Jeff McAllister

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It was great getting to know travel writer/photographer, Jeff McAllister! We spent a couple of hours talking about his many adventures and what grit means to him. Here is my interview with Jeff….

Hello Jeff!

It was great meeting you the other day! We covered a lot. Could you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been working on in the past few years?

Up until the end of 2012, my primary commitment was school. I was working concurrently toward two bachelors degrees—one in chemistry and one in creative writing—at the University of Victoria while hustling every night to build a portfolio I was proud of and save enough money to chase the type of adventures I knew were essential to becoming a good writer. I was lucky enough to get away a couple times between terms—I backpacked from Istanbul to Madrid, worked in Kenya and the Philippines, and saw about a dozen other countries in between. Meanwhile, I co-ran a relatively successful arts and culture blog in Victoria and managed to collect a few tear sheets.

After wrapping school, I was just naïve enough to give the freelance world a shot. I moved to Asia in January 2013 and lived nomadically for a year while trying to fuse my three main interests: travel, story-telling and science. Eventually that beat the hell out of me though. I’m currently back in Victoria and my resolution for 2014 has been to live a bit less recklessly. I’ve done a few shorter trips around North America, I just got back from a month shooting portraits in Peru, and am in the process of negotiating two more gigs for the summer—one in Columbia and one in Thailand—but that’s it. Ultimately, I’ve been trying to ride out the seasons in Victoria.

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What goals/projects do you have in the works right now?

After Columbia and Thailand I’d like to return to school. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve spent the majority of the last few years trying to find a way to fuse my loves of story, science, and travel. The closest I came to doing so was reporting on climate-induced migration in Bangladesh last June. In the process, I realized how big the climate story really is and that it was something that deserved a lot more care and attention. I’m currently looking to earn my Masters in chemical and energy engineering with the end goal of working in and writing about that field. Since a student visa is such a unique way to witness a new country, I’m in the process of applying to programs abroad.

You were recently in Peru, after winning Passion Passport’s The Bucket List Initiative. Can you share a bit about that experience and why you chose to travel to Peru?

My photo grant? Yeah, that was pretty wild.

Although I definitely consider myself more of a writer than a photographer – I went to school for the former and that’s probably where most of my talent lies—I spent a huge chunk of my spare time last year shooting portraits around South and South East Asia. What began as a hobby ended up being a very formative experience. The act of distilling a narrative down to a single still image definitely

improved my understanding of story telling. I got a ton of inspiring feedback from my peers (every artist needs a pat on the back now and again.) And, most rewarding, I met so many incredible people through the project. It was doing this, I think, that I fell in love with human beings. Up until last April I had one question nipping away at the back of my mind: wouldn’t it be cool to go back and do this full time? I was lucky enough to get tipped off about this quarterly grant Passion Passport offers and slipped in my pitch within the closing hours of the application window. I had a friend doing her thesis in Northern Peru – a country I’ve been dying to visit for some time– so figured I’d try to head there and kill two birds with one stone. One month later I returned home with a very bizarre set of images and even stranger stories. Peruvians are much more reserved about tourists than, say, the Nepalese or the Burmese. Occasionally it was a struggle to find willing subjects—especially given that I had to explain my project with grade-school level Spanish. Ultimately though, I learned a lot and did walk away with some good shots.

I haven’t published my series yet and am very curious as to how my audience will receive it. There isn’t a speck of war-paint, a disked lip, or a traditional Incan costume to be seen—definitely not the Peru most people romanticize. But I love the collection for its absolute lack of novelty—a rarity in the travel content world.

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What world issues are you most passionate about giving a voice to?

My heart lies at the crossroads of the sciences and the humanities. I have always been enthralled by the universe, but I am absolutely enamored with human beings that reside in it.

Right now the stories I find myself most drawn to are those that explore our relationship with the planet. Food security, climate induced migration, and energy solutions are three big ones. Each could probably house a journalism career in itself and all three deserve far more attention than they currently receive. I think there is something to be said about using human stories to hammer home these larger issues. A general public needs a relatable human protagonist through which he can be engaged.

Most awe-inspiring place you’ve ever been?

I enjoy the act of being humbled. Nothing compares to the feeling one gets when standing in the shadow of a giant, either man-made or fictional.

A solo hike up Annapurna in Nepal and tracing sun-shadows through the Temples in Bagan, Myanmar are two experiences that bring back very tangible memories.

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When we spoke you related that some writers hold onto, and compile, rejection letters that they have received while trying to get published. I found that practice very interesting; could you tell me some of the reasons this is done, and if you save yours?

I’ve yet to meet a human who isn’t stung by rejection. Yet it’s something you face on a daily basis as a writer—particularly in the freelance world. So rarely is it personal but being told your work isn’t what an editor is looking for—or worse, having a pitch ignored altogether—absolutely sucks.

There are a handful of reasons writers do this. Some authors are fueled by rejection. Some make the most of crummy situations and use the return e-mail as an opportunity to build a relationship with the editorial board. For me, I think, it’s primarily to numb the experience. Waking up to a single rejection e-mail sucks. But waking up to a folder filled with thousands turns the experience into a big fat joke.

What is your dream assignment?

I’d really love to spend some time in Madagascar. The bio- and ethnic diversity of the region appeals to both the humanist and the scientist in me. Madagascar’s isolation has turned it into a micro-planet of its own, and I think it would be very cool to profile the people of the island-country as microcosm for our interaction with the earth

What are you afraid of?

That I have, or will eventually, spread myself too thin. I’ve always been a generalist—in academia, in my professional life, and even in my hobbies. I wouldn’t change the number of experiences I’ve had for the world. But diversification comes at the expense of expertise—I’m constantly, painfully, reminded that there are thousands of people out there much better than me at each of these individual fields.

I guess this is somewhat akin to what journalists call ‘imposter syndrome.’ Whenever you’re forced to write about something you’re not an expert in you constantly fear getting even the most minor detail wrong and having your credentials for reporting the story called into question. I occasionally feel this on a professional level as well. I’m just waiting for the day I’m replaced by a handful of experts in their respective fields.

In order to fund such an exciting lifestyle, you sometimes have to take on small jobs between travelling assignments. What short term jobs have you taken on? What job was the most exciting?

Just this past year? Outside of creating travel content I’ve put money in the bank by: teaching English camps in Asia, tutoring chemistry, writing patient resources, modeling clothing, planting sea-grass, pouring beer, managing a retirement home and selling menswear. And those were the jobs I felt comfortable taking on. It’s amazing how despite all this doom and gloom about the economy I’ve found it very hard to starve. It’s incredible—and probably more than a little unfair—the amount of opportunities being a physically fit, university educated, native English speaker opens up.

I always get a weird reaction when I bring my informal resume up. Our society seems to have this preconception that if you’re an artist you need to be able to put food on the table through your art alone. To be part-time—or worse, a hobbyist—seems to read as analogous to being less successful. But honestly, the idea of typing all day every day terrifies me. Great art is the sum of experience. And the ability to diversify that through the odd three-week contract seems too good to pass up!

When was the last time you felt discouraged? How do you find the motivation to keep going?

I mentioned earlier that it was occasionally VERY tough to convince your average subject to sit for a portrait while I was travelling in Peru. Naturally it’s easy to appear suspicious when you’re a foreigner with a camera but I’ve always found three methods to work for me: taking time to embed myself into a situation, being as open and honest as possible, and using humor to invoke trust and comfort. Due to time constraints and my limited language skills however, I was only able to work one of these three angles in most situations.

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There were days I sweltered beneath the desert sun for hours only to return home with a single image. I came up again reception issues. I missed deadlines. I even lost my phone and had my semi-professional camera body break down the moment I hit a stride.

Finally—I decided to take a break and go camping by the seaside. While sleeping beneath the stars I had this realization: had I not earned this grant with images I’d taken while in the process of doing something else? Wasn’t it that type of work that my audience had quite literally sent me here to see more of? I decided to return to the basics—even leave my camera at home once or twice—and just explore the region without any expectations. If a story jumped out, I’d return to it later, camera in hand.

I ended up producing stronger work and having a far more rewarding trip because of this. You can’t make up a story and when forcing one the result is hardly ever honest. I think far too many people—particularly creatives—forget that they’re a human first and an artist second.

When travelling, what do you miss most about home?

I miss long-term relationships. Friendly, romantic, or otherwise. It’s very hard to build an important place for someone in your life when you only see him or her for a few days at a time. This is something I’m really working on. For someone that constantly champions the importance of unplugging I adore social networks. In terms of staying in touch with people, Facebook and Skype are the next-best-thing to a coffee date. As I type this, I have a friend downstairs whom I met four years ago in the Philippines. There’s no way we’d have stayed in touch if we weren’t constantly bombarded with updates on each other’s lives thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s invasive little algorithms.

Being constantly on the go, you must have to say goodbye a lot. What has been the hardest “goodbye” you had to make?

A few of my past hosts in developing economies come to mind. I’ve spent months with people—fallen in love with them, really. And then had to pack up, knowing that even as I say ‘my door is always open’—sentence is little more than a formality. As Canadians we’re absolutely spoiled with how easy it is for us to cross-borders.

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Why did you agree to be interviewed for The Grit of It?

The Internet has really revolutionized the publishing world. Blogs like yours are awesome because they involve so little upstart. The only overhead really is energy, passion, and an ear for story telling. Of course, that’s also what separates the good from the bad.

What I really dig about ‘The Grit of It’ is that, although it showcases incredible, often successful, people, it focuses on their fears and weaknesses rather than simply on what they’ve done. That makes for a far more interesting interview than a 2,500 words worth of pitches and back-pats. I’m also far more inspired in what someone does in the face of failure than I ever will be by a list of his or her credentials.

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What sacrifices have you had to make to pursue your passions?

Is being virtually posessionless, perpetually single, and incredibly average at a whole bunch of things considered a sacrifice? Actually 99% of the time I’m not too concerned about the first two, but the later is something I’d like to work on. I have a whole bunch of hobbies that aren’t always transportable—cycling and playing instruments are two activities I’d love to invest more time toward. It would be great to join a club or a band, but due to so many stops and starts I’m constantly retreading the same portion of the learning curve. I’d also like to volunteer with a few larger organizations; however, I am not always able to make the minimum time commitments. I end up self-directing a lot which can be a liberating but also a lonely pursuit.

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Top 5 favourite things about Victoria?

1) Family and friends. I’m very close to my parents and the people I grew up with.

2) The lack of classism or career based social-status that’s present in larger cities.

3) Being able to cycle anywhere in 30 minutes, regardless of the season.

4) People breaking the mold. One thing I came across constantly during my arts and culture days was that, due to our isolation from the rest of North America, Victorian’s really have to really scream to be heard. The result is a handful of super unconventional retail operations, restaurants, and business models. F*ck Portland—from a per capita perspective, we’ve got to be one of the oddest little cities in North America.

4) Ethnic diversity. It’s so incredible to walk around the downtown core and not be able to pick out—or be picked out as— a tourist based on language or skin-tone.

5) Delicious tap water. Oh my god!

While traveling you meet and document so many people! What has travelling and making these connections taught you about yourself?

The ability to act as a cultural chameleon is an absolute blessing. But still, there’s only so much of yourself that you can change—or maybe is even worth changing—for the purpose of an interaction. Having your values and ethics brought into question can be a very powerful learning experience. An open mind is important. Yet occasionally you’ll come up against one that will not bend or break. Those are what make you who you are.

One particularly uncomfortable experience was living with three North American women for a month in Bangladesh. All were incredibly driven NGO workers, interacting on a far deeper level with the country than I could ever hope to during my short stay. Yet each received far less trust and respect in public forums than I did whenever we travelled together. That was something I never got over. It never felt right.

Now I understand that there are deeply rooted cultural and historical contexts for this. I tried to sympathize. I certainly didn’t patronize. But it did get to the point that I avoided what would have been an otherwise rewarding experience—as not to perpetuate that kind of cultural inequality between my peers and myself. International clubs are another necessary evil when traveling abroad that have never quite sat right with me. There are two things we can’t control in this world: where we were and who we were born to be. That those two factors can have such a tremendous effect on how we are treated in society has always baffled me.

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Can you tell me a secret?

I hate writing. Or at least typing. Seriously, being hunched over a computer 8-hours out of the day is one of the most frustrating—and probably unhealthy—things I somehow continuously convince myself to do. That said I live for a good interview. I love doing research. And I absolutely adore reporting. And that final 5% of the writing process—when everything comes together—is rewarding enough to make it all worthwhile.

THANK YOU, JEFF!!!! 

Click here to read Jeff’s article “26 Things I’ve Learned at 26” for Keyboard + Compass!

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