Portuguese travel photographer Joel Santos has a knack for capturing compelling and unforgettable imagery, and his adventurous nature also means he eagerly embraces new technology.
Joel's images transport us to remote parts of the world, and invite us to consider the people who live there. Whether he's capturing stunning shots of desert camel trains in Ethiopia, cormorant fishermen in China, or eagle hunters in Mongolia, his photographs give us a fascinating glimpse of what indigenous people get up to in their native environments. Joel has an eye for the wild and the remote, and his photographs are in the tradition of great travel writers and artists – opening up new windows on the world while, simultaneously, reminding us where we have come from, and asking us where we are headed.
"In the beginning, my photography was split into two genres: landscape and portraiture," begins Joel. "They're so different in technique and approach, which is why it's rare to specialise in both. So eventually I fused them, still taking images of the landscapes but including the people who lived there.
"So when I'm sent to places like Mongolia, Indonesia, Ghana and other remote locations, I'm not only looking to tell people's stories, but also to capture their location and context, which takes a lot more effort. For example, in Ghana it took me three days just to be accepted by the local sacred lake fishermen. Once they no longer saw me as a stranger, but as a friend, the results became authentic and hopefully more visually compelling."
Born in Lisbon, Joel was a keen academic, acquiring an honours degree in Economics and a master's degree in Economics and Management of Science and Technology, but for the last 15 years he has followed his true passion: photography. The results of his labour are in great demand – he has worked for Microsoft, IKEA, National Geographic, GEO, ABC Studios and many more. He exhibits widely, leads photography expeditions to places such as the Arctic, and has authored nine books. He is a magnet for awards too, garnering many major national and international awards for his work, including being voted Travel Photographer of the Year (2016).
Joel describes his photography as being, "about emotion, passion and positive storytelling. But, as a former economist, I tend to use mathematics as the structure to guide my way of writing with light; I see beauty in these mathematical elements and I try to use them when creating an image. That's how I feel my photography is, which in turn is how I am."
Joel is at the forefront of new techniques, too, being one of the photographers who in recent years have been experimenting with drones to create incredible videos and images, and present a new perspective on short documentaries for us to enjoy. His aerial documentation of the Danakil Depression salt miners and the Erta Ale lava lake in Ethiopia scooped the Travel Photographer of the Year award in 2016.
"I'm humbled to be the first photographer to win that award with an aerial portfolio," he says earnestly. "Aerial photography and filmmaking provide a fresh and complementary perspective, which enriches the visual story, and documents something with a different depth and diversity. Sometimes I feel like a juggler because I have to be a pilot and a photographer at the same time, but I love it. Not being able to use a drone professionally would be like not being able to use a camera on the ground, they're both complementary and indispensable, and it's become a key part of my career." To date, Joel's aerial images have appeared in a catalogue of global media outlets including: the Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Weather Channel and MSN.
What's the secret to photographing someone you've just met for the first time?
"Always respect the places and the people. Use photography as a universal language to get closer to people, and avoid the urge to become a hunter who sees them as prey. The more respectful you are, the richer your results, opportunities and personal growth will be."
Do you do anything different to other photographers who work in these remote locations?
"I like to print the photos and give them to the people while I'm there; it's just fair that you give something back whenever you can."
Do you have a go-to shooting setup?
"Every time I go out, I react and I learn something new, I adapt and change my ways. It's a dynamic process and every situation requires a different technique. First one must find the subject, the light and the story. Only after that comes whichever technique yields the best result."
How do you decide where to go and what or whom to photograph?
"First, I decide what I feel passionate about. Then I do my best to scout, not only in my office beforehand, but mostly while travelling, leaving my senses open to something that I see, hear or feel."
Is aerial photography difficult?
"Don't trust drone marketing statements like 'it's easy'. Flying is easier than ever, but they only work in optimal circumstances. Fly safely, practice a lot and learn everything you can about piloting a drone and its maintenance. Soon you'll know about winds, navigation, the operational limits of batteries in hot and cold climates, etc and develop quicker reactions."
"Never lose sight of your original passion. You will always be better at something you really love to do, that you truly feel in your heart. The ambition to get paid for your work, thus becoming a professional, might mislead you and decrease the chances of being original in a world where so many people do the same thing. So perfect your skills, look to others' work, not to mimic, but to learn what has already been done. Find an original story and perspective, and then let your passion drive you, always seeking to learn more and to improve on every shot you take."