My Life as an Expat Photographer: Joys and Challenges

After spending a substantial part of my 20s making repeated self-financed trips to Asia from my native Australia, I made the decision to relocate for a year or two. I figured I would save money that way, while minimizing the usual travel frustrations. I chose Taiwan — for no other reason than I had a friend who lived here.

Well, it’s seven years later and I’m still here. I’m married to a Taiwanese citizen and living life as an expatriate cultural and travel photographer.

I’ll confess that living as an expat, particularly in a culture that is markedly different from my own, can be frustrating. But it also offers unique rewards that more than offset the disadvantages.

Language, Banking and Other Challenges

The biggest challenge, and one I face on a daily basis, is one of language. Simply put, my Chinese stinks. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language and, as evidenced by my failed attempts at playing guitar in high school, I am tone deaf.

I’m fine for basic things like shopping, ordering food, travel and so forth, but for anything more than that, I’m lost. Trying to get an old rice farmer to understand what a model release is when you can’t speak the language is not exactly easy.

And that’s just speaking and listening. Reading is even harder and writing tougher still.

There are advantages in my ignorance, though. A lot of people, particularly older ones, don’t really expect foreigners to be literate and often go out of their way to help, showing infinite friendliness and patience as they do.

When I do need to be able to communicate over an extended shoot, I can always hire a university student to serve as interpreter. It’s easy money for them.

I’d love to learn the language, of course. Unfortunately, most people tell me that I’ll need to make a four to five hour daily commitment for a couple of years just to achieve basic literacy. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do that and also run a business.

Speaking of business, banking as an expat is fraught with difficulties, too. There are no provisions for Internet banking in English, it’s extremely difficult to get credit or debit cards if you’re not a citizen, and even conducting simple transactions can take a very long time.

Patience isn’t just a virtue. It’s a necessity.

Fortunately, there are ATMs in every 7-Eleven and McDonald’s, so I use these for as much of my banking as possible.

Appreciating Access

For all the challenges (and there are many others) of being an expat, there are myriad advantages, too. For example, Taiwan is very open to photographers and appreciative of the work of international photographers.

With an incredibly free press, a dozen 24/7 domestic cable news stations and as many daily newspapers in a country of 23 million, people and institutions here are comfortable with media access. Some of the images the public sees could never be printed in the United States — much less on page one above the fold.

As an expat, I’ve benefited from the desire of the Taiwanese to be reported on internationally. They are justifiably proud of how quickly their island has progressed from a one-party state under martial law to an open democracy. And so, whenever I’m at a news event, they always bring the foreigner to the front.

I’ve been able to photograph the current president of Taiwan, plus two former presidents (one of whom is now serving a life sentence for corruption), as well as city and county mayors, all without needing any kind of security check.

On one occasion, in fact, one of the security officials saw me, called me over and cleared a path through the crowd so that I could get closer. On another occasion, a bodyguard told me the route the president would walk and showed me the best place to stand before the TV crews claimed it.

I’ve received access to trade shows and conventions, backstage areas, sporting events and all kinds of other venues — simply by handing over my business card.

If only the banks were that easy to work with.

8 Responses to “My Life as an Expat Photographer: Joys and Challenges”

  1. This is a great article. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Great article Craig. Seems to sum up my experiences in Thailand as well, though I'm not living here. Yet. Was it complicated to get a visa when you first moved to Taiwan?

  3. Good piece, thanks. As an amateur who lived in Hsinchu for awhile, I'm really looking forward to reading more from you.

    I gave up trying to get any local bank account when I was there, but I wasn't getting paid by anyone locally so it wasn't a real issue. How do you get paid by locals? Cash only?

    You didn't say where you were living, but even in backwater Hsinchu there was a language school that had night classes. If I was living there semi-permanently I would definitely do that; even if it's not enough to make you fluent, it helps makes things easier, even by just impressing people you meet that you're making an effort.

  4. Hi Craig! i agree with you. chinese is one of the hardest tonal language to learn for western speaker. it really take alot to get used to. you can easily offend or making people laugh by wrong tone and pronunciation, haha.

    i'm more interested in how you get special treatment from security guard and officials. Are u the only westerner shooting there? or are you so famous that every security guard let u through? ๐Ÿ˜›

  5. Great read! ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Thanks all.

    @Jack - The visa was fairly straight forward, although initially I wasn't able to have local clients, only ones outside Taiwan.

    @Rob - Getting a basic bank account is easy enough but getting one that does what you want it to isn't. I'm actually thinking of registering my business name in Hong Kong as well, just for the ease of banking that would offer. Getting paid locally is easy enough, just straight into the bank account.

    School would be good, and I'm in Taipei so there are plenty, but it's mostly a matter of time at the moment. I'm not really marketing my work within Taiwan (mainly because of very low editorial rates here, and copyright issues), so I've not seen the benefit as being worth the cost in time so far. Plus I have a native Chinese speaking wife. ๐Ÿ™‚

    @Victor - Not famous and not the only one. I'm not really sure why I've been so fortunate. It could be because most other foreigners shooting those type of things tend to either agree with or be protesting the govt/issue, whereas I just shoot it (or try to) as an impartial observer - or at least try to. There's actually supposed to be a big political demonstration in the next 6 weeks or so, which might make for an interesting post itself.

  7. Interesting post. The access you get is awesome. Although I'm Taiwanese and don't get the foreigner privileges, I was able to photograph Chen Shui-bian when he happened to be at the same resort I was staying at (er... this was back when he was a free man). Although he was supervised wherever he went, I was able to get a photograph of him from 5 feet away without security checks or anybody batting an eye. That probably doesn't happen in many countries.

  8. Hey Craig,

    Doing some research and I came across this article. Your web presence is incredible!!!



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