Pixel Trade: Photography for Trade

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Shantanu Starrick embarked on an interesting photo project. Coined "Pixel Trade," Shantanu travels from household to household to photograph people in exchange for food and shelter. Upon exploring his website, one can see lots of inspiring work that shows Shantanu's versatility as a photographer.

We emailed Shantanu, and asked him a couple of questions about the project and the logistics of it.


B&H: In Pixel Trade, you board with people and give them photos, in return for care and treatment for a period of time. Where did the idea for the project come from?

Shantanu: The concept came earlier this year, as I battled to split my time between my architecture studies and my love and work in photography. My mind was full of ideas for using photography to experience cultures around the globe. I had ideas for India, Europe, America, and many other places. My aim was to find an idea which wouldn't require working with other people, or relying on others—one of the hardest things for me to do. So earlier this year I began to wonder how I could travel around the world, using photography as a form of payment. I didn’t want to rely on people's compassion to put me up in return for very little, if anything. I wanted to flip that equation; I wanted to offer a lot in return for very little. That’s when I decided to try to travel without spending a single cent, and offer my services—which would usually cost hundreds or thousands of dollars—in return for food, shelter and transport. 

B&H: The scenery and culture vary significantly as you travel from place to place. How do you find inspiration in each new locale?

Shantanu: The project is young. It is in its third month now, and I’ve just arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, excited about the trades ahead. Staying inspired is not a difficult thing for me. Imagine having a new setting every three days or so, and a new subject. My focus is not on any particular area of photography, but rather to apply to any project that which I have learned over the last seven years. I’ve already traded with musicians, designers, architects, restaurateurs—and the list grows. Each trade is exciting for me, and inspiration naturally comes about from the individuals and their situations.

B&H: What gear are you using, and how do you feel it helps to get your creative vision across?

Shantanu: I use two Canon 5D MK IIs, with a mix of four lenses. The great thing with this body is the ability to do video. For a number of trades, it's been an added feature to do a short video or a music video as part of the trade. They involve a lot more work and require more time, but I enjoy it, as it is another medium requiring different thought processes.

B&H: What’s your process of documenting the people you stay with? What kind of conversations do you have?

Shantanu: What's important to me is observing human interaction; that is one of the underlying elements of this project that interests me most. Studying architecture brought out my fascination in human behavior in both the public and private realms. The initial conversations with these people often bring up concerns of cost. It always ends with them realizing how much time I have spent thinking this through, and they quickly agree that this project will be worth the trade.

I also witness people doing what they are truly passionate about. I enjoy having conversations with people who are speaking about what they love, and from the understanding gained, I use photography to help translate these conversations into a photographic narrative.

Documentation of the people I stay with is varied. In some cases I manage to capture portraits of other details of their lives which I find interesting. This gets stored on the ridiculous amount of hard drives that I carry, and will possibly be used in the future, perhaps for an exhibition or book. Time does not always allow for curation, and as a result I may have to travel back to some of the people I trade with.

B&H: Let’s talk about logistics: How are flights, food, etc., being handled? If someone flies you out to shoot their wedding or whatever, it might be less costly for them to fly you out and give you shelter than paying for a local photographer. Isn’t that so?

Shantanu: It absolutely is cheaper. I don’t associate cost with quality. If anything, the quality is higher because money is not in the equation, and as a result, more time can be spent on each trade I undertake. It’s very common for photographers to be flown around the world for work. The flights, food and accommodations are usually extras, in addition to the photographer's services. So suddenly you have the ability to fly a photographer anywhere in the world for a wedding or some other project, and all you provide is the flight, food and shelter—and nothing else. It creates the opportunity for quality photography for people to whom it might otherwise be out of reach.

B&H: Traveling from place to place tends to affect us. How do you keep in touch with loved ones? Plus, what do you do to stay healthy?

Shantanu: I have always been one who travels alone to begin with, and have spent long periods of time away from home. I tend to make home wherever I am. I started this project in Melbourne, and though it is an unfamiliar city to me, the culture is still Australian. My trades have taken me to a number of major cities in Australia, including Melbourne and Brisbane. In the near future, I have trades which will be taking me to Hobart, Sydney, Brisbane again, New Zealand and Los Angeles. Once I reach America, I will trade all around the states for three months, and it’s anyone’s guess where it will go from there. As for health, I have found that when people are providing only the three things I mentioned, they tend to be extremely generous. They usually go ‘all out’ for the few days I am there. I have never requested that, but it is a natural reaction. It's a situation which begs reciprocity. So I am well fed, and I stay completely focused on the project at hand. 

B&H: Was there anything unexpected that has held up the project at any point for longer than you would have liked?

Shantanu: The only thing that really made it difficult early on was the website. I designed the website, and needed a programmer to put it together. I kept changing things, and he had a lot of other work, and as a result the website was not ready when I started the project. I didn’t have somewhere to point people to, and as a result, I feel that the legitimacy of the project suffered slightly. The website now acts as a folio of work for The Pixel Trade. People can get an idea of the range of projects that have been photographed, and a snippet of the quality of work. Aside from direct referrals, you can imagine how important the website is, as it is really what people judge the entire project by, and can therefore lead to further trades. 

B&H: How long do you think the project will take?

Shantanu: There is no specific end date. I thought a few years would allow me to get around the world. A few years of not spending a cent of money will be interesting on many levels. This is also only the first project of what I think will be many. Once this project finishes, it will be on to the next thing. I would like to trade with some of the wealthiest people in the world, and some of the poorest, and gauge the reactions of the people, irrespective of economic class. The other aspect which could alter the length of the project is what people trade. Who is to say that a larger company wouldn't trade a car or a house? If something like this unfolded I would remain a free photographer for much longer.

B&H: At the end of the project, what do you hope to have accomplished, besides for traveling all around the world?

Shantanu: It is very important for me to achieve this goal. To travel around the world without money in a time when money runs pretty much everything would help to prove that the old way of trading skills can still work, even if for just a short while. I’m not trying to start a revolution against money, I don’t believe that will happen in my lifetime. I would, though, love to see more people offering out their skills in some type of trade.

You can check out the Pixel Trade and follow the journey at the website.