Photographer Robert Lendon takes the road less travelled to capture candid, authentic images of different cultures

At the age of 40, I decided to sell everything and travel the world. Perhaps it was a classic midlife crisis, but it felt like an opportunity to live a better life. Time will tell, although I can’t imagine looking back and regretting the choice to do it — regretting not doing it seems more likely.

I studied photography at university as part of a design degree, but hadn’t picked up a camera for a lot longer than I care to remember. Travel was my reason, with photography being a much-needed creative outlet and, at times, a sense of purpose. I’d been inspired by other people’s travel photography and the pages of National Geographic — I wanted to see these places and people for myself.

I knew I wanted a mirrorless camera for the size advantage and after playing around with a few alternatives, I settled on the OM-D E-M1 and the M.ZUIKO 12-40mm F/2.8 PRO. I chose the Olympus system originally as I liked the feel in my hands, it just felt right, and the out-of-camera JPEGs are perfect, which works well with my lazy side — I don’t do any editing.

My first unusual destination was North Korea, which was a fantastic experience and a challenging place for photography. Most people are quite surprised if you tell them you’ve been to North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, but they’ve been some of the best experiences for me. I try to capture these places as they are; to express the feeling, temperature, humidity, noise and smells. These are the details that make the moment for me.

Afghanistan was one of my highlights – the people, scenery and culture were all fascinating. From the crystal-clear lakes lying in the snow-capped foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, the colour and vibrancy of Herat where the tree-lined roads and colourful tuk-tuks make it feel like a tourist spot, to the history, people, hustle — and tension — of Kabul. I learnt how to ask if I could take a photo in Pashto along with the standard pleasantries and found the people to be excited and surprised at my request. Most simply laughed as they smiled for the camera. There are tensions and restrictions in these places of course, but they are easily observed.

Beyond Afghanistan, I’ve seen such stunning landscapes as Dallol in Ethiopia and Deadvlei in Namibia. It’s hard to believe you’re still on Earth in these places. I’ve summited some of the world’s highest mountains. Walked 1000km through Spain. Had photos deleted by secret police in North Korea and Turkmenistan. I’ve even led the might of the Somaliland military in their Independence Day parade. It’s been an amazing journey so far.

I seem to gravitate towards photographing people. I think we carry so much of our surroundings in our appearance, and it’s this I’m trying to capture in an authentic way. It’s challenging – I like to capture candid moments and asking for permission changes the expression, while not asking is, at best, rude and can be dangerous. I’ve missed out on a few great shots by either asking for permission and the moment is lost, or permission being declined. However, I think that’s a better approach than risk upsetting other cultures and giving tourists and photographers a bad reputation.

People are much more wary of large cameras. Get out a mobile phone and they’re oblivious or, if they do notice, they don’t care. Get out a fullframe camera and they’ll either run away or start shouting at you. I find the Olympus system the perfect balance. I can get quality and versatility far beyond a mobile phone at an image quality that more than meets my needs. I’ve seen many people on my travels with ‘better’ cameras produce far worse images. I like to travel light and take hand luggage only, so weight and size are important to me. Again, Olympus hits the sweet spot.

I tend not to plan too far ahead, so I’m never quite sure if I’m going to end up at 6000m on top of a mountain at -30°C or 150m below sea level in the desert at 50°C. A constant cycle of dust, rain and ice. With the weather sealing, my camera and lens have survived many years of abuse and are still going strong. I’ve bought a couple of extra lenses along the way for specific purposes such as safaris, but generally just pack the 12-40mm and try to use my legs.

I have plans for Syria, Lebanon, Greenland, Iceland and to climb Mount Elbrus later this year and although I’m not sure where I’ll be travelling to next, I know my Olympus system will be coming with me.

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Article featured in Olympus Magazine Issue 64 – to see the latest copy of this free digital magazine click here.