From 8 years of Tech to Travel
By Sharada Balasubramanian
There are many who have dreams, but few who actually follow them, leaving their fears and anxieties to rest. As part of the Techgoss series on Techies who leave tech to follow their dreams, here is the story of Arun Bhat, who left a cushy job to pursue travel writing and photography. Arun has been published in Discover India, Deccan Herald and many international magazines.
Techgoss (TG): First, tell me something about your background. What did you study, where did you get educated?
Arun Bhat (AB): I am an engineering graduate from Bangalore.
TG: Tell me something about your penchant for travel and photography? Was that something you grew up with?
AB: Definitely! I distinctly remember times in my childhood when I would greedily look into magazines with beautiful images. Each time I saw a gem of a picture, there is a feeling ‘I wish I had taken this shot, at least one shot’. I still do this. I also clearly remember reading stories about travelling in the mountains and always wanting to make those adventurous journeys. The focus then was perhaps a slightly narrow than what it is today. My sphere of interest now expands to more genres of travel and photography, beyond mountains and adventure and includes culture, heritage and people.
While I did not own a camera for a very long time, I loved playing with one whenever I got a chance. I recall having read books about basic techniques of photography nearly ten years before I bought my first camera.
TG: What were your key interests while you were growing up and what made you choose a techie profession?
AB: I always knew that I wanted to travel to many places, but cannot say that I did have a clear focus on goals as I was growing up. Choosing a technical profession was part chance and part choice. I enjoyed studying pure mathematics and physics and presumed that studying engineering would be fun. I discovered it to be otherwise later. By then Bangalore's technology industry was growing fast it was the place to be in. It seemed like an obvious choice of profession.
TG: What was the point when you decided to call it quits with work? Was it running in your mind since a long time? What was the triggering point?
AB: Yes. Although the tipping point was a sudden one, I had been thinking about it and working towards it for a long time. Even when I was working, I occasionally wrote for magazines and sold my pictures. I pursued travel writing and photography for about a year and half before I quit. It helped that my employers were friendly and let me take sabbaticals which helped me travel across the country and build a foundation to change my career.
The trigger was a surprise even for me. I was procrastinating and pondering over quitting for a long time. One weekend, I was speaking to a friend, discussing about taking risks and doing things we like. It was very spurring. It was also a time when I had met someone who had just quit work and decided to travel for a year or two and that fuelled my aspirations further. The following Monday when I went to work, I fixed an appointment with my manager and submitted my resignation. I started working in a mid-size IT firm in Bangalore and worked for 8 years before I decided to call it quits.
TG: Did you already have plans on what to do next? How long have you been writing and pursuing photography and when did you start doing it professionally?
AB: I first travelled extensively across India for nearly a year and slowly started pursuing opportunities in travel writing and photography. I was already writing for magazines and selling images when I quit my full time job. The road ahead was clear.
TG: Can you share with us about leaving a salaried job and opting to walk on your path? Were there any inhibitions? How did you overcome them?
AB: The inhibitions were there before I quit my job. I am not the kind of person who is too bothered about a lifetime security or someone who necessarily needs to earn certain amount of money on a regular basis to maintain a level of lifestyle. There was nothing to ponder about after I quit.
TG: How does it feel with respect to money flow and regular income? How did you manage that during those times?
AB: Thankfully, my income remained regular even after I quit my job, though it was not as good as a salaried job. I never had to worry about dipping into my savings. I quit working only when I had a minimum income necessary to meet the ends.
TG: When was your first article published and where? Where was your first photograph published? How did it feel to have an article published/accepted?
AB: The first photographs, as I remember, were published by UNICEF and Mountain Travel Sobek. It was indeed nice to see someone paying for my photographs when I was not even expecting it! The real delight was the moment I realized that there was a clear possibility of alternate ways to make a living.
TG: Where all have you published your articles and photos? How was the journey from the first story to now? Can you look back and share your progress story?
AB: More than a dozen magazines from India and abroad have published my travel writing. There are some magazines which regularly accept my work. My photographs have appeared in several newspapers and magazines across the world.
The first story happened by chance. Now, there is a methodical process of working towards crafting the best possible story. The progress was obviously hard. When I started freelancing, I spent hours looking out for magazines to write to and sending story ideas to editors. Those were the nail biting, anxious moments of life, waiting to know if my stories and pitches will be accepted or not. Things stabilized over a period of time. Now, I focus on writing more regularly for a fewer number of publications.
TG: Did you have any particular strategy on how to approach someone for writing a story/photograph? Did you have to begin from the scratch? Can you share the experience?
AB: It all started with an email when someone requested for a story and offered to pay for it. After that, I researched extensively to understand what makes a good story and what editors wanted to see on their magazines. I used the time-tested process for approaching editors with a story, to come up with potential story ideas and try to get editors interested in it. Naturally, it did not always work and was a process that had to be done repeatedly till someone decides to take a look and respond. It is a slow process and takes its time, but perhaps there is no better way. As for photographs, I shot as much as I could to get the best pictures. Photographs rarely get used just because they are great; you just have to find images that complement well with a story.
TG: For someone coming from a tech background, to delve into writing, how was the acceptance by editors of various magazines? How did you face rejections (if any) and how did you grapple with that?
AB: No one ever asked me about my background; I guess it doesn't matter much as long as you can weave a good story. The hard part was always to get an editor to listen to you and have then read your story. The next step is not so much hard as the first step; so rejections did happen but few and far apart. As far as I know, few travel writers really face rejections. If you have managed to get an editor to say 'send me the story,' it is like a battle nearly won.
TG: Where all have you travelled and any memorable experience?
AB: I can proudly say I have travelled the length and breadth of India, from Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in the south; from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to Rajasthan in the west. But as much as I have seen a lot, there is a lot more left. It is impossible to cite one memorable experience- being stuck in the middle of mountains and helped by absolute strangers, seeing the first snowy peak dazzling in the sun on a chilly morning, gazing at crystal clear lakes trapped amidst tall mountains, watching a huge gathering of animals at a water body in the wilderness. Everything is memory.
TG: Tell me something on your current job of being a consultant editor. What role do you play?
AB: I assist a travel magazine with their content, though I do not do an active editorial work. The things I do include helping frame contents for some issues at a high level, providing story and them ideas for upcoming issues and reviewing the magazine content besides doing some writing myself.
TG: What drives Arun Bhat? What motivated you to pursue what you want? During low down times, how do you motivate yourself?
AB: This is a question that people often ask me, but I never really found an answer. I think sometimes it helps not to take everything too seriously and simply pursue what you want. There was something that I enjoyed doing, and without complicating things too much, I just decided to go with it. I perhaps like to see everything in a simpler way. It is like this: if you want to go somewhere, you just pack your bags and go instead of spending days and days thinking about it. That, perhaps, is the only to live a fulfilled life. I can't really think there were times of serious lows that required me to look outward for motivation; at least in terms of work and career.
TG: You have published in leading magazines like Discover India, Deccan Herald, to name some. Looking back at your achievements, how do you feel? What has been your learning so far? Can you share your learning?
AB: I do not really feel a sense of achievement. To get a little philosophical about it, a sense of achievement is probably something that holds you to where you are currently. You do a few things you wanted to do and once that is done, just move on to the next level and try to do something better. Such fluidity keeps you humble and keeps you working towards something greater than where you are today. I can't say I live up to these words, but that is a general idea that I try to follow.
The learnings are plenty. As a writer and photographer, my degree of observation of everything has improved a great deal over the years. Best experiences are had when you give attention to the details. It is this that perhaps brings out the best writing as well as best images. As a freelancer, I understood the importance of building a good network and relation with people I work with. I also realized that each time you do some work, you must strive to produce the best results; a freelancer gets exactly one chance to prove himself to his clients. Only the best work will bring more work on your table. And a job well done is always rewarded with more work.
TG: What message would you want to give out to aspiring writers/photographers?
AB: For those who intend to quit work and take a plunge, I strongly recommend that you build a fairly stable stream of income before you jump in. For people who want to start their first career in writing or photography, my advice would be to start with a full time job in related field instead of freelancing. You could start as an intern or junior employee at a publishing firm.
No matter who you are constantly improvise and connect with people who matter in your field of work.
TG: What are your future plans?
AB: My long term intentions are to (a) build a high quality repository of images that depict the beauty of culture, natural history and wide visuals of India. (b) help people travel better through better research and by making quality information available to all. The later plan would mean building repository of quality travel writing that is not only backed by quality research, it should have a flow that elicits interest in the reader. I also have a few exciting book ideas in my mind and am looking publishers who may be interested.