It's the people more than anything that move me when I travel. Traveling alone means you are more open to communicate with the locals. And locals are more likely to approach a solo traveler than a group.

As for what photos were shot with the DSLR vs. the point & shoot? I think it's almost even. When I knew I was staying put for more than a few hours or few days, I'd keep the DSLR by my side. But no matter what, I always had my compact point & shoot.
I think the best shots are those with the DSLR, I'd have more time to get to know my subjects and gain their trust and confidence. Those shots are my money shots!



Now, most people take the easy route, "sniping" from a distance with a long lens, but your photos are *right there* super-close, with a wide angle lens. I mean you can really see from the photo that you are interacting with the people and they're reacting to you.


Usually you only have a few minutes with a person you meet on the road, tell me about how you establish a connection with people in such a short amount of time.




A great portrait - or people photo - always captures that person's expression. In order to truly capture an expression a photographer must let down his/her guard and the subject must as well. You're right. You can see the people and their reaction to me, the photographer, in many of those shots.

For me it is more important to make a connection with a person than to simply take, or as you say, 'snipe' a quick photo. Make no mistake, I did do this often, but the odds of getting of a good photo this way are against you.

I tend to be a very open person and I think patient and easy to get along with. Without patience and tolerance, it would be very difficult to get the 'shot'. I always ask permission to take a person's photograph and I do my best to make them smile or otherwise to show some sort of emotion. 

Being open, available and ready with your camera is a good start. Then show interest and communicate in the subject's language - no matter how bad you screw-up pronunciation, tense or otherwise. That's how you work to gain trust and ultimately capture that expression and emotion.


That was a long time on the road, three years! Everyday you're out there photographing  foreign cultures and new faces. Did your approach or your comfort level with photographing people change during the trip?

I found myself drawn more to people in the later part of my trip, while early-on I think the landscapes were more intriguing. 
The problem with landscapes is the lighting. Some days you'll have it, other days it eludes you.


Sure, on the road you might need to hit a border or city before nightfall and there's no time to wait for the good light. Sometimes you've just got to snap the "I was here" landscape shot.


With people you still need good light, but we're always drawn to someone exhibiting emotion whether the light is good or not. Landscapes can elicit emotion too, but unless the lighting and composition are spot on, it may or may not express the emotion you experienced in real life. 


And some scenes are just impossible to capture in a photograph. I found myself looking at these photographs of amazing places and while many people were moved by the photographs, I found they didn't move me. 


Yeah, why was that? 


Because I was there, and even my own photographs rarely convey the feeling I had in person. That's the real challenge!

I still sought the holy grail in landscape and still life pics while traveling. But I found it was the people pictures that truly captured the essence of a place and culture.


I was tremendously thirsty in Cairo - this character sold me a cold drink and though he spoke no English, we had a complete conversation using our hands and facial expressions. I was so happy he let me take his photo!


Something else I like about your photography is that you're not practicing exoticism - you're not just "trophy hunting" the guy in a turban - there's something deeper. What is it that catches your eye and makes you approach somebody?

Energy. I feel it. Whether it's good or bad, we are attracted or repelled by energy. And beyond that, it's their story. Everybody you meet has a story. And what is it about their story that has caused this person to evolve as a human being - as a character on our planet? It could be something so simple such as the birth of someone's child, an accident or even gluttonous desire or extreme poverty.
What is the story? That's what attracts me to someone. Curiosity. I want to learn. I want to understand. The best I possibly can.





Did being obviously foreign make a difference in the way you interact? between your English and Spanish you can communicate in much of the world but how did you interact to take photos of people without language?

I made every effort to learn a handful of words for each place. And often, I'd ask those people who inspired my curiosity to teach me a few words or phrases.

I also was very open to enlisting the services of local guides - not some commercial package tour guide - but the local boy or young woman just trying to feed their family. People who had invested in enough education to have some sort of command of the English language. These are the people who, while not professionally trained, can bring you into the local fold and give you a glimpse of life and culture. This is how I learned. And this is how I grew and gained the trust of others.


Did people's acceptance of being photographed change in different areas? Was it OK to shoot photos in one country but not in another? 

Many times I had people turn me down. In Ecuador I rode through a very rural region where the local culture ooozed out of every face, building, home, horse cart, farm, field and scene I experienced. I tried for days to connect with people. But inevitably I was turned down. That is until I met Rosalgracia, a nearly 80 year old woman with just one tooth in her mouth and a passion for learning and life that was so alluring. I talk about her in my presentations. She was unique.

Elsewhere it just took work and patience. I think the Sudanese people are more shy than they are against photographs. And the Ethiopians? They seemed to want to bring it on!



Some people will hold their hand out for a photograph. They want to be compensated. I found many of the Masai people in Kenya and Tanzania to be this way. Overall I am against paying someone to take their photo. I'd rather negotiate and offer to buy tea, coffee, bread or something. But cold cash? Not my schtick.

Sure, I did on a few rare occasions. But those photographs don't even hit my top 100, for obvious reasons. Sometimes I would put my camera in the hands of the subject and ask them to take my picture. I figured they can see and feel what I'm doing, offer them a unique experience and try to break down the barrier between photographer and subject.



You also recorded some video and audio, is the technology there yet or is it still a hassle to be a one-man production team?

For video it's very difficult to get any meaningful footage. One has to take miles of footage to get anything usable.
Audio is a different animal. I love podcasts and wish I had the time to do more. I have hours of unused audio that will make for good podcasts some day. Even so, I manage to product some 20 or so podcasts on my trip. But like video, the time is in the editing. To capture good video, it's much easier with someone manning a camera and checking audio.


How did you keep up with the backlog of editing photos and writing while on the road?

Sometimes I felt that people think I was on a free ride or vacation! Oh, there's Allan riding around the world. Truthfully, I wrote nearly every day while traveling. Check out my website. It's voluminous. Sure, there are times when I stayed in an area for lenght of time that I didn't write. But writing, editing and photographing? That was my job. And I felt guilty if I wasn't up to date.

I remember spending 3 solid days somewhere in Africa locked in my motel room just writing and choosing photos for my pieces, all in the effort to get up-to-date and share those amazing experiences with my readers. It takes discipline Anthony. Sometimes I wanted to be out cruising, photographing or just relaxing, but I knew the more I let go, the more work I'd have later.

I worked hard to make my writing less of a diary or journal of my day and more of something that evoked thinking and inspired those who read it. You'll rarely will find writing that says: "I woke up, had breakfast and started my bike and got gas. Then blah blah blah." No, I tried to offer value in both entertainment and education, history and geography. This is hard work!

One of your new projects is cookbook, at first thought seems like the furthest thing from motorcycle travel. But anybody who's been on the road knows how big a part of your day food plays! 


It's fascinating to see the gradual changes in ingredients and the way food is prepared as you make your way through different regions. Was there any thing that stands-out in your memory, an unusual food or way of cooking?  

Brazil still makes me salivate. The fresh oysters, amazing flavors of the coast in Bahia. The coconut, dende and more.

It was a fish stew called a moqueca that inspired me to do the cookbook. But I didn't have the idea until I was back home. My good friend Bonnie suggested, after I cooked a moqueca for her and her husband, that I ought to put together a cookbook.

The cookbook is more than a collection of recipes. It combines the best of a narrative travelogue with neat story vignettes from each of the countries I visited, along with some of the photography that we've been talking about along with recipes and food.

What better than to experience a place than to read, taste and look at great photographs? That's the idea of my book. The motorcycle? That's the adventure. And that's how I was able to capture all these things and condense them into an experiential book.



Allan is Professional Keynote Speaker who has spoken at Google, Apple and more. Find out more at: www.allankarl.com


Check out Allan's branding, marketing and social media consultant services at: www.clearcloud.com


Read about the whole motorcycle trip at www.worldrider.com

Allan's thoughts on food, music and more are at www.digitaltavern.com

4 Response to "WorldRider Allan Karl interview"

  1. Oscar Says:

    Congrats, nice interview/article.

  2. worldrider Says:

    Great job Anthony. Glad to see it all together on the site. Keep up the good work and hope to see you on the road someday soon!

  3. shaweetz Says:

    Great interview.

  4. Anthony - Motojournalism Says:

    Thanks guys! I really have fun doing these interviews, you always learn something great from them.
    I've got another one coming-up in the next few weeks with a motorcycle travelling videographer.

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