Off the Grid With Singaporean Author & Photographer Juliana Tan

Art & Design

June 23, 2017 | BY Hashirin Nurin Hashimi

Juliana Tan talks about her travel adventures in new book, Waking Up in Strange Places.

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It may already be near the end of June, and if you’ve yet to work on your 2017 travel resolutions to “seek new adventures”, “go off the beaten track” or “travel solo”, it’s not too late to step out of your comfort zone.

Take it from Singapore-based photographer Juliana Tan, who took off in 2015 and travelled solo through 33 cities in nine countries in the Americas, including Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, Bolivia and the US, in a bid to improve her craft. “I wanted to know why the work done in the US was much better than what we were producing here. So I wrote to photographers in New York requesting to do internships. I set aside a year to explore the world of photography. In fact, many of the countries I went to were places that my favourite photographers had been to,” explains Tan, whose works have appeared in such publications as International Herald Tribune and Condé Nast Traveller

(Related: A Drink With Velda Tan)

Her 14-month escapade turned out to be such an adventure—she was caught in the chaos of a Haitian elections, stayed in the homes of Cuban strangers and trekked the ancient path of the Incas to Machu Picchu in Peru. The intrepid traveller chronicled her adventures in her first-ever photo book, Waking Up in Strange Places (available at julianatan.co and local bookstores), featuring 67 images, along with excerpts from her personal journal. Designed by creative agency Do Not Design, the book is divided into five chapters that can be taken apart and double up as magnets that can be “pinned” onto fridges or magnetic boards to inspire readers to create their own versions of Tan’s journey.

You would be surprised to find out that Tan mostly used a compact Olympus camera to capture her travels. “With small cameras, it’s easier to be a fly on the wall and go unnoticed. This way, you can capture the most natural expressions and reactions of people. These days, even small cameras can do well in low light conditions and produce reasonable quality images.” 

And no, don’t just live vicariously through Tan. Why not take inspiration from her adventures and pick a new city or country to travel to this year?

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Singapore-based photographer Juliana Tan compiled her 14-month adventure through the Americas, including Havana in Cuba, in her travel journal

What was the strangest place you woke up in?  
Juliana Tan (JT)
There are no hotels in the smaller cities and villages in Cuba, so tourists stay with the locals. I was in Playa Girón, which has a nice little beach, less touristy than the popular Varadero. When I arrived, a man offered me his room. So I went and when we reached, I burst out laughing. On the wall was a strange picture of a woman in a bikini at the beach. Imagine her smiling at you while you slept—it was creepy. 

Which city left the biggest impression? 
JT
Many people warned me that Port-au-Prince in Haiti is unsafe, but I did my research and went anyway. It was during the presidential elections and I was initially excited about photographing the action; but later found it to be a volatile time. I was walking downtown when I realised I was the only foreigner. Every time I lifted my camera, someone shouted at me. I later bumped into a Filipino engineer at the minimart. He introduced me to his Taiwanese boss who took care of me those two weeks by offering his car and chauffeur. The city seemed to be recovering from the 2010 earthquake, but what it was really recovering from were decades of poor governance and failed foreign intervention. I’ll never forget the hardened looks on the locals’ faces.  

(Related: Why The Siam Is Bangkok’s Most Stylish Hideaway)

What is your tip on travelling out of your comfort zone?
JT It’s less scary than you think.

How to take good travel photographs?
JT Take pictures that mean something to you. These will serve as a stronger memory trigger than cliched pretty photographs that mean nothing to you or others, because they’ve seen thousands that look similar.

Where to next? 
JT I’ve heard so many good things about Iran and I haven’t explored that region yet. And I really want to go to China. I’ve been putting it on hold because of how large and intimidating China is, but it’s definitely on my list.