How to conquer South America, survive a storm in the Philippines and become a successful travel photographer

Anna Gibiskys is a photographer, traveler, and expert on South and North America. To realize her student dream - a trip to the Uyuni salt marsh in Bolivia - she went from a croupier in a casino to her own business in tourism. And then a series of victories in photo contests and work for National Geographic. Anna has made five ascents on volcanoes up to 6000 meters above sea level, carried out two solo expeditions to little-known regions of the Andes, and won a prestigious international award for landscape panoramic photography. We talked to Anna about travel, photography, and a career in travel journalism.
How did your journey into professional photography begin?
In 2010, my photo was noticed by the American National Geographic website editors.
They chose a photo of a man kneeling before a huge barkhan. The desert itself was astounding in its enormity and the insignificance of the man in terms of the landscape. Only through the presence of this man in the frame can one appreciate the sheer size of the Sahara Desert. The photo was included in a selection of the best 12 images, went around the world in an email newsletter, and was published on the website. Then I realized that it made sense to go further, to try and post the pictures.
You organize photo journeys around the world. How do these trips go? Can newcomers to photography go on such a trip to learn how to shoot?
Photo tours are primarily useful for beginner photographers to build a strong portfolio, gain experience quickly, and get advice from a professional photographer. But professionals often also go on photo tours because planning and knowing the locations is the key to success. I came up with my timings, where I described in detail what time to get up for the photo shoot of dawn, how long and where breakfast, how much you need to get ready, etc. On these tours, I take almost no pictures; my job is to be an organizer, guide, and mentor for the photographers. I always ask participants what they want. Do you like to learn new techniques? Then you need to be there, and I will help. If you want to take pictures alone, then the presence of others can only get in the way. I give photography tips and teach composition. Often a photographer may need to learn how to set the right settings in the camera if they are learning a new photography technique.
Mountains or sea?
I would choose the mountains. You start to be amazed at the variety of geological forms at some point. I want to see the Himalayas. I have yet to see Everest up close, only in a plane window, flying over to Bhutan. But I have seen the Andes in Peru. The average height of the mountains there is at the border of 7,500 meters. And when you see such giants, the soul is in awe and delight from contemplating the planet's greatness and beauty. One wonders about your role and how you will live your fleeting life.
Do you have a desire to conquer all the peaks of the world?
No, I am not a mountain climber. I want to pass some mountain trekking routes; I want to go trekking to Everest base camp. But I do not want to climb Everest, though I considered such an option once. After all, it is a huge risk to life.
After climbing 6,000 meters, I understood how I could feel at 6,000-7,000 meters. I need to know why I am going there. I go to the mountains for photography, for beautiful pictures of the world. But at an altitude of over 7000 meters, you cannot take photos professionally because there is a question of survival and staying sober. Either you go, move, and reach your destination, which is your main aim, or climb somewhere to shoot and turn around. They have completely different goals.
Climbing peaks is nice, but knowing your physical limit is important. People who go to the mountains build up this limit, overcome themselves, and conquer these peaks. But only some people are good at it. Some people get taken away by the summits. I like to go to the summits of volcanoes; these mountains are exceptional.
What is preferable for you: well-known places or a non-tourist route?
I like non-tourist routes; it immediately turns on the inner "pioneer" who is happy to solve difficult problems. And they are bound to happen if the course is unknown.
When we went to the canyons on the border of Bolivia and Argentina, the locals would close the passage through the villages, and the radiator would boil. We sat tight in the sand and got caught in a thundercloud that almost killed us.
But the result was interesting. I had to research the question: what kind of people live there? Because they speak Quechua, it turned out that the descendants of the Chicha culture, who previously spoke an already extinct Chicha language, lived there. When this language was identified in Chile, it was thought to belong to the Chilean culture. But the Chicha also lived in the south of Bolivia and the north of Argentina. Certain words of the Chicha language are present in local Spanish.
They had their own distinctive culture; some artifacts were preserved in the form of round towers, "chalupas," laid out in the folds of the rocks. And it is unknown what was stored there: grain or mummies. Now they stand empty; sending an archaeological expedition there would be good because the locals no longer know their history. There is no guide when you come to a new place; you have to explore everything yourself or make arrangements with the locals. It's also much work with texts. I spent the last month researching this region to explain everything to the reader in a new article. I like a job that combines physical and intellectual work.
There's a problem called "hiking skiing." Here you fly to Bolivia, you go to the local travel agency, and they offer you a trivial and inexpensive itinerary for a couple of days through the national parks.
You have to travel through the Altiplano region for at least a month, but the guys in tourism don't benefit from that. They benefit from putting you on a certain itinerary where it's easy and simple, you'll see a couple of promoted places, but you will get a partial picture. The entire Altiplano region is diverse, spread over four countries - Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and northern Argentina. It has to be seen both in the area where lagoons, canyons, and geothermal activity and in the region of deserts and labyrinths. And I want to tell the world that the Altiplano Plateau is rich and deserves the same attention as national parks in the United States.
What was the most extreme case during your trip?
There were many different incidents. I'll tell you about two stories in the Philippines.
The first time we were planning to cross from Palawan to Coron Island on a traditional "dunker" and got caught in a storm. The sea there is wild.
I fell asleep as soon as we left the port, and when I woke up, I saw my backpack with photo equipment being carried in the water column at the bottom of the boat. The people happily singing "My heart will go on" from "Titanic" at the beginning was no longer happy: the Japanese girl in the corner was crying, and the guys were green and shaken up... I realized we might not make it, but another 4 hours in a rough sea. There was nothing to scoop out the water, and we had only to rely on the stern face of the captain. He was, of course, worried, but not as much as his passengers.
The boats were known to sink regularly in the strait between the islands. They are taken out, sent in for repairs, and put out to sea again.
A couple of years ago, again in the Philippines, I decided to go around a deserted island in a kayak. Two of us and a friend went out to sea, and already there, we found that the kayak was gaining water and we were sinking; it started to turn over and drag us to the rocks. We put on our flippers and masks and began to rescue the kayak because it was horrifying out at sea without it. We were helped by local fishermen who went to sea on a piece of Styrofoam and glass masks like Jacques-Yves Cousteau. We gave them some very good new flippers as soon as we arrived.
It was quite an extreme situation when I got sick with Dengue fever in Indonesia. I had the hemorrhagic type, where the blood liquefies so much that it begins to penetrate all the body's cells. One day I woke up with purple skin because the blood had seeped into the top layers of my skin. As a rule, a person dies quickly in case of hemorrhage into any internal organs. It was scary that there was no cure for the virus. You have to lie there and not move. And after seven days, you automatically get better. That is why I am not afraid of covers anymore.
There were a lot of different falls in the mountains and injuries. Traveling alone makes you afraid of such moments, but luckily it didn't end badly. I once crashed on a mountain bike on the Death Road in Bolivia. The fall and tumbling were very long, the world was spinning around me, and then I felt the violent impact of the bike, which fell on top of me and just nailed me. The La Paz Trauma Hospital doctor gave me an MRI of my brain and neck, injected me with a drug banned in our country, and asked me with a smile if I would ride Death Road again.
At Torres del Paine, the wind blew me off the ground and tossed me into the bushes; I pulled ligaments in both legs and went to the hospital right off the trail. I couldn't walk for two months, and it was hard to get home on painkillers.
As time has passed, it doesn't seem so extreme anymore because I survived and endured my invaluable experience. I know how to avoid it and be prepared in advance.
How to build a budget route to South America?- When there is little or no budget, backpacking is the choice. You pack a backpack with everything you'll need for three months.- How big of a backpack does that have to be?
I had a 25-liter backpack. And with my stuff, it should weigh less than 15 pounds. By the end of the trip, it will weigh 20+ kg.
Taking airline tickets on sale at least six months before the start is advisable. The adventure begins with the question, "How much do you want to get there for free?" There are cargo ships that go between this continent and that one. And you can get a job on board. You can take a bus to Europe, with a prior arrangement with some captain to help ferry the yacht to South America or somewhere in the Caribbean. That way, you can get there for free. For the work, of course.
You can live in hostels. A place in a hostel still costs $10 a night. Plus, you can work part-time in the hostel at the reception, but you need to speak good English and like people. You can negotiate with the hostel for a job in advance. Wall painters, decorators, handypersons, and managers have always been in demand. They give you free accommodation, food, and some minimum wage. Your job is to settle guests and control that everything is clean, help with breakfasts, and so on. So you can travel for free with minimal costs at the outset. But it is an investment of invaluable time. Evaluate what you get for it. Slow travel is a separate travel format, and it is affordable. I prefer to save up my money for big trips and go for photo shoots.
Where do you start for someone who wants to shoot for a magazine?
You have to start with the idea of the project. Magazines are interested in seeing a formed story fully revealed visually and through text. I recently liked a series that won a major photo contest. The photographer shot the most unusual country houses and Russian dachas. He put together a visual story about a unique design and submitted it as a series to the contest, ultimately winning the prize. For the rest of the world, it is unusual—a special culture of country living and farming for ourselves.
We all know the "Follow me" project. A girl in a beautiful outfit leads a man by the hand into some amazing world. The world-famous Instagram project that brought fame to its creators. This is also a story, already massively copied.
Thinking about stories, creating projects, and understanding to whom to offer them afterward is important.
In Kamchatka, I was struck by the beauty of lava: it comes in all shades and the craziest shapes. I want to make a series about the bizarre conditions of lava and how it forms. Lava itself is interesting. The bowels of our planet came down, melted, stirred, and spurted out together in a pyroclastic flow. And then everything froze in bizarre shapes. I'm fascinated by lava, both in Kamchatka and Hawaii.
A photograph submitted through a project is always interesting.
How do you feel about borrowing ideas?
A lot has already been thought of, but you can always bring something of your own. You've probably heard the phrase, "Paint like an artist." While working with a borrowed idea, you'll have your thoughts. Direct plagiarism is bad, of course. It offends the author of the original work. But when you finalize an idea, it's worth contacting the author and suggesting a collaboration. You can always ask the author for permission to "play around" with the content or idea.
How do you overcome the fear of failure and start a career in travel journalism?
It's important to remember one thing: The road is for those who walk. No matter what happens on the street, the most important thing is to take steps. No answer to your inquiry? Fine. Today you offer this publication the wrong thing or the wrong way.
But when you gain experience, go to another edition, meet people in this field, and get feedback, perhaps from another journalist, you can find out what this particular edition needs and with whom you should meet.
The publication's editorial board may be busy. And she will respond in two weeks or a month. When a relevant task comes up, they will remember you: "That girl or guy wrote to us; let's find her. Fortunately, you can go beyond just our media, go straight to the international market, and offer your work in other countries. The main factor for success is action and analysis. Only through activity and work on mistakes can you achieve something. The main thing at the end of life is not to blame yourself for the fact that you had the opportunities and energy of youth and did nothing at that time.
What is the idea of your future exhibition?
The working title of the exhibition is "Altiplano." It's a large region in South America, in the highlands of the Andes. For me, the Altiplano is a very diverse region. It's the most exotic place in the world that I've seen, and I truly love it.
I am fascinated by the culture of the people who live there. They are a tiny number of Quechua Indians, Yampara Indians, and descendants of the Chicha. I want to show these people. They survived the genocide of the Indian people, their numbers decreased tenfold, and they closed themselves off from the world. Very few people are left from each culture, but they maintain and develop their culture. They don't want to wear jeans and work for a corporation. They want to live a simple rural life and are genuinely happy about it. I want to show the scenery and the ruggedness of the Altiplano world where they have taken refuge.