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A Portrait Journey Through Eastern Europe

My adventure through eight Eastern European cities with only a backpack of necessities, a set of photography equipment, and a desire to create portraits.

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This story is not going to be a technical how to. It’s not about lighting gear, cameras or lenses. It’s not about technique in camera or post production. It’s about the unexpected things that can happen, the people you can meet and the work you can make when you travel.

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At the end of January earlier this year I boarded a plane to Moscow, sat through a 12.5 hour flight, lived in the Sheremetyevo international terminal for 19 hours and then hopped another 2.5 hour flight to Hamburg Germany. Sleeping on the floor in the airport with your gear cable locked to your belt loop is less than comfortable. (In March it was the same routine on my return flight)

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I had absolutely no real reason to go to Europe and no plans for when I arrived. I knew what hostel I was staying at, how to get there from the airport and that was about it. Six months prior I had bought a plane ticket with the plans that I was going to visit a German girl I had met while she was studying in the states. That plan fell apart and I was left with a ticket to Germany, no place to stay and a month of free time. To me this screamed “photo project.” I made the decision to photograph people in Europe that I met during my journey for a new portfolio and to be open to where I went and how I got there.

My basic plan that I developed in Hamburg and followed for the duration of my trip was first get a hostel in the city I was arriving (I usually found these online the night before I arrived). Once I got to my room I would stow all my non-photo gear in a locker. (clothes, toiletries, laptop, etc.). This helped significantly reduce the weight of my pack to a manageable load (full my pack weighed around 60lbs) and I was carrying a homemade tripod and light stand case made out of 6 inch pvc that weighed another 20 lbs or so. (We can get into the mistakes I made some other time). Once I was repacked for shooting I would set out and explore the city I was staying in, find places where I wanted to make portraits, setup my gear, and wait for someone who I wanted to photograph to materialize.

I found it surprisingly easy to get people to pose for portraits. With a simple hello in the local language and a quick explanation of what I was doing, most people were very open to letting me photograph them. The majority of people that I encountered spoke English and for those that didn’t, I had google translate flash cards prepared on my phone to convey what I was all about. What I really wasn’t expecting was how nice most people were and how open to me they could be within a very short amount of time.

My portrait of Ulrich

My portrait of Ulrich

In Berlin I met an older man named Ulrich who actually approached me to ask what I was doing because he was curious about what all my equipment was for. After I made a portrait of him we sat for an hour or so inside of the church that he worked in while he marked on my map places where he thought I could meet interesting people for my project. Before I left to shoot more for the day we planned to meet at a train station later in the week so he could see the rest of the portraits I made in Berlin.

My portrait of Sonia

My portrait of Sonia

My portrait of Yannic

My portrait of Yannic

Photograph by

Photograph by Sonia Hoelzman

Later that same day I met a young woman by the name of Sonia and her friend Yannic in one of the areas that Ulrich had suggested and I made portraits of the both of them. That evening I received an email asking me over for coffee with her and her mother for later in the week. What I thought was going to be coffee turned into a home cooked German meal, five hours of amazing conversation about the history of Berlin, and some great photo history conversation with Sonia—who it turns out is a young photographer herself. My trip was full of experiences like this. Whether I met them on the streets or in my hostels, I made friends easily and quickly.

So it went for the entire month of February. I would shoot by day, edit in the early evenings and go to bars at night with the friends I made on the road. Every city had a different vibe, something else to offer and new people to meet.

My portrait of Blanka

My portrait of Blanka

Blanka was an excellent host at the hostel in Budapest. She was always ready to give directions, knew great places to eat and even made me tea when I started getting sick.

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At the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia I spent several hours hiking around thinking I wasn’t going to find anyone to photograph. Just when I was ready to head back I ran into this young French couple who were kind enough to let me photograph them in the freezing rain which shortly after turned into snow.

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My travels were amazingly eventful, productive, and life changing, especially for someone like myself who had never left the United States before. I photographed almost 100 people, traveled from Hamburg (the German port to the North Sea) all the way to the coast city of Split in Croatia on the Adriatic coast. I produced a new portfolio, saw some amazing places, met some awesome people, made many new friends (some of whom have already visited me in the states or plan to for later this year) and reunited with some old friends as well.

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A lighting test shot in Croatia with my good friend from college Forbes Conrad, who flew from Guangzhou to Budapest to spend time with me during the second half of my trip. A very talented photographer I might add.

I’m a pretty big gear head and lighting nerd myself so if anyone is really curious about what modifiers I used, lens choices or post production process please feel free to ask in the comments or shoot me an email. That being said I hope that what you take away from my story is that the main ingredients to making good work are not physical things you can buy, or software you can learn to use, what is really important in my opinion is allowing yourself to be uncomfortable, try new things, go new places and just keep making imagery. Happy travels everyone…


About the author: Jonathan Castillo is a freelance photographer and exhibiting artist based in Los Angeles. His personal projects often focus on groups of people, cultural behavior, and societal issues. In 2012 he published a series of portraits in which he used off camera lighting to illuminate strangers in cars. Visit his website here.


 
  • Larry Angier

    I did my first trip outside the States five years ago after turning 50. I went to Serbia since my home town has a strong historical connection there and my friend of many years, iconographer Miloje Milinkovic urged me to visit him there. Three weeks later, I wish I had done this much sooner. Everywhere I went the people were kind, generous and gracious. Serbia and its people are a photographic treasure trove!

  • Lee Corkett

    Great to see this in the light of day :) nice selection of images!

  • Tman1966

    Jonathan, very nice post. I was intrigued because I’ve been planning something very similar for an upcoming trip to Turkey and Georgia. Can you list the gear in your kit? It looks like a head or monobloc with a battery pack? Seems like that would be a lot to be schlepping around. Did you consider a lighter kit (like using 1-2 speedlights?) thanks!

  • Cynical Bloke

    Nice work on the lighting, still looks natural. Just need to develop the direction side and will eventually have some winning portraits.

  • Brian Mulligan

    Just wondering ‘Cynical Bloke’, what do you see that needs to be improved from a direction point of view. (from an aspiring portrait photographer).

  • http://jonmichaelphoto.com Jon Castillo

    Here is the full list of gear I took to Europe, I just happened to have it in list form since I had to get it all insured before I went on my trip:

    15 Inch Macbook Pro
    Canon 5D Mark II + Spare Canon Battery LP-E6
    Canon 28mm F1.8 USM
    Canon 50mm F1.4 USM
    Canon 85mm F1.8 USM
    16GB San Disk Extreme
    2X 8GB San Disk Extreme
    2X Pocket Wizard Plus II
    Black Rapid Camera Sling
    2X Lee Filter ND Filters 4″x4″ Resin (.3ND & .6ND)
    Lee Filter Foundation Kit + Lee Filter Lens Hood Bellows
    Profoto AcuteB 600R w SLA Battery
    7inch Profoto Reflector
    Calumet 7 inch Grid 30 Deg
    Profoto Acute B Head
    MeFoto Globtrotter Tripod
    Calumet Light Stand
    36″ Phototek Softlighter Umbrella
    3Way Bubble level + Misc cables (sync, USB, pre release cable, card reader)

  • http://jonmichaelphoto.com Jon Castillo

    Serbia, Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans are on my list for my next trip. Croatia hooked me on the region, it was some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen.

  • http://jonmichaelphoto.com Jon Castillo

    I did consider a smaller rig but I settled on the smallest pack and head system I could find so that I could still get enough power for shooting in bright sun. I think it suited me well. Although, next time I would definitely pack less clothes and I might go with a soft case that was smaller and lighter for my tripod and grip gear. My travel days were really the only time I felt like the weight was a bit much but I was pretty careful to plan my public transport and bus trips so that I didn’t have to go far with my whole pack. On shooting days with half my pack in the hostel locker I was really quite fine trekking around the cities I was in.

  • Brian Carey

    This is cool. Congratulations on the experience!

  • Erick Ocasio

    great story Mr castillo and thank you for sharing . beside packing less clothing . if you had to change gear what would it be?

  • Vin Weathermon

    Wonderful portraits that honored the people you met. That is the BEST!

  • Tatiana Avdjiev

    Amazing story, love those faces, impressive lighting setup.

  • Mark Sheldon

    Nice project; like the lighting as well.

  • Justin Morrison

    Nice work, and an inspiring story – kudos Jonathon!

  • http://jonmichaelphoto.com Jon Castillo

    If I was going to do the same kind of portraiture then I would ditch the tripod and I would have not brought the big homemade PVC pipe tripod/lightstand tube I made. I would have brought a smaller soft case for my stand and umbrella instead. I could have done without the 28mm probably. The ND filter kit came in handy 1-2 times but I could have possibly done without those as well but I think I would still bring them. I only used the grid once. I also would have liked a lithium ion battery as well to cut down on weight.

  • Cynical Bloke

    The subjects need to be doing something more than just stood there, it works for a couple but looks awkward for most and too posed next to the natural look. Would be great if they were caught in a moment of their life.

  • Frank Larsen

    i liked it the way they were. Great shots!

  • Luovahulluus

    Taking portraits is different from street photography.

  • http://www.skpfrm.com Sasha Ivantic

    Serbia is a beautiful country ;) Feel free to let me know when you’re heading there. I have a lot of family and friends there that can help you out! Also, if you need any info on the country (places to visit etc.), I’d be happy to help.

  • Some Guy

    Looks great and sounds like a great adventure. Congratulations!

  • http://jonmichaelphoto.com Jon Castillo

    I will definitely do that. Send me an email with your info with your website too of you have one, I would love to see your work.

  • yopyop

    Wow, really beautiful, soulful portraits. Thanks for sharing Jonathan.

  • peeps

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thank you so much for this post. This is absolutely wonderful, and your comments have been incredibly informative! I would just like to ask you, because I myself am planning a long trip to eastern Europe this summer and am looking into lighting options, how do you travel with this Profoto equipment? Weight aside, aren’t there restrictions on traveling with batteries?

  • http://jonmichaelphoto.com Jon Castillo

    I contacted Profoto and the battery that came with my pack is a sealed lead acid battery that is non spill-able. I got Profoto to send me documentation that I put with my power pack inside my checked backpack. I never had an issue with Aeroflot, the airline I traveled with, but I never mentioned it to the airline, I just checked it. One of the photographers who I assist for told me he has been traveling for years with the same kind of gear and never had an issue. That being said my friend Forbes recently tried to carry on an SLA on his trip to China and had an issue with it, ultimately having to lose the battery. I think with the documentation in a checked bag you should be fine. I had made plans to purchase a battery in Europe if need be. I’m not familiar with Lithium Ion battery restrictions so it’s probably not a bad idea to check with your airline in advance and get someone’s name and phone number from the airline to have as backup in case you run into issues.

  • http://jonmichaelphoto.com Jon Castillo

    Well, I do think the one thing I am always trying to improve is how I pose people. The tilt of the head, the direction of the eyes, where someone puts their hands all say something and I am constantly looking for more subtlety in how I work with my subjects. It can be easy to fall into patterns and revert to easy things that have worked in the past. There is always room for improvement…

  • Brian Mulligan

    Agreed Jon, but what drew me to these was the passive nature and subtlety of the images in the first place. Nicely executed work, well done! I would be very proud indeed of this work!