Owen Buggy hails from England, but after digging through his passport, it would be difficult to put a finger on his origins given the amount of places he has lived the past few years. Owen has been a bike mechanic, marine engineer, and professional photographer, but most importantly, Owen has lived his life outside of the box not according to what others would call routine - leading to incredible and invaluable experiences across the globe. This wasn't by plan or design, as Owen humbly and bluntly recalls in the interview, but by chance and circumstance. Owen has followed his gut over the years, which has led to an adventurous tale full of motorcycles, hanging out of helicopters (quite literally... see below), photographing in scorching hot deserts, working on Richard Branson's Necker Island, and many more interesting experiences. Enjoy the Barefoot Kings interview with Owen Buggy. @owen_buggy_photography
How did you get interested/started in photography?
Photography honestly saved me! I was a 17 year-old depressed bike mechanic and generally being a total waster! Most of my friends went off to university but I couldn't get in to any because of my terrible, dyslexic school grades. One day, my dad gave me his old Olympus OM10 35mm SLR with a 50mm lens. I put a few rolls of film through it and found it had a sticky shutter and a light leak. For my 18th birthday, my dad got me a basic but working Canon EOS 35mm with a kit lens. I loved it and started experimenting with B&W films, and a specific color film that could be processed in B&W to give a cool vintage sepia tone.
Over a two-week period, I built an ‘abandoned urban’ portfolio of vehicle and military scrap yards around Portsmouth. This hastily cobbled together portfolio allowed me, by the skin of my teeth, to get into a one year foundation degree course at Portsmouth University, like a stepping stone for a full degree course. I did well and graduated with a merit after documenting tattoo parlors around the city, real raw, close up, blood and ink! From there, I secured a place at Plymouth College of Art & Design to study a BA Hons degree in Photography. There ensued the best three years of my life! I hadn’t used a digital SLR until after I graduated in 2005, the technology and affordability wasn't really there, and also I was obsessed with film. I loved the darkroom, headphones in, no distractions. All I needed for adventure was my medium format 6x45 Bronica body, 40mm and 50mm lens, two film backs and 20 rolls of Velvia 100f transparency film, a light meter, and I was set. Sounds like a lot but it was a tiny, unassuming, non-expensive looking setup, not like now.
When did you know (or decide you wanted) you could turn your passion for photography and travel into a career?
To be honest it’s all I had to focus on, as far as I could see it was photography or some dull job. I was told that I had a good eye early on by my lecturers at uni, they really pushed me and sort of took me under their wing, I’d regularly go for beers with them and I got the sense that they believed in me, or perhaps they just liked my sarcasm. I was a cheeky lad.
The day I realized it could be a job was when I sold all of my giant panoramic 7x3ft final year prints at my exhibition, not once but twice, the second time to Texaco oil, all in one day, I made about £3000, and that was pretty unusual so I’m told.
Did growing up in England have any specific influence in your interest or style in photography?
I guess so, I have never really given it any thought. It’s probably the reason I liked to shoot urban, industrial, abandoned slightly scary locations. I wasn't into shooting people or pretty things, that came much later on. I liked cold, stark, punchy photos that made you feel a bit uneasy. I wanted my stuff to be gritty, like the early work of Don McCullen, he was my hero.
You completed a “one year round-world photographic and location scouting trip to America, New Zealand and Australia... covering nearly 30,000 air miles, driving over 25,000 miles” Can you tell us a bit about this huge trip/what you learned? What were some of the more interesting places you visited and why? Did any cultures, cuisines, or people surprise you in any areas?
I managed to land a dream job with a CG car design company about a year after I graduated. It was all down to the urban landscape stuff I was shooting, it was just what they where looking for, big empty cityscapes for cars to be rendered into. Essentially these photos where used to visualize CGI automotive car models, photo real renders of pre-production cars and supercars for companies such as Aston Martin, Lotus, Bentley and GM.
In around 2008, after a year shooting locations around the UK they sent me off on a 14-month location scouting and shooting trip through the US, Australia & New Zealand. The brief was basic, to look for, and shoot, the perfect landscapes scenes for CGI cars.
I was lucky enough to be given a then state-of-the art laptop-controlled German Spheron HDRI camera. This camera had a massive megapixel count even by today’s standards, coupled with an even bigger price tag! It was a real worry to look after and care for to be honest! Its job was to scan the locations I was shooting to gather the light information. It produced an amazing a 26fstop exposure 360x180 degree sphere. A really advanced and crazy looking bit of kit that nearly got me arrested a few times due to it resembling a mobile speed camera! Airport customs didn’t know what to make of this matte black wire laden thing in a custom-made carry-on pelican case.
I also carried a Nikon DSLR for shooting the supporting landscape backgrounds and a Canon DSLR with Manfrotto suction pads that I could connect to the car. I could remotely fire this camera through another laptop while driving to achieve motion tracking shots in real-time. Added to that, I had two tripods, five or so hard drives, two laptops, four lenses, cables, charges, 12v inverters, battery packs… and a tiny amount of clothing.
I based myself in San Francisco, and with my girlfriend at the time we drove 9,000 miles through 5 states stopping whenever the landscape or roads looked good, no 3G, phone, sat nav or journey planning. I had some of the most challenging shooting in the US, especially in Death Valley during mid-summer, unbelievable temperatures, overheating cars, cameras, computers.
The police took far too much interest in what I was doing and I lost count of how many times I was pulled over or asked to move on, it got pretty heated at times. I totally fell in love with the landscape in the US, especially California and Oregon. On my second visit to Yosemite we stayed in yurts, during the night a bear tore apart the SUV next to mine, ripped the entire back of the vehicle open. It obviously didn't fancy the camera gear in the back of my car…or the sleeping humans, luckily.
Next stop was New Zealand, here my camera got seized by customs twice due to its value - they thought I would sell it there and not pay the taxes! It caused really big problems for me and the UK company I worked for. It also killed productivity for nearly two months. I brought a rough old auction bound Subaru from the back of a car dealership - cash in hand - no questions asked, and drove around both the North and South islands camping and shooting as much as possible. Beautiful landscape...
The final leg was Australia, based in Melbourne - I carried out a 19,000k loop driving up the coast through Sydney, Brisbane to Townsville then across the Northern Territory’s touching Western Australia and back through Southern Australia winding up back in Melbourne. There are some really wild, desolate locations in the outback and some scary times were had with low fuel and no phones. I slept at the last motel or campsite I could find after many hours of driving, sometimes resorting to the front seat of the car. One time I was woken by a group of wild growling dingoes trying to get into my flimsy $20 tent.
I had a couple of close calls in Australia, but mainly out of my own stupidity, really. The worst was a time when I was photo scanning a huge, seemingly empty road in the outback at dusk - when a massive articulated road-train hauling 3 trailers came past me at well over 100kph, I didn’t want to move to safety as the scan was nearly complete. It passed me on the opposite side of the road ok, but the vortex from the lorry ripped the laptop from my hands and hurled a good 20 meters away into the bushes. It also flipped the camera and myself over. The next day I purchased a high visibility jacket... and a change of underwear!
On returning to the UK, the recession was fully upon us, and it killed the CG photo side of the company almost overnight. Nobody was designing new cars! All of that work over three years was essentially shelved, and it never really got to shine. It was a pretty dark time for myself and that whole sector.
What have been some of your favorite places you have travelled to and why?
Morocco is special to me, I have been three times now. The first time in 2004 just using local buses for a month with my girlfriend at the time and medium format camera and more recently with a group of friends, walking through the Atlas Mountains for ten days ending by summiting Mt. Toukbal on my birthday, the highest point in North Africa.
It’s just the right amount of culture and sensory shock without being dangerous or stressful. It’s an amazing yet affordable travel & photographic destination. Do it, go now before it’s gentrified!
I have also been to Indonesia, Kenya, Turkey, Barcelona, Norway, 10 US states, 12 Caribbean countries, Hawaii, lots of Europe and one transatlantic sailing delivery. I have barely scratched the surface really!
I’m currently living in the British Virgin Islands, but I would happily go and live back in San Francisco, Oregon, Melbourne or Barcelona… if anyone’s offering?
Next on the list?
It’s got to be South and Central America for me. I really should have been to India by now, lazy!
You have put up incredible shots from BVI that really embody the Barefoot Kings ideal of enjoying every day to the fullest... can you chat a bit about your experiences in Necker Island and BVI? When did you decide to move there?
As with all things, this came about from something else. Long story short, I met a dude in Barcelona (fist bump, Seth) we worked together on the King of Qatar’s boat, as you do.
We left the boat and he ended up getting a job on Necker Island. They had a boat mechanic position come up and he said I should apply. I wasn’t too keen at the start but figured it would be good for photography, that was the selling point for me.
When I got the job my mates at home joked and said I look like a young Richard Branson. I literally bumped into Richard Branson on my second day on Necker, I was a bit tongue tied and figured humor was the best approach. I said “Hi dad” and he laughed and said “sorry son, I don’t remember your mum” to which I replied “she said you were a very sensitive lover”. This could have gone either way, but luckily Richard has a wicked sense of humor!
I managed to photograph some dolphins playing off Necker the following day, I got his personal email address in a sneaky move and emailed him the photos. He replied back straight away and told me he loved them, and said to keep them coming. So, that’s what I did. I kept shooting sending, and within a month my images where being used on his blog, Facebook and Instagram. I was a boat mechanic in the day, and shooting in my spare time. It’s a strange mix, but it worked.
He requested that I shoot more and more and then I started receiving commissions for magazines who wanted images of him and the island, most recently for The Financial Times front cover.
Once again photography is making everything ok! I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with him and his family, and been in many a helicopter, boat & jet ride together. I’m told that he really loves my work, I don't take compliments well but I’ll take that from ‘The Dude’
What is your favorite thing to shoot?
I’m really enjoying shooting kite-surfing at the moment, I hadn’t tried to shoot it before coming to Necker, but the second time I tried the photos got a magazine feature, so I figured I must be doing something right!
It’s really fun to shoot, especially from a helicopter with the doors off! I really respect the level of skill involved in the sport, it’s pretty crazy and can be pretty dangerous!
All the kiters I have met have been top lads and ladies, really good bunch to work with, they manage to somehow miss you in the water by inches... most of the time!
What’s on your playlist now does music ever inspire your work or travel?
Music, yes please, all the time, it’s without doubt my favorite thing. My mum was a Radio DJ when we were growing up, and she still is. Myself and my brother spent a lot of time in radio station studios and CD libraries as kids ‘borrowing’ hundreds if not thousands of promotional CD’s from the big record companies. A lot of exposure has resulted in a very varied but pretty strong music taste. If I had to box it; 60’s & 70’s folk & rock, blues, blue grass, reggae, dub reggae, hip hop, D&B and plenty of electro mixed in for good measure.
I can’t really say that I’m into one particular style/genre, it’s too hard to choose. I also like the occasional podcast between me and you.
Today’s shuffle offerings from my library: Bonobo, ACDC, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Stone Roses, Grey Reverend, Fairport Convention, Fink, Kiev, Rolling Stones, Jeff Buckley, Polica, King Krule, Disclosure, Mason Jennings and Glass Animals. And it’s only 10am.
Are there any fresh/unique go-to meals on the islands that you love?
It’s a tricky one to do well when you move about a lot without a routine, especially on the road (making excuses here). I love cooking when I can, I don't eat a lot of meat really and try to cook healthily. I’m a big fan of one pot cooking, stews, jambalaya, hearty meals. I make a mean risotto, that’s my signature go-to.
Nikon D800e, rusty & trusty Nikon D700. Lenses: Nikkor 24mm f1.4, 50mm f1.4, 17-55 f2.8, 20-35mm f2.8, 80-200 f2.8, 16mm fisheye f2.8, Sigma 35mm f1.4 ART, Sigma 15mm f2.8 fisheye, 2x SB800 flash guns, Sony A7R ii and some 16-35mm f4. All kept in Pelican cases, even the laptops, the humidity kills lenses here.
I also have a fun item, a Canon 5Dmkii with Ikelite big dome underwater housing, Canon 15mm f2.8 fisheye, 35mm f2.8. It’s really heavy and clumsy but once it’s submerged it can get some killer shots.
Lastly, is there any advice you have to aspiring adventurers/photographers getting started?
Firstly, don’t listen to me, secondly try not to take this negatively, thirdly bear in mind that I don’t consider myself to be a great or particularly successful photographer. I’m no oracle.
I have been working as a photographer for over ten years now, and it certainly hasn’t been a walk in the park. Photography is a fickle mistress, sometimes it’s the best thing ever, and sometimes it leaves you broke and alone in your underwear wondering if you should have gotten a ‘real job’ like the ones they told you about in school.
I believe it’s important to hedge your bets a little, because you don’t know what the future holds. I have always managed to kept a foot in the door with engineering, specifically marine. Occasionally when the photo commissions dry up I’ll go do a couple of months on the boats, I don’t really ‘love’ it, and it can be hard graft, but it’s rewarding and often fun, and it pays the bills. It sounds crazy but if I wasn’t able to fix boats, I probably wouldn’t have ended up years later in Larry Page’s helicopter or taking photos of Richard Branson. Funny, old world.
Bottom line is if you want to do it you should, just try, but you have to really want it! Don’t be under the illusion that you will become a millionaire Instagram hero overnight. Obviously, there are success stories, but I know a lot of really good photographers who don’t make much of a living from it, and some that have become so disenchanted with the industry, that they simply gave up.
From what I have seen, to make a decent living from it now you have to have a mix of abilities. You obviously need to have a strong eye, be very driven, skilled in postproduction, be a bit of a salesman and being slightly geeky about equipment and software is a must. There is always an element of outright luck, of course.
I was lucky at the start, it’s rare that someone will be commissioned to just go shoot beautiful landscapes around the world full time. Those days are numbered if not already mostly gone. Being a jack of all trades doesn’t hurt now, people often want stills, drones, video, and video editing all in one. Alas, I am yet to own a drone and have just purchased a moving image camera (Sony A7R ii and some 16-35mm f4).... I have seen a lot of expensive drones crash, normally into the ocean!
The internet is awash with really really good stuff now, amazing images and videos from all around the world available at your fingertips to download or re-post. This does allow emerging photographers to get their name and portfolios out there a whole lot faster than ever before, and that’s a great thing. It’s better to have your work out there for people to enjoy rather then it sitting on a hard drive or in a portfolio under a bed, they key is figuring out how to generate some revenue from it, and that’s the hard bit.
That's about it, thank you!