Most people entertain a dream of traveling the world at one point or another. There’s an undeniable appeal to being the modern day Phileas Fogg — except more private jet and less hot air balloon. Sadly, however, even the most savvy user of a points program can find themselves prevented from realizing their dreams by the costs of gas, food, and lodging. This is why we look to people who take on the role of digital nomad with such fascination. How the hell do they do it? In the case of Richard Tilney-Bassett, you establish The Glass Passport Project, and trade your photography services for transport, accommodations, and meals. The ultimate goal is to arrange back-to-back trades in all seven continents — allowing Tilney-Basset to go without spending any money for the duration of his trip.
So far, the bold adventurer has been quite successful. You can look at many of his trades on his Instagram account and website. Extra special subscribers are given even more access to his photography and musings. For you see, he posts journal entries about the trips in addition to the images. It’s a genuinely fascinating peek into the project — like reading a travel diary. The images are varied, as Tilney-Basset’s trades call for different things, but he often creates close ups of everyday acts, giving them increased significance, and seems to revel in architecture.
We sat down with Tilney-Bassett to learn about the origins of his big trip, his favorite trades, his future plans, and what it’s like to sleep in strangers’ homes for months and months in end. We don’t know that we could be quite this laid back about travel, but we are considering making him our #TravelGoals instead of Phileas.
Can you give me a little bit of background on yourself?
I’m from the UK. I’ve gone down the straight and narrow through my education and done a degree and even a masters. I graduated and I went into that postgraduate world of “What am I doing with myself?” And, I fell into a random job to pay my way to stay in the city. That was a frustrating period. It wasn’t all bad by any means, but I didn’t know what work I wanted to do. But, in that time, I bought a camera and that grew gradually alongside this period of reevaluating what my priorities were, until eventually that came to a head and I left my job last year in June, and came on to this project.
You only started taking photographs a few years ago?
Yeah, I bought my first camera 2014; that’s three years now I’ve been doing it.
Was it something that you were passionately interested in from the start?
It’s something I can trace a budding interest in it quite far back, and even when I got my first iPhone in university, I remember enjoying taking photos on that and trying to make an effort, but there were no concerted efforts to be a photographer. It was never on my agenda. The first camera I got I read about it on a cycling blog or something. And then, in 2014, I stumbled across a good deal that I could finance (I was finally earning money now that I was working) and bought it. Even then my interest was gradual, it kind of grew an interest until now I’m living for it.
I keep asking because having a life that is centered on an activity that one has begun so recently is surprising. I’m trying to process all of it. At what point in your photography do you decide to start The Glass Passport?
I handed my notice in to my job, and I had two months’ notice to figure out what I was going to do. I quit the job to force a change that I sought without a set plan. So, about a month into that, I decided I would try and pursue this project. I announced the idea to friends and from there it spread around a little bit and I got my first little bit of interest. Then, it started in August last year.
The trading concept itself I’d seen from another photographer, an Australian photographer called Shantanu Starick, who did the Pixel Trade a couple of years prior and sowed itself as an idea, which I wasn’t ready for at the time. But, once I quit my job and I was in a different head space, I kind of came around to it as an opportunity to travel, which I wanted to do. I wasn’t that well-traveled before. It interested me to do that, but also to work hard at what I enjoyed. To develop professionally as well was important. All of a sudden, it ticked all the right boxes, and I decided to go for it.
How long did the Pixel Project go for?
I think he did it for like three and a half years. He’s finished, must have been back in 2014 or something. It’s quite substantial for him, and he’s obviously a photographer I admire a great deal. It was just my need to emulate my own version just starting from the other side of the world on another path.
What did the people around you have to say?
Mostly pretty positive. It’s fortunate I don’t have a tale to tell about having to overcome negative thoughts of friends or family or anything like that; everyone’s been quite supportive. My family knew I was in a frustrating period, and the year before I had left my job, I had talked about leaving my job. But I wasn’t in the right place to do so at that time, so they — not talked me out of it — but kind of steered me to say it wasn’t that bad a situation. Then, the year I did quit my job, they completely understood. I think they could tell that my approach to it and my motivation to do so were in a different space than I was before. They’ve always been supportive of the idea, thankfully.
That’s fantastic. You didn’t actually branch out at first; it seems like you were pretty close to home for about six months.
I wasn’t an established photographer before, so I didn’t have the experience or the connections to go “I’ve got this idea, let’s start in half way round the world.” I literally posted out and friends of friends shared it. The first few things to get me going were a start, and from there, I asked for referrals from the people I stayed with. It led from thing to thing in the UK.
It’s quite a change, suddenly I was living in a suitcase and rarely stayed living anywhere for more than five days at a time. Maybe it’s not as glamorous. I didn’t shoot off internationally at first, but I think it was an important stage to find my way. Then, when I did get my lead out into Europe, it happened quite naturally, and I knew how to handle the basics of day to day. That all made sense when I was suddenly brought in to another country and more challenges arose.
That’s good. Where have you been at this point?
Bouncing around Europe: Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. Mostly central Europe. Separate trips to Africa, so Kenya and Uganda. And, now, I’ve landed in New York. Add another continent to the list, and then, I head on to Hong Kong in about three weeks’ time as well, so a fourth continent.
Wow. Are you aiming for all seven?
That’s the lofty dream. The worst that can happen if you aim for seven is you might stop short at six, which would still be okay. I don’t want to set a cap on it, and it’s kind of quite an elegant goal. It’s large in scope and has enough flexibility to revisit them. You can go to countries you wouldn’t expect and still check off the continent.
True. What have been some of your favorite trades?
The one that got me out to Uganda, I really enjoyed. That was to photograph a marathon run by a charity out there, a British Ugandan charity. It was just the team, quite a young team. It was only the third year doing it, and they bootstrapped it all. They were just great company, and I was really, really impressed by the work they’re doing. I really enjoyed being a part of that.
And then just locations, Germany was very good for me; I think I’ve gone back to Germany three times now during the project. Italy is just stunning to photograph as always. I almost need to get my website out every time someone asks that question to remind me of what I’ve done so far.
But yeah, Uganda’s a relatively recent one, and that was great because then it led to some other things, led to even being up in a biplane.
That’s important isn’t it? Because you’re not just taking photographs, you do all kinds of activities while you’re at these locations, don’t you?
Yes, sometimes the activities are separate and sometimes they’re very much overlapping with the project. It can be such a blend. Some trades are more professional; it might be a company that needs photos for this and they tell you to do that. More often than not, you’re staying with people and living with them and you might have a set project but then they also bring me out to what they like doing or the places they like to go to or out with their friends, and not I’ll have my camera on me while we do that. That mix of the work and pleasure can blur the lines between them all, which is not a bad thing when it comes to photography.
Do you always end up staying with the people who have made the trade with you?
Quite frequently, yes. It depends because sometimes when it’s been companies, they’re more likely to host you in a hotel, particularly if the people in the company aren’t present, they’re just kind of sending you out there or they’re not even based in that location, so they’re in hotels as well. Yeah. So if it’s an individual with their project, be it personal or professional, then more often than not yit’s a spare room or a comfy sofa.
Did it take any adjustment to keep staying with strangers?
It certainly took a bit of time to get into the swing of getting a good night’s sleep when your bed changes at least every week. But as you know, I’m relatively easygoing and all the people who’ve invited me are — by the very nature of the spirit of what they’re doing — quite open minded, so I’ve never had any problem with getting on with those who have hosted me. It’s more what I find to be managing my energy levels. Because there is a lot of work to do and you don’t have your own room or house, so it’s just kind of trying to listen to yourself and you might need a quieter day or a day just to be on the laptop or just balancing all that really.
What do you do between projects? Like is there downtime between trades or do they all go back to back?
So yeah, by design they are all back to back. It means there are no gaps where I have to spend money, it’s just straight on from host to host. And then, normally there’s room for days off or days doing other things, so that’s kind of factored into the balancing it a bit. But there are occasions where I might stop in the UK for a week or something like that between flying places. That can become a bit more downtime.
Has the experience affected your relationship with consumerism?
Yeah, I think it does detach you from spending for a bit. Certainly, for a year I’m not in a position where I’m buying things. For the last year, I’ve not really added anything to my suitcase, unless sometimes through trades I’ve gotten stuff I need. If you detach from that, you suddenly realize how far and how long you can go for without the stuff I would purchase semi-regularly when I was working. It’s something I’ve quite enjoyed actually, the kind of efficiency to it really. Like I said, just the one suitcase and the rucksack, and I can kind of go anywhere with that.
How long do you think you’re going to be able to sustain doing the trades? Do you have a plan? Are you just going to do it until it feels natural to stop?
So maybe factor that in is how well I think I’m succeeding and proceeding towards the every continent goal. I like the idea of doing it for another year or two. I’m quite drawn to the idea of it being a really substantial body of work. It’d be one thing to do a year of it of course, it’s what I’ve already done and good use to all these experiences so far. But I’d like to wonder what I’d achieve after three years of doing it that’s already progressed at this rate. I’d hope that’d be quite something.
I see you’re a brand ambassador for a couple of companies, how did that happen?
So that’s just been through the project. Keen Europe discovered my project really early on while I was back in the UK, and I’ve done a couple of trades with them. Relatively recently, I did a little shoot for them in Rotterdam for one of their upcoming campaigns, and then, as part of that trade they’re supplying me with footwear for my project, which was helpful because I was wearing holes through the bottom of shoes I had at the time.
And the other one was the same. It was a company I met in Nuremberg. They’ve both come through the project. It’s another form of trade really, in order to supply the things that have a lifespan, so I’m okay in that department.
So, you have Hong Kong and New York. Anything else, any other trades planned, or do you not work that far out?
I’d hopefully like to start building more and more ahead. The same event company that gets me to Hong Kong will also get me to Dubai in November, and from there I’m not sure. I’m hoping if I’m going to be on that side of the world I’d love to get to Australia and maybe more of Asia. It’s just a case of finding the demand really, because obviously I’m led where people are interested enough to be, “Yeah we’ll trade with you, we’ll cover your way here.”