What does it mean to “be alpha”? How did a personal journey turn into a way of life? Does photography have the power to redefine the purpose of someone’s life? And why is it important to have a purpose in life after all?
A cyclist photographer takes a look back and connects the dots in his life.
On August 15, Sony announced that Sony mirrorless cameras are now the best selling full-frame cameras in the US. The news hardly came as a surprise. Sony was leading the mirrorless market for the past six years. DSLR sales were declining for the past few years, which led to increased market share for mirrorless cameras. Finally, people have realised that DSLR technology is big, bulky and obsolete.
To celebrate this milestone, Sony launched the #BeAlpha campaign in Brooklyn, New York on the World Photography Day on August 19. The goal of this event was to connect Sony Alpha photographers and videographers and inspire them to push their creative boundaries. I received the invitation from Sony when I was in Calgary. I was lucky that I had already applied for a new US visa to complete the last stretch of my journey through Alaska. Two days after receiving a brand new US visa, I boarded the flight to New York to be part of the event.
As I entered the event venue in Brooklyn, I could feel the positive energy that only comes when a group of like-minded and creative people gather in one place. I encountered some familiar faces that I had met at the previous Sony event in Monterey, California, held earlier this year. The entire event was designed to provide members of the Sony Alpha community a chance to connect and learn from each other. One evening was planned just to hang out and dine together. Next day, we all went to the Pioneer Works hall, where we could borrow cameras and lenses and shoot with them. Professional photo models posed around different sets for the shoots. One could join photo walks led by Sony Alpha Collective members or book models to do their own shoot. It was not competitive but a cooperative event where everyone wanted to help each other.
My favourite part of the Be Alpha event was the sunset boat ride in the Hudson River. Sony had booked an entire cruise ship for us. We witnessed the magnificent views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty in the evening light. Taking photos of models on the top deck of the cruise along with a bunch of other photographers, the creative vibe, the ambient music, the cloudy sky, the soft light, the evening breeze, and the Manhattan skyline in the background was pure bliss. While talking to Susan, a Sony representative, I found myself telling her that this could well be one of the happiest moments of my trip so far.
I leaned against the railing of the boat as it went under the Brooklyn Bridge and looked above in amazement. The noise of the trains passing above was deafening. Millions of city lights floated on the water. Slowly, peace and stillness started to emerge from the water. It felt as if someone had pressed the pause button on the world. My mind began to drift back in time. I wondered what series of events led me to the Be Alpha event and how photography changed the course of my life.
I had an established career and a well-set path in front of me when my life took a strange twist. One day, I was a programmer, the next day I was a bicycle traveller. I had nothing but a bicycle, a camera and a burning desire to see the world. Little did I know where my travels would take me. Little did I know that I would be on the road for so long. The transformation from a software developer to Kamran On Bike, which some people jokingly refer to as Camera N Bike, didn’t happen overnight though.
I got into bicycle touring long before I started photography. I got my first bicycle when I was 12, and did my first bicycle tour when I was 13. My family never approved such activities, so even as an adult, I kept all my bicycle tours in Pakistan secret. I bought my first camera, a Canon 350D, in Germany when I was 26. I was a student with no savings, so I purchased the camera on a 1000 Euro interest loan payable with monthly instalments from Saturn in Magdeburg. I wanted to take this camera with me to Pakistan so I could take pictures of my hometown Layyah and show to my friends in Germany what my home city looked like. I was very protective of this camera. I used to take pictures in medium size and JPG quality in order to not put an extra burden on the camera. In Layyah, I didn’t know what to photograph, so I ended up coming back with pictures of beggars, poor children, farmers, and street vendors.
I felt a certain magic in capturing a moment a frame. A photograph infinitely pauses time. Viewing a still image is akin to reading a book, you can stop, reread and examine each element in the picture over and over again to absorb all the details, and think. A photograph engages the viewer on a deeper level and the movement through time actually happens inside our brain. It encourages contemplation and compassion. This is the reason why I prefer still pictures over video. Soon after I began photography, it took over my other creative interests, like drawing and painting, and became my only hobby for the years to come.
Thirteen years after I purchased my first camera, I finished my studies, worked as a software developer, changed cameras and kept taking pictures. I had a long dream of cycling from Germany to Pakistan. I used to think about it every day. I would be sitting through the university lectures and office meetings but my mind would be somewhere else. I would imagine myself cycling on long empty roads and taking pictures. Earlier, cycling and photography had been two separate hobbies for me and I was able to go through the routine life, but when these two passions merged, they put my life on fire. I began longing for the world which was out there waiting to be explored. Suddenly, I had a new purpose in life—to see the world by bicycle and to show it to others. Once I had that conviction, nothing could stop me. I quit my job and started preparing for my journey.
I didn’t need much. I had a bicycle, now I needed a new camera, not just a camera but the best camera!
At that time, I had a Canon 5D Mark II but it felt clunky and out-dated so I gave it away to my brother. I needed something which was compact, lightweight, had excellent image quality and superior low-light performance. My quest for such a camera brought me to Photokina in Cologne, Germany where I happened to see Sony Alpha 7s in action. It ticked all the boxes so I went on to buy it. I always carry two camera bodies on the bicycle trips, so I bought the APSC-size Sony Alpha 6000 as a secondary camera. Not many long-distance cyclists carry two interchangeable lens camera bodies and 5 lenses, but I did. For that, I had to sacrifice many other things, but I simply did not want to comprise on photography gear.
The two cameras travelled with me on my bicycle for almost 25,000 km through 24 countries. They saw extreme weather conditions and endured bumpy roads and numerous falls. They were my eyes through which I saw life happening. Together, we captured some 150,000 shots. There came a time when my cameras and lenses required an overhaul, but I was out of product warranty and couldn’t afford the repair costs. I had allocated some budget for the camera upgrade and repair in my crowdfunding campaign which didn’t reach its goal (and is still running). There was no way I could travel without cameras.
Feeling helpless, I wrote a letter to Sony. Not knowing who to address the letter to, I put it up as an open letter to Sony, with no great hopes. A couple of days later, I was contacted by #SonyAlphaMexico team who assured me of their support. I was invited to the Sony headquarters in Mexico City where I met Sergio and his colleagues and handed them my cameras and lenses for service. For the first time, I was without a camera. I felt as if I had turned blind. I stopped travelling or going out at all. After 3 weeks, I received all my lenses and the cameras back fully serviced, thanks to Fotomecanica. I hit the road again and just a few days later, I took a some of my favourite astrophotography shots.
The awesome people at Sony Mexico also put me in touch with Sony USA for further assistance. Two days after I crossed into the United States, I had a meeting with Sony’s representatives. I was so nervous I hardly remembered who was who. I gave them a 53-minute long presentation after which we had only 7 minutes for discussion. They acknowledged my mission to see the world and to document it for others. They invited me to a Sony event in Monterey. Meanwhile, they upgraded my other camera and lenses. I continued my journey on the saddle. When I was in Flagstaff, Arizona, I took the flight to Monterey to attend the event as a guest. It was a three-day event with a lot of photo opportunities and classes. It was also my first ever photography event. I immediately realised the importance of collaboration with other artists, something that I haven’t gotten the chance to do yet.
After the event, I continued my journey and took thousands and thousands of pictures on the road. It was a lonely ride through the US. The distances grew longer, the connections with the people, fewer. My ride in the US took me through some National Parks with unparalleled beauty, but it is the indigenous cultures which fascinate me the most. I happened to interact with indigenous people not only in Latin America but also in Utah and in Glacier National Park. When I entered Canada, I thought my indigenous encounters were over, but within a few days in Alberta, I shot more pictures of indigenous people than I have shot elsewhere. Later I went with an indigenous friend to a far-off place to see a moose hunt and photographed the whole experience.
Over the years, photography has become a crucial aspect of my travels, so much so that now if I have to choose between a camera and a bicycle, I would choose a camera. The camera is what gives me the motivation to go out into the world and pay attention to my surroundings. I am an introvert by nature, a camera helps me overcome my shyness and make connections with people. For me, travelling is not only about seeing cool places, it is more about meeting new people.
But, wouldn’t it be selfish to keep all those experiences and pictures to myself? I strongly believe it is the responsibility of a traveller to document the travel experiences faithfully and report to the public. Photography helps me carry out this duty earnestly. There is an Indian proverb, “learn all the time, teach all the time!” Through travel, I learn about the world. Through photography, I teach what I have learnt.
Even a few years ago, if somebody had told me that I would be travelling by bicycle for several years and introducing myself as a cyclist photographer at photography events I wouldn’t have believed them. Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to be a grocer, or a general, or a politician, or a judge, you will invariably become it; that is your punishment.” There were times in my life too when I considered my career as a punishment. Then, one day, I walked off and became free. I may have no future anymore, but every day is different for me. I see uncertainty as a positive thing which brings new surprises and opens new doors. I have everything I need—a bicycle which slows me down enough to eliminate any blur or bias from the view—and a camera which enables me to capture the world as clearly as possible.
Never before in my life was I so peaceful as I am now, and that is my reward!
When destiny calls us, we must respond. It is meant to lead us to what we are supposed to become contrary to what we want to become. It is about pursuing our passions no matter how absurd they are. I believe that through our passion we can find our potential. Behind the potential is our true identity and further behind, the purpose of one’s existence. Discovering the purpose of life is important to every one of us for spiritual awakening and well-being.
Sitting on the boat, my whole life unfolded before my eyes. The ship horn pulled me back into the world, but I had already connected the dots. Life is about—being true to yourself—being ambitious—setting your own path instead of following others—conquering fear—and reaching where no one had been before.
But, isn’t it what Sony’s Be Alpha campaign is all about? I asked myself.
At that moment, I realised that the Be Alpha is the story of every creator who is not afraid of stepping into the unknown, and perhaps, my story too!