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Albert Retief

Reflections from the Road by Albert Retief | From Japan to Cape Town via Public Transport

Albert Retief

Japan

 

Originally from Cape Town, photographer Albert Retief recently arrived home from a year-long international road trip. Starting in Tokyo, Japan he travelled via public transport through more than 20 countries with the sole purpose of finding and photographing the similarities we share with people we have never met in places we’ve never been. With a tight budget and an open mind, Albert set out to capture the relationships humans have with each other, the state, our neighbours, family and religion.

 

Why public transport? He explains that he wanted to experience the real world, “the one that marches at you head-on and where there is no panic button and makes you realise just how small you really are.” He had no back-up plan, instead he relied on his intuition and the generosity, hospitality and trust of strangers. He says his experience was surprisingly positive and he came to the conclusion that humans have more in common than we’d expect. “If you want to hear that I got robbed, mugged and cheated then you’re wrong. Yes, there are bad people everywhere, but the majority of people around the world are kind, generous, welcoming and hospitable,” says Albert.

 

We chat to Albert to find out more about his experience, learnings and the work he created during his trip.

 

How did the idea of documenting a year-long public transport road trip come about? 

 

I am passionate about photography and travel and I love combining these two passions. I’ve read the books of travel author Paul Theroux, but I always wanted to see it visually. I thought to myself why can’t I be the guy that goes on a similar, long journey and captures the visuals from ‘the road’. I’m also inspired by the work of photographer Steve McCurry and the places he goes to and the calculated risks he has taken to shoot his photos.

I’ve wanted to travel from Japan to South Africa over land for a long time and the dream became a reality. I’ve done other long trips through Southern Africa, Europe and around Asia, but never as far as this one. It was never going to be a year. It was more a case of how long would my funds last me and would I make it with the money I set aside. The one thing I had was time and no one could take that from me.

 

What went into planning and preparing for a trip like this?

 

I planned a rough route, secured funds and remained positive. Visas were priority number one. I looked into where I could get the visa required and where I could travel with my South African passport. I feel like I can write a book just about visas. I mainly did research for visas and the rest I just winged. When I arrived in a new city or town, I would ask around about the next destination and plan around that. I travelled without a guidebook and had quite a few US dollars on me, a debit card, an expired student card and medical insurance. The rest was a blank canvas. I worked in South Korea and Taiwan teaching English before the trip and saved up enough money. In total, I was away for 3 years without coming home, 2 years working and a year travelling.

 

Why did you choose to start in Tokyo specifically?

 

It’s where the sun rises and at ‘the end’ of the world. The mission was to travel from the Eastern tip of the world to the Southern tip of Africa. I was working in Taipei, Taiwan at the time so Tokyo was a short flight away and a good starting point.

 

Why did you want to use public transport?

 

It’s where you meet the people from the county. It’s also the cheapest way to travel (other than cycling, which takes a lot of time). You might not meet an interesting person on an airplane or at an airport, but on a three day train through Kazakhstan you definitely will. I wanted to sit on the trains and buses and speak to the locals. You have to interact with the people and the place to get the full benefit of it and using public transport allows you to do this. At the same time I wanted to shoot photos and document the movement of people as I move. I also wanted to challenge myself to see if I could find the right mode of transport to the next destination. It was never to reduce my carbon footprint, but to be a photographer and an observer of ‘the road’.

 

What forms of public transport did you use?

 

All! From trains through Asia, buses around Iran, minibus taxis in East Africa, trucks in Malawi, a boat on the Caspian Sea, ferries across the Mediterranean and the Yellow Sea, dug-out canoes on Lake Bunyonyi, motorbikes in Tehran and Kampala, hitch-hiking from lake Malawi to Durban, bicycle taxis in Rwanda, tuk tuks in China and a camel in Egypt.

 

What did you expect when leaving and how does that compare to what you experienced during the trip? 

 

I was very excited to go travelling again, but at the same time I was scared. Scared to get denied a visa, scared to be accused of being a spy, scared to run out of money, scared that I would get sick and end up in hospital and all of this happened. How I dealt with these fears is what made me stronger. From the beginning I told myself that I was not going to fail. I was overwhelmed by how many people helped me and that the majority of people are hospitable, welcoming and generous; regardless of their race, faith, tradition or culture. I also had a lot of luck, maybe too much?

 

How has the trip changed your approach to photography? 

 

It has confirmed my love for photography and how it’s an extension of my curiosity. With a camera in hand you see beauty in forgotten places, remote locations or displaced people. My camera allowed me to meet so many people. It took me to places that many overlook. I walked the streets of each city I visited to take photos, from the streets of Beijing, Tehran, Ramallah, Jerusalem and so many more. While shooting photos on the streets, people invite you for talks, drinks, dinner with their families and even offer you accommodation. Photography is powerful!

 

Looking back, what are some of the things you learned about yourself during the trip? 

 

I went out to experience ‘the real world’ – the one that marches at you head-on and where there is no panic button and makes you realise just how small you really are. I wanted to live creatively, I wanted to challenge myself, I wanted to meet people and I wanted to have a better understanding of this world we live in. I came back wanting even more. I learnt that the world is not going to change for you and that you have to adapt. That fear is a product of your imagination and that you determine how much it will outweigh your desire to succeed and that I must continue to dream big and stay hungry.

 

What’s next?

 

I would like to exhibit this big body of work and I would also like to create a book of my journey. I’m also selling prints. I’m constantly planning future missions, but I don’t want to share my plans just yet. It’s not going to be easy to top this, but I’m only halfway around the world now…

 

See his blog and website (coming soon) and follow Albert on Instagram for more.

 

Albert Retief

China

Albert Retief

China

Albert Retief

Kazakhstan

Albert Retief

Kazakhstan

Albert Retief

Iran

Albert Retief

Iran

Albert Retief

Iran

Albert Retief

Iran

Albert Retief

Iran

Albert Retief

Turkey

Albert Retief

Turkey

Albert Retief

Israel

Albert Retief

Egypt

Albert Retief

Egypt

Albert Retief

Egypt

Albert Retief

Egypt

Albert Retief

Egypt to Sudan

Albert Retief

Ethiopia

Albert Retief

Ethiopia

Albert Retief

Ethiopia

Albert Retief

Ethiopia

Albert Retief

Ethiopia

Albert Retief

Ethiopia

Albert Retief

Uganda

Albert Retief

Lesotho

Albert Retief

Lesotho

 



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