A real day in the life of a location-independent travel photographer

A different everyday.
A real day in the life of a location-independent travel photographer - Pat Kay Blog

It’s dark.

Back home, the light used to leak through the sides of my window shades above my bed. I’m used to waking up to the first light of the day.

But not here. Not always.

It’s 3am and I’ve woken up again, for the 3rd time tonight. The cause: a self-destructive combination of anxiety from not knowing what time it is through daylight, having way too much to think about, and sleeping in different beds every other night.

It’s a small price to pay though, because when I presume the light turns dawn, the uncertain day is all mine.

See, I have no clients. I have no boss. I have no responsibility to anyone but myself. Hell, I don’t even have a home.

I chose to wake up in this coffin of a capsule hotel in Tokyo because, well, I love Tokyo. The lack of sleep is a by-product of my own (shitty, but occasionally financially wise) life decisions.

Some days, those decisions mean that my morning activities see me enjoying a nice cup of coffee; ground, brewed, and poured by myself. Other days it means that someone else does it for me. And if worse comes to worst, it means I’m depositing 140 yen into a brightly lit, occasionally speaking vending machine across the road. But hey, at least it’s not Starbucks.

When I’m ready to face the world: at a standing desk in a nice co-working space, in a lobby of a hotel, on a train to the next destination, or even in the coffin I just “slept” in the night prior, I go to my imaginary wardrobe and try on hats.

Although I actually never wear them in real life, when you work for yourself, hats become your favourite fashion accessory.

Some days, the hat looks like that of an accountant. On some days it’s the event planner hat. Sometimes, it even looks like one a secretary would wear. On occasion, the hat I wear looks brightly coloured and comes in a variety of patterns, flourishes, and interesting finishes – I call it the “peacock hat”. But this uniquely creative hat doesn’t receive the pleasure or fortune of adorning my head every day, regardless of how often it cries out to be put on.

This imaginary wardrobe hat selection happens every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. Whatever hat is on at any given moment is the person I become – It’s the adult version of “Simon Says”, sans the giggles and friends.

Work is a life game of perpetual context-switching.

If you wanted a true “day in the life”, I’d be writing a new post every single day. Every days’ hat would look different – like if Mario spontaneously decided he didn’t want to just be a Bowser-beating, Goomba-squishing plumber anymore and maybe he wanted to be a chef too. Or maybe he wanted his hat to grow wings so he could fly. Or maybe he’d stack a bunch of different hats on top of each other for fun. Or maybe those things have happened already in other games. A day in my life one day might sound like talking about my business. On another perhaps I’d be talking about my next photography location. Maybe I’d be talking about what the stock market looks like. Maybe it’d be a mix of everything – who knows?

Every day is different.

Today’s day starts with a lack of sleep – I’ve somehow found myself at the very start of the New Year dealing with an emotionally fucked-up set of events that has created way too many thoughts in my mind. I can’t focus. I need clarity. So I drink coffee and think. I sit in the sun. It heals me. I recover. For now.

I read morning pages. I meditate. I journal. I shower. Every day. Yes, I’m one of those people. I don’t care if you judge me.

I dread looking at my inbox because it’s both the bane of my existence and the muse of my financial success. I check to see how much money my business made while I was sleeping, but also how many problems I need to solve for the people who gave me said money.

For all the uncertainty I face for each new day, these are the bedrock habits that appear: same time, same headspace, different physical place. Every day. Always.

Next, my precious time. I have quite a few really great habits that I carried over from my previous career: a decade of User Experience and Product design. One of those habits is living and dying by my calendar.

Organising your time is absolutely crucial when you have no one to be responsible to. You might have all the freedoms in the world (and I’m gratefully fortunate to say that I do), but when it comes down to it, all you have is time, really. Spend it well. Otherwise, every day could look like playing the latest AAA-release games, pissing away your hours on some shitty show on Netflix, or staring at the blank “roof” of your coffin-bed-thing (although honestly, some days you need all that; I’m not insane).

My organised time in my calendar today looks a lot like my hangover from New Years Eve. Regrettable life decisions made in the heat of the moment (kinda), followed by a period of self-pity and reprieve; a forced self-love cycle to recuperate.

It feels like I need to get away from this city, even though I love (most of) it.

It’s research time. I’m planning to go to Hokkaido. This particular trip is a fairly last minute decision, and honestly, I’m not really a last minute kinda guy; despite how much I’ve grown to love spontaneity.

This last minute decision presents a few problems. Problems that I’ll need to solve today.

See: I’m a minimalist. I travel the world with a 20L backpack to carry my prized electronic possessions, and a suitcase that weighs less than 20 kilos and houses the things that enable me operate in society during the day without looking as naked as I do in bed at night.

I hear it’s cold in Hokkaido: like, a shrivelling zero to minus twenty degrees Celsius cold.

So my day today looks like I’ll be buying crap I might have to throw out at a later date in order to save my reproducing mechanisms from an icy, cold, death-shatter of a million tiny sperm-sized pieces. It’ll probably be a snow jacket, some thermals, and maybe some of those fancy merino wool socks if I’m feeling a bit extra.

So many considerations to make, so many variables, so much research to be done prior to buying anything. Because I’m a minimalist, everything MUST earn it’s place in my life. That translates not only to clothes, but to gear, people, relationships, experiences – the lot. I want the best, I’ll give my best in return, always. I have (obsessively) high standards, both internal and external, because life is too damn short to aim anywhere but high. So when it comes to buying things, I rarely make purchases, but you can bet your ass that the things I buy are either top quality, or they fit my specific set of use cases like a super-skinny pair of black jeans (or like a glove. Whichever metaphor serves your imagination best).

Midday and I stop for ramen, of course. I love ramen. A warm bowl of ramen on a cold-as-fuck day like today in Tokyo is like CPR to your mind, body and spirit. It’s like the collective Japanese version of Popeye eating spinach. It’s life-giving and life-reaffirming.

More shopping. Which kinda sucks for this article because I actually rarely buy things, so it makes it sound like I’m always buying things, which I’m definitely not. For most occasions, I already have what I need. I don’t need or want any more stuff. Although I guess if this was any other day, I suppose writing about me working all day is equally as boring to read. Whatever; it is what it is.

As I go from one end of town to the next via what seems like surely the wrong time to catch this very crowded train, all throughout the day, there’s this voice that fades in and out of my consciousness. It’s a voice that’s tied to my visuals, and as the sun sets, the peacock hat starts to get especially vocal. Actually, he’s always a loud bugger. He’s that forever-talking, all-seeing omnipresence that scrutinises every visual scene I have ever seen, gently (but sometimes not) suggesting applicable elements of visual language that could be manifested into some explosive splattering of creative genius (or so he likes to think). He never shuts up.

And when the light becomes gentle, camera in hand or not, his voice gets louder.

Today, I have no camera. Today, I have no desire to explore or take photos; I gotta get shit done. Today, he doesn’t get a chance to play. It’s cold. And I’m in a food coma after the ramen. Maybe tomorrow.

As the light dies, I head back to my coffin. Physically and emotionally.

Well, actually that’s kind of mean. I genuinely really like the place I’m staying at. It’s one of my favourites. It’s actually really comfortable and they have one of the nicest co-working spaces in Tokyo that you can use for free if you’re a guest. But nonetheless; onward with the dramatic metaphor.

Tonight, while the city lights of Tokyo illuminate every corner of every street, and life buzzes along at a sardine-like 2000 people every 2 minutes in the middle of Shibuya Crossing, I’m working.

Right now, the hat I’m wearing is one that comes with baggage: a love/hate relationship of epic proportions. An internal struggle of push and pull; like angels and demons in their ever eternal battle over middle-earth …or something like that.

Okay, that’s a bit much. In reality I’m just preparing my Instagram post.

It used to be frustrating: even after 4 years of doing this Instagram thing, an electric storm of positive and negative mental activity engulfs my brain before posting time (which is currently every day, once a day) – although it does become less taxing.

Over this period I’ve learned to emotionally detach myself and my sense of self worth from the likes and the engagement and the crap (and the stalkers) that comes with people following your work. For me, it’s business; a blend of art and commerce I’ve worked really hard to develop a healthy mental relationship with.

But after the anti-social social-time of 10:00PM to 10:15PM AEST (that’s Australian time, because that’s where I’m from) every night, it’s bed time.

In Tokyo, where we’re currently 2 hours behind, it means that most nights I’m back to laying in my coffin at 8 or 9ish where I spend an hour or two reading or watching anime before I drift off to sleep.

Most nights, I’m an early sleeper, early riser, by the way. Lame, I know. You were probably expecting some kind of uber-cool night owl, doing the best work of their creative lives at 3am in the morning under the light of a dimly-lit lamp driven by the influence of a midnight coffee, right?

Sorry to disappoint you. I’m actually writing this article at 6am because sometimes inspiration strikes first thing in the morning while you’re lying in a quiet, dark, coffin unable to see the daylight.

Maybe it struck because I got a lot of sleep last night. I didn’t wake up once. Yay. That’s a win. Today’s day starts with a rested body, a clear mind, a sense of contentedness from getting something done so early in the day, and it continues with the ever-revolving cycle of days that are never the same.

And who knows, maybe I’ll actually take some pictures today.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting me by checking out my new book, "A Photography Guide to Tokyo", my latest presets or my upcoming workshops.

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5 comments Leave a comment

  • Anne says:

    Had to smile a couple of times reading this! Really well written piece and as your images an inspiration to strive for! Thanks so much for sharing this.

  • Aleksander says:

    Honest content, Pat. Thanks for sharing.
    I dread posting images too. I love photography and want to share and communicate the feeling and intention that inspired the photo or the scene at the time, but i feel that all my words are awkward and kinda drag the quality of the image down… hard to explain. In sum; I write as little as possible when posting.

    For the instagram stuff; I dont have much experience here, but have you considered using one of those aps that gives you the possibility to pre-make insta posts and “time” when they get released? so If you feel inspired one day you can prepare a couple-three posts and have them automaticly posting the next days. You might like the mental exercise and, as you wrote, the day makes sense by having a schedule – so you possibly like the manual menthod. It was just a thought. 😉
    Another thing. Just wanna share my opinion. Much of the content on this site could be move over to Patreon. This would further stabilize your income flow – and i bet alot of ppl would like to support you. This makes it possible for ppl who wanna support you and what you are doing, but dont need a guide to Tokyo og more instagram presets, to give a dollar or two 🙂

    • Pat Kay says:

      Thanks for the suggestions!

      Typically I have enough posts edited and ready to go (but captionless) for about a 2-4 week’s worth of posting, on both accounts. I typically batch my editing sessions so that I can optimise my time for other things. Sometimes edits and images get expedited if I’m feeling a particular way about them, which is nice when it happens.

      RE: Patreon, I’ve thought about it before, but I worry about the amount of workload vs the return, and have yet to work out if it’s something people would even support in the first place. I’ll get more serious about it one day =). Thank you for your confidence though.

  • Vidushi says:

    Great read, Pat!

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