As a child, Colin Roohan caught the travel bug early, watching travel documentaries and taking photos with his mom. His wanderlust blossomed from there. Soon, he was traveling all around the world — snapping vibrant photos of people in beautiful places, getting lost in exotic locales, and sharing meals with the locals. But Roohan doesn’t just voyeuristically take photos of his subjects, he hangs out with them and gets to know their worlds.
These connections are clear to the viewer. Each image is intimate in a way that makes you feel like he’s captured a sacred moment in time. And you get to bask in it. When you look at one of his portraits, you feel as connected to the subject as Roohan is. He’s the kind of guy who follows up with the people he takes pictures of, sending them copies as a present. That trust leads to a very unique end product.
I spoke to Colin recently and we discussed his drive to wander the world, lost but not alone, with a camera and a smile.
Can you tell me what drew you to travel photography?
I probably was inspired by my mom who used to shoot quite a bit when I was younger. I think that sparked my interest. Then around 2009, I lived a couple of years abroad in South Korea, that’s when I really took to it. It was just really eye-opening to see a place that was so different from where you’re from. It gives you perspective on life in general. Just like seeing things for the first time or certain smells that you never smelled. Experiencing new things that are completely foreign to you.
Now, you’re from Oklahoma, which has a very unique landscape and culture. Are there things about Oklahoma that drew you to photography?
It has a certain appeal, and it has some charm, but I don’t know, to me it was always kind of plain, kind of like a plain place, not like plains geographical terms, but like plain (as in) nothing too exciting about it. It does have its beauty, but it’s not for everyone. I just think that it’s, see I’m originally from Tulsa, which is pretty and it’s a nice place to be in to raise a family. But I wanted to see more, and (my mom) was always watching nature shows and travel documentaries and stuff like that. I think that really, at an early age, got me interested in other cultures and I wanted to see it first-hand. That’s what made me want to start traveling. I wanted to see more of the world. Wanted to see something else.
I read that India’s one of your favorite places to visit. Can you tell me what about India makes you excited to take photos there? And what are some of your favorite shots that you’ve taken there.
Yeah, certainly. I have like a love-hate relationship with India just because it’s… in a matter of five minutes you can go from being extremely frustrated to seeing something incredibly beautiful or someone doing something very endearing and welcoming you as a tourist.
The first time I was there, I went with my wife. We were there for roughly a month. We were there during Holy, so we got to experience that, that was really cool. We, of course, went to some of the bigger tourist spots, we traveled around. But I really like the smaller cities, we got to go to a couple places that were small by U.S. standards, and really small by Indian standards as far as cities go. I really felt that the farther away I got from Delhi, or Calcutta, that the people’s warmth was on full display there. (Like) one kid gave me a tour of his house, and his grandparents houses. A little 11 year old boy walking around showing me stuff. You can drop your guard there.
But a couple favorite images… I’ve got some that I’m really attached to. I found a — I think this was the second time we were there — I randomly came across a bridal party. I guess they were visiting this national monument, and she and her bridesmaids were there and they, you know how they decorate the bride’s hands with Henna? I was able to photograph all their hands together, and then just hers. I actually got her address and when I got home I sent her prints as a wedding gift. That was really cool. It was just fun to see and it’s always a good icebreaker when you have a camera. Some people get intimidated, but it depends on how you approach it. If you approach it in a good way, I think it can really break down barriers, people are pretty quick to warm up to you based on your demeanor.
What do you say to people when you approach them with a camera?
I always ask when I take someone’s portrait because I feel like it’s going to make a better photo anyway and it relaxes them. They’re not thinking about you in a defensive way. It opens them up. I usually just ask them. And if I can’t verbally communicate with them due to language barriers, I just kind of motion towards it and smile, shrug my shoulders. (And they usually say) “Yeah, whatever.” A head nod and the smiles are permission enough.
You talk about wandering and getting lost, can you talk about an experience where you got great photos while you were lost in a foreign country?
Have you ever been to Bermuda?
I haven’t, no!
My sister-in-law actually lives there, and that was really the first time I’ve been to an island where I had in my mind that it would be the stereotypical island life. I had these assumptions that it would be one thing, but when I got there it was a little more developed than I thought. It just didn’t meet the expectations I had. But I was able to, one day, be dropped off, essentially at this end of the island. And I went and walked back to her house. Just kind of meandered my way around, and saw a lot of things that I hoped to see before going.
I was able to see more of the authentic lifestyle, and a lot more locals. Where I was, it was a lot more tourists and a lot more developed and less of the, I got less of the feel of the culture of it. It just seemed very sterilized, or just, like the business district where you don’t really get a feel of the country.
(And) they treated me like family there when I was lost. If I went into a restaurant, they would stop and have me try… I’d order one thing and they’d be like, “Oh you’re visiting.” Get talking for a while, bring out a couple of things for you to try. Tell you their own unique perspective on the island, and see what you think about it.
For you, photography sounds like it’s about connection.
Definitely. It’s more about connection than a job. I want to get more out of it than just nice pictures. To me, it’s just, a huge adrenaline rush and really exciting to travel around in the first place. But in the second place, to be able to have more authentic experiences. I try to find (experiences) where I’m actually with the people and engaging with them. That is really rewarding. A lot of times, if I think something’s really special, and I want to experience it first-hand and not be distracted… I’ll keep my camera away and be fully immersed in what I’m doing and not have to worry about an assignment, or a job, a paycheck.
Do you have advice for people starting off in photography?
Yeah, I think one thing that helped me mature, or mature in my skills, and also in my mindset was to either join a club, or make friends with photographers that are better than you. Because one, you’re going to learn a lot, and two it’s going to force you to get up to that level, and you will definitely pick up tricks and tips and all sorts of little things. Other than that, another thing I’ve preached to before is trying not to get bogged down in gear so much. It is important to a certain degree, but for me I’ve always been, if I have a couple of extra hundred dollars or whatever, I would rather take a trip somewhere, because the payoff in getting marginally better gear is not going to outweigh the experiences and the pictures you get from going to a new place or thinking about something differently that is going to make you mature a little more as an artist and photographer.
You talked about looking up to other photographers, who are some photographers that you look up to right now?
There are classic ones that I always have liked. Your Steve McCurry, Richard I’Anson, very popular guys. And then there’s actually a few friends that I, when I did live in Seoul, I was part of a photo club there, most of them were expats, but a few guys from that club were really incredible photographers and I still look up to them, email them for advice.
Do you have advice for people just traveling in general?
One thing that has never failed me, and has many put me in some strange situations, is if you use a guidebook, find the least popular place and go there.