British travel photographer Alex Treadway sets the record straight on what it takes to head off to parts unknown to uncover stories untold.
In 2007, after a successful run as a graphic designer, Alex Treadway moved to Nepal to work for a mountain development NGO (ICIMOD, International Center for Mountain Development). Though Treadway had a long-standing relationship with the camera—years prior, an adventurous fossils dealer on Portobello Road convinced seventeen-year-old Alex to accompany him to the Sahara to take pictures of his discoveries, which is where his love for travel photography began—he never planned to evolve his passion into a career. In fact, he only intended to be in Nepal for a few months, but ended up staying almost five years. “It was a small project that turned into the rest of my life,” Treadway says.
Since then, Treadway has circumnavigated the globe multiple times, connecting with people and capturing their stories for publications, including National Geographic, as well as commercial clients. He recently migrated his collection to Shutterstock’s premium service, Offset, and took a moment to talk to us about how he honed his skills, and what impact he hopes his photos have on the world.
An Interview with Alex Treadway
A teenage girl poses for the camera in Nepal. Image via Alex Treadway.
Shutterstock: What attracts you to a place?
Alex Treadway: People. It’s what got me into photography to begin with. When I was living in Nepal, a lot of the work I did was with healthcare NGOs and mountain development organizations, and it always came back to interacting with people. Now, when I’m photographing people, there’s this kind of challenge to develop a relationship out of nothing. Because when you get to a meaningful place in that relationship, that photo is going to be genuine and honest. And that’s a very rewarding place to be as a photographer.
SSTK: How exactly did you transition into taking pictures for a living?
AT: I was fortunate in that I found myself in a small community in Kathmandu. I got a really good project with one NGO and it just led to other things. Eventually, I became part of the adventure community and the charity community, and I started working with magazines. And, by the time I left Nepal, I had a platform. I think it would be very difficult to try to become a travel photographer from the comfort of your own home. You’ve got to get out there and do it.
Little clay dishes for sale in Ason, the old part of Kathmandu. Image via Alex Treadway.
SSTK: What do you prepare for more, the travel or the photography part of your job?
AT: It depends on the destination. If it’s a challenging trip into the mountains, you try to pack as light as possible because, you know, the camera is always heavy. When I was young, I just turned up and made it up as I went. And that was great because I learned a lot. But now, I do a lot of research before I travel and employ fixes, or people with local knowledge, to help me get around.
SSTK: How do you do that?
AT: Say you’re going to Pakistan, you could start off by talking to travel companies in Islamabad and, very quickly, you can organize drivers and translators. I mean it sounds crazy, but it’s just a few phone calls. And, suddenly, you’ve got friends where you didn’t realize you had any.
A school girl at Merchulu school in Pakistan shyly smiles at the camera. Image via Alex Treadway.
SSTK: What are some of your favorite cameras and lenses?
AT: I’m not really somebody that gets that excited by or interested in camera gear. I mean, it’s good stuff, but I tend to work with fixed lenses a lot. I don’t use zoom lenses at all. I prefer to move closer to the subject, or further away. I tend to choose a lens and then make it work, rather than confuse my mind by fiddling with equipment. No matter what, though, you’re going to get something good with a Nikon D850 and a fixed 50mm lens. So, I’ve got two.
SSTK: What’s a location you thought would be easy to shoot but turned out to be difficult?
AT: I’d say the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. It looks like just another really lovely spacious and green area of the countryside in that part of South Asia. But, when you get to Bangladesh, it’s just chaos. There are blockades and barriers everywhere. It’s very difficult to go from one place to the next. And, the hill tracts themselves are very taxing.
A young girl learns the traditional art of weaving on a hand loom. Image via Alex Treadway.
SSTK: And, a location you thought would be hard to shoot but turned out to be easy?
AT: You hear a lot of stories about India being difficult, but I’ve probably been to India thirty or forty times now, from the north to the south and Rajasthan to Kashmir. So, I find India easy because I’m very at home there. The people are incredibly friendly, many of them speak English, and the infrastructure is quite good.
SSTK: What’s the place that’s changed the most since you first traveled there?
AT: Nepal. I first went to Nepal in 2005. I went to Everest Base Camp, and I went to Manaslu Base Camp and saw the glaciers up there. And they were already changing. I’ve been back loads of times over the years and they’re noticeably different. Especially the Annapurna Glacier. It’s quite sobering when you see the amount of glacial loss in the upper Himalayas.
A mountain biker carefully carries his bike across a narrow bridge. Image via Alex Treadway.
SSTK: What impact do you hope your photographs have on others?
AT: I’d like to get to a place where my photographs had more of a meaningful impact on other people. I don’t think I’m quite there yet. But, it’s telling the real story and not making it into a story that it isn’t. The feedback that I appreciate the most is when people see something that they haven’t seen before and really understand what it is.
SSTK: What’s the most important story you’ve told through your photographs?
AT: I’m going to say healthcare in Nepal. Because I photographed very, very remote places in the mountains for an NGO. And, it made a difference to the NGO’s funding and to their perceived place among their peers and other organizations.
A young girl being examined by doctor at a hospital in Nepal. Image via Alex Treadway.
SSTK: Before we release you back into the wild, how worried does your family get when you travel to some of the more, um, treacherous locations?
AT: Well, I’ve got a three-year-old now, so I’m a bit more careful these days. I’ve been working quite a lot with a mental health charity called Jaya. We did a project in East Nepal just before lockdown last year. And, they’ve got projects in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and they’re very keen for me to go out there. So, if that comes together in the right way and all the safety measures are put in place, then I would do that. But, there are some places my wife won’t let me go to anymore. For that matter, there are some places I won’t let me go to anymore.
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Cover image via Alex Treadway.
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