It can be frustrating when you don't have someone to take photos for you when you're on vacation. But travel-along photographers can lend a hand — and an eye.
Shi Xinqi, Rui Changchang, and Fang Lingling have captured countless moments for their clients over the years. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Most people have probably run into this problem: When you're traveling, you want to take a photo to capture a moment, but you're alone or your friend is a lousy photographer. Now with the help of social media platforms like Xiaohongshu, you can easily find a "travel-along photographer" and take this worry off your list.
A travel-along photographer is like a travel companion who takes photos for you for an hour or two while accompanying you to the destination of your choice. Due to this year's travel surge and social media, such photographers have grown in popularity.
"With social media platforms, every photographer can advertise for themselves and be seen," said Shi Xinqi, a 22-year-old part-time photographer from Xiamen, Fujian province. In the past month, Shi has photographed over 30 clients.
Rui Changchang, 27, agrees. Social media platforms help him be seen and find what he has been looking for over the years.
Rui used to be a fashion photographer for celebrities, but he didn't feel the fundamental joy that he thought photography should create. From the lighting and clothing to the professional models — everything was from an assembly line and there was little challenge. But now, he's a full-time photographer who spends most of his time at Universal Studios in Beijing.
"Recently I've been taking photos for free at Universal Studios," Rui explained. "I'm building my own brand and it's very fascinating to help complete strangers become comfortable in front of the camera and capture a joyful moment for them."
Rui described himself as a "dementor", a dark creature from the Harry Potter series that sucks happy memories out of people. Only in his case, he captures happy moments for people to keep instead of taking them away.
"At Universal Studios, you can see families, couples, and friends all the time, every day," Rui said, adding that some are parent-child duos, as Gen Zers sometimes bring their parents there. "Most likely the parents are neither Universal fans nor into the rides. They're just happy to spend time with their kids," Rui said.
Rui believes that capturing connections between people is what makes photos so touching. "Whenever I ask the parents to look at their kids instead of the camera, I can always see the light in their eyes," he said.
But this is not a one-way service. When photographers capture these moments for their customers, they also learn something about themselves.
"Most of my customers are women. And when I take photos of them, I feel something that could be described as the 'beauty and power of women'," said Shi, relating one experience with a customer who was in her 30s and quite successful. While she was taking a break, Shi asked her if she had any regrets in her life — to which she replied that she had none.
"That woman was so confident and adamant. She helped relieve my anxiety about aging," said Shi. "If you work hard and have no regrets, you can glow at any stage of life. And that beauty is not defined by time alone."
Fang Lingling, 24, a part-time photographer also from Xiamen, estimated that around 90 percent of her customers were tourists, and many of them traveled alone.
One memorable encounter occurred when a solo traveler contacted Fang via Xiaohongshu, expressing a desire for a sunrise photo shoot. The arrangement was set for 4:30 am, with the meeting point being the customer's hotel room. The customer had an unusual request — she wanted Fang to handle her makeup before the photo shoot.
"When I think back on it, going to a stranger's hotel room alone wasn't a wise thing to do. But luckily, my customer was a lovely woman. And I also got to see Xiamen's ocean by the sunrise, which is something I would never think of doing on my own," said Fang, who acknowledged that her travel-oriented photography assignments played a significant role in breaking the monotony of her daily routine. Otherwise, she confessed, she would likely spend most of her time at home.
Fang is especially grateful for the people she has met along the way. "Opening up to strangers is actually easier than I thought. Most likely you won't see each other again, so there's no holding back," she said. "Also, their encouragement and compliments are what keep me going."
Fang and Rui said their client pool is also mostly made up of women. "About 97 percent of my followers on Xiaohongshu are women, while the remaining three percent are men typically seeking my photography services for their girlfriends," Rui said.
Almost every time when Rui goes to Universal Studios, he runs into women who are disappointed because their partners couldn't get "perfect" shots of them.
"That is one of the occasions where I can come to the rescue," he said.
Shi and Fang have observed that, due to safety concerns, the majority of female customers tend to favor female photographers.
But Rui is not troubled by this particular preference. "Consider the fact that Universal Studios welcomes tens of thousands of visitors each day, and perhaps around a hundred of them require the services of a photographer. If just one or two clients choose to book my services, that's sufficient for a day's work."
Rui emphasized the importance of his robust communication abilities and active social media presence. "When guiding my customers on how to pose, I usually find it helpful to personally demonstrate the poses while providing clear verbal instructions," he explained. "I also regularly upload videos on my Xiaohongshu channel, sharing photography skills. This way, people get a glimpse of my work and personality even before our actual meeting."
Rui said that while it may be relatively straightforward to begin a career in this industry, photographers must find a way to improve their work after doing it for a while. For example, he has dedicated his efforts to enhancing his editing skills and streamlining his workflow to become more efficient.
"As long as I continue to meet new people, confront fresh challenges, and improve myself, the number of bookings or followers I gather becomes nothing more than a natural by-product," he said.
However, this booming industry also has a dark side. For travel-along photographers, there are no industry standards or measures to ensure the rights of all parties.
Even though Shi and Fang are from the same city, their pricing is dramatically different. For Fang, it's 50-60 yuan per hour and two hours minimum for each booking. Shi used to price her service at 100 yuan per hour, but has recently increased it to 550 yuan per hour for one person and 700 for two.
"There were too many inquires at the previous price, which was too much for me to handle. So to decrease demand, I had to increase my fee," Shi explained.
However, while customers select photographers based on their gender, style and price, Fang said photographers should be selective of their customers as well. "During initial conversations online, always be friendly, but also vigilant."
Most people used to deal with photographers only during formal occasions like weddings and family portrait sessions in professional studios. However, the landscape of photography has evolved, integrating seamlessly into our everyday lives. Travel-along photo shoots, in particular, offer a more laid-back and enjoyable experience. According to Shi, many people seeking photographers today simply want photos to post online.
Since Xiamen is a tourist city, Fang attributes the high demand for travel-along photographers to high tourism numbers this year. "I think demand will decrease in the future. For me, it's just a part-time job and a hobby."
But Rui is more optimistic about the future. "Taking photos, receiving positive feedback, improving my skills — I'm happy every step along the way, which is how I know I'm on the right track," he said. "There's always going to be someone who needs me. Soon, I'll begin charging for my photos and uploading videos about photography with more diverse settings, apart from Universal Studios."
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