1.03 Crash Course

Tom Swindell

20 things that will help you stay alive and sane when you're shooting in a foreign country.

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Part of Tools of the Trade series

Welsh nomad Tom Swindell is a freelance director and director of photography shooting mainly documentaries and music videos. He’s most at home somewhere strange and unknown, whether shooting music videos waist-deep in the Trinidadian seas or hanging out of cars following street dogs in Sierra Leone.

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Here are some bits of kit that he never goes without.

1: Condom
Put this over the smoke alarm in your hotel room so that you can open the window and have a smoke in there. If you run a hot shower at the same time the steam will help dissipate the smoke.

2: Wet Wipes and Travel Tissues
Nobody wants to be turning up to a toilet with no paper. Especially useful in some Islamic countries where toilet paper isn’t provided as standard.

3: Small Bottle of Liquor
Useful when the time comes to knock yourself out on the first night. A little whiskey and hot water helps me settle after a long flight. Remember, though, that not all countries permit alcohol!

4: Long-Sleeve Shirts
It may seem strange to pack long-sleeve shirts when heading somewhere hot but trust me, you would rather be slightly hot than have your arms eaten by mosquitoes. I find the ready-made anti-mosquito shirts handy because it means I don’t have to cover my normal clothes in nasty chemical repellents, which often leave a stain.

5: Small Blanket
I take one everywhere because it helps give me a sense of home and familiarity in distant lands.

6: Flight Socks
If you’re going to be on a flight for more than 12 hours, I would recommend these. A friend of mine developed deep vein thrombosis during a long flight and had to have costly surgery.

7: First Aid Kit
Since one of my best friends died in a car accident in Uganda I have travelled with one of these. It is was not the impact of the car crash that killed her; she bled to death during the long drive to the nearest hospital. A first aid kit with decent bandages could have saved her life.

A first aid kit could have saved my friend’s life

8: Secret Wallet
I suggest you never travel with one debit card. If you lose it, you’re screwed, because your British bank likely doesn’t have a branch in Cambodia, Burkina Faso or even New York.

Make sure you have at least two credit or debit cards and don’t keep them in the same place. I once fell asleep drunk on the subway after filming a party in Manhattan. While heading back to my house in Queens, I woke up to a guy pickpocketing me. I should have known better but sleeping on the train is kinda safe in London, so I was too relaxed.

I once woke up to a guy pickpocketing me on the New York subway

9: Wallet Chain
You might feel like a proper 90s goth but who gives a fuck; a chain really helps against pickpockets and would probably have saved me from getting robbed on that subway train in New York.

10: Photocopies of Your Passport
I normally give one to my producer and keep another on me at all times. Once I got pulled over in Mexico by the Federal Police. We didn’t have our passports on us or enough money for a bribe; we were in a cartel-run area where the only foreign people who visit are usually involved in the drugs trade. The day before, an American who’d been buying cocaine was decapitated and their head was left on the roadside to ward off others – vibez were a little tense in the area after that and the feds wanted proof of who we were. We got taken to the station and eventually sorted it out but a photocopy of my passport and a driver’s licence could have saved us the fuss.

11: Silica Gel
I'm talking about those weird little packages that say “do not eat” on them. These things absorb moisture, so can be really handy if you’re taking your lenses into ultra-humid environments like jungles or rainforests. They help prevent condensation in the lenses or camera.

12: Comedy Movie
It might sound trivial but some documentary shoots can be very stressful. I was once staying in some nasty accommodation in Ghana. Every time I tried to screw the mosquito net into the ceiling the plaster would crumble and it would fall down; tape couldn’t hold the weight of the net. We were getting bitten all night. The place stank of shit because the director did a great big poo in the toilet the first night then realised that it didn’t flush, so we just lived with it for three nights. It was not easy to sleep but I remember on the third night we watched a funny film on the director’s laptop and it took us away from our situation for a couple of hours, helping us to finally relax.

13: Picture Dictionary
Now we have iPhones, which you can use to quickly google any image you require. But before that many Japanese travellers would use picture dictionaries to help describe what they were after. I don’t carry one of these any more but I do keep some useful images saved in my phone. For example, I don’t eat pork so I keep a screenshot of a pig with a big red X through it in my phone. This is so handy for me – just the other day I ordered a veggie deluxe pizza on a shoot in Tokyo and it came with added ham. So when I returned to the restaurant the next day I showed them the “no pork” photos and got the veggie snack I desired.

14: MP3 Player
Remember those? I’m talking about the early generation of iPod. I sometimes find it hard to sleep when I’m staying in mad locations; a couple of years ago I was filming a documentary off the coast of Iran on a Bengali fishing boat.

The director said I could sleep for a couple of hours while the fishing nets were down. There were cockroaches all over and the boat was swaying like mad. So I put my iPod on and that helped me relax and feel at home. I have one particular album of Indian bansuri flute music that is so mellow it helps me to chill even in the strangest environments.

I have one particular album of Indian flute music that helps me chill even in the strangest environments

15: Roll of Cinefoil
You can order these online. It’s like tin foil but coated in a matte black paint. Most people think lighting a scene is about adding light but you can also be creative and gain control over how a room’s looking if you remove light. You can use cinefoil to block off nasty ceiling lights in offices, or to make a standard table light into something more useful.

16: Cheap Mobile Phone
Normally an old Nokia will do, sometimes you don’t want a smartphone because they can make you prone to theft or traceable in an area where you’re trying to work incognito.

17: Health and Safety Training
For a lot of people health and safety is something to moan about but I lost my brother, two grandparents and a good friend to preventable accidents, so it’s worth doing a one-day course in H&S. You learn how to spot risks as they occur and plan carefully for the worst possible outcome of any situation.

18: Desert Hat
These are normally shaped like a baseball hat up front but also have a special mullet-like flap at the back, which is designed to keep the sun off your neck. I often combine mine with a mini flannel or small towel that I put on my head before the hat. That will soak up the sweat so that your hat is not minging by the end of the day, then you can just wash the towel each night.

19: ND Filters
These were not so important to me growing up in the UK; there was never much light around but the second I landed in West Africa I was blown away by the intense light levels. You are going to need a variable ND filter for your lens because the ND that is provided by the camera is often not enough to control that Saharan Sunshine.


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