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How I got the shot: photographer Simon Bajada on capturing the culinary culture of Stonehaven

The photographer was tasked with uncovering the history and culinary heritage of the Scottish town of Stonehaven on his latest assignment for National Geographic Traveller Food. We caught up with him behind the scenes to discuss methods and techniques.

Published 18 Mar 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 19 Mar 2021, 13:14 GMT
Sea cadets descending the hill from the Stonehaven War Memorial after a ceremony. Stonehaven has a ...

Sea cadets descending the hill from the Stonehaven War Memorial after a ceremony. Stonehaven has a prominent community of sea cadets, who can often be seen around the town.

Photograph by Simon Bajada

What elements make up a successful shoot?

A successful shoot for me is where I have considered authenticity, nostalgia and scope. First impressions are the strongest, so when arriving at a destination, I make a point of noting the things that stand out as unique — the architecture, for example.

It’s the people who bring a destination to life. When I see someone whose portrait I’d love to capture, I’ll first ask their permission. This can be hard at times, but I never regret the intrusion because the answer is quite often a definite yes or no.

Globalisation has become much more noticeable in my time shooting European cities. Increasingly, you can walk the main street of a major city and feel like you could be anywhere. So I tend to seek out nostalgia, because a vintage car or local corner shop carries more of the personality that’s unique to a destination, rather than the modern elements.

I also seek to cover a wide variety of imagery: landscapes, details, portraits, food, architecture, and all in portrait as well as landscape formats, so that the photo editor and the designer can craft the story as they wish.

What was the most unexpected thing you discovered while shooting?

In Stonehaven, I was really taken by the maritime culture I discovered. I came across naval cadets and small fishing ports that were full of character from a time when fishing was a dominant industry. There were plenty of small pubs and fish and chip shops, and the appreciation of quality seafood and the sea was noticeable. The town’s roots in maritime and fishing are profound, and this past has had lasting effects.

With its rough waves, the North Sea remains a dangerous place for local fishermen like Ian Balgowan, who admits it’s harder to make a living fishing these days. His family’s culinary contribution to the local area goes beyond fishing — in 1992, his daughter Evelyn served up the first deep-fried Mars bar, at the Carron Fish Bar (formerly the Haven Chip Bar).

Photograph by Simon Bajada

Who was the most interesting character you met?

Definitely Ian Balgowan — he’s a real character. I was lucky to be invited into his home and have a long chat about his fishing career. I asked if I could join a fishing trip that was taking place the next day, and was quickly embarrassed when he kindly turned me down — he mentioned it would be a 10-hour working day starting at 5am on one of the toughest seas out there. I found out he’d sadly lost his brother to the North Sea.

At one point, I remarked upon a portrait on the wall, and asked who the girl in the picture was. He told me it was his daughter, and that it was her, plus some friends, who had invented the deep-fried Mars bar while working in a local fish shop.

Simon Bajada’s favourite photograph: a local man walking his dog at the river’s mouth.

Photograph by Simon Bajada

Which is your favourite image?

A local man walking his dog at the river’s mouth. The water was running in such a way that it created a V formation on the pebbled beach. Because my vantage point was elevated from the bridge, it created an interesting backdrop to the man’s dog, shaking off its wet coat while being backlit by the sun.

Was this shoot a typical assignment?

Yes, it was. A lot of my commissions are based on a specific locality, which I’ll visit for between two to four days. I rarely work with an assistant on travel shoots, and this was also the case here. I was asked to cover the food culture whilst visiting, which is very common of my work. 

What do you take into account when selecting kit?

On travel jobs, you’re at the mercy of so many variables: the weather, the light, the crowds, for example. As a result, time is crucial. I work long days, often running in circles chasing people down, or pulling over on the side of the road, so I want my gear to be familiar, quick to use and adaptable. Typically, I use a zoom lens with an image stabiliser in case of low light, and if needed I’ll use my lightweight tripod.

What advice would you give someone starting out in travel photography?

Don’t pay much attention to equipment. With today’s technology and how images are used, I feel it makes little difference what you’re using. Your work will stand out if you absolutely love the process and you develop your own style. Determination is key as it can be a competitive industry and, despite appearances, can be demanding work.

What destinations are on your wish list for 2021?

Some places I’d love to visit when possible are Central Asia, Transylvania (Romania), Greenland and America’s Midwest.

Discover Simon's Stonehaven photo story, below.

Follow Simon's travels on his website or on Instagram

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