A Photographer’s Pursuit of Adventure and Self-Discovery on a Bike

Offset photographer Nicolás Marino shares his bicycle journey around the world and the unique perspective of shooting on two wheels.

Nicolás Marino is many things. He’s a photographer, an architect, a 3D artist, and an avid storyteller. However, beneath the many hats he wears, Marino says he is, first and foremost, a traveler.

But, not in the typical sense. There is nothing typical about the way Nicolás Marino travels. His chosen mode of transportation is a bicycle, which he uses to travel extraordinary distances—90,000 kilometers to be exact—across an unfathomable 90 countries. Which begs the question: What inspires the sheer grit and determination needed to travel such great distances, across grueling terrains, on two wheels—with photography gear in tow?

Part of the answer lies in the results of Marino’s breathtaking photography: a genuine labor of love that is translated in the photos he takes. We spoke to the photographer behind the lens to learn what goes into the makings of a true travel and adventure photographer.

In a remote settlement on the Tibetan Plateau, grandparents are in charge of looking after their grandchildren while their parents work the fields, herding yaks. Offset image by Nicolas Marino/Mauritius Images.

An Interview with Nicolás Marino

Shutterstock: Thank you for speaking to us today! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Nicolás Marino: I was born and grew up in Buenos Aires. Since I was very little, I’ve had this insatiable curiosity for exploring the world. Maps would grab my attention, and I’d spend hours and hours scrutinizing them, reading the countries’ names and down to the tiniest little villages. I couldn’t help but wonder what this or that place would be like—its food, its people, its customs. I started traveling from a very early age—first with my parents across Argentina and neighboring countries, and then on my own as a backpacker. After I graduated as an architect, I left my country, and since then, I’ve been living and traveling around the world. I converted to cycle-traveler, and photography went from being my most beloved hobby to my full-time job.

SSTK: So, you’ve essentially married your love of travel with photography—that’s incredible! Was there a defining moment that made you realize travel photography is your calling?

NM: When I started traveling the world, back in the days when the internet was still in diapers and email was only starting, I had this huge yearning to show my family and friends what I saw and experienced. That was the first trigger. My first trip to Asia, back in 1999, was the turning point. I felt the need to capture every moment, beautiful and ugly, striving to retain the feelings and emotions I was going through in any given place and time. A year later, on my second trip, I bought my first film SLR, a Nikon F60, and from then on, I never stopped.

A Tibetan Monk Traveling on a Motorcycle
A Tibetan monk drives past a reservoir near Sershul, Kham, Tibet, after a snowstorm on a motorcycle. Offset image by Nicolas Marino/Mauritius Images.

SSTK: And the rest was history! At what point did you decide to continue your travels around the world on a bike?

NM: After graduating from university, I exchanged my backpack for a new bicycle and a set of panniers I bought in Tehran and set off on my first cycling trip across Asia, from Tehran to Shanghai, in 2006. I settled in China and spent six years there working as an architect, and became more and more proficient as a photographer on the side. Years later, when I decided to leave China, I did so by bicycle. One of the many purposes was to give professional photography a shot and document the world as it came my way. So, starting in Chengdu where I was living, I’d pedal 62,000 kilometers in four continents, half of it cycling the entire African continent alone. I decided to end the trip in Sydney five years later. By that time, I had cycled 90,000 kilometers and been to 90 countries.

Mongolian Nomadic Family
A Mongolian nomadic family, Mongolia. Offset image by Nicolas Marino/Mauritius Images.

SSTK: Incredible. What does traveling the world by bike afford you in terms of your photography and overall experience?

NM: It provides me with unprecedented access to the intimacy of the culture I visit. To me, this is truly invaluable. When you travel by bicycle, you spend your entire life living either in the wild when you are on your own or with local people. You go way past the famous attractions and penetrate deep into the culture. So, on the one hand, you’ve got the natural world all for yourself to photograph. On the other, people bring you into their lives and share it with you on the deepest levels, giving exclusive access to their humanity. 

SSTK: That’s beautiful. How do you think traveling on two wheels compares to, say, traveling on public transport in terms of photographic opportunities?

NM: In my opinion, the true difference, as I mentioned before, is the degree to which you penetrate the intimacy of the culture. It is one thing to meet people on the train, but a completely different one to wake up every morning in the privacy of people’s homes or villages, being taken care of as part of the family, living alongside them in their daily habits and routines, experiencing life, almost seamlessly, as if you were part of them. The insight that you gain from these experiences—not once in a while, but nearly every single day, and in places where you’d never ever think of getting off while traveling on motorized vehicles—is what puts you in a privileged position. 

A Tibetan Nomad in the Tibetan Plateau
A Tibetan nomad smiles in a meadow of the Tibetan Plateau. Offset image by Nicolas Marino/Mauritius Images.

SSTK: What a unique and inspiring way to travel. Of all the incredible places you have visited, which countries, would you say, top the list?

NM: So many, really. Every place is so unique. While living in China, I got to cycle to my favorite place in the world—Tibet—where I’d undertake several extreme expeditions. I became fascinated by spending time with Tibetan people across one of the harshest environments on earth and photographing their lives. Given that the Chinese government is on a quest to systematically exterminate Tibetan culture, I felt even more responsible for capturing what could be the last images from such an incredible place.

In very similar ways, but without the political turmoil, Mongolia is the closest I’ve felt to living a fairytale. Others are Sudan, Indonesia, Iran, India, Guinea, Nigeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, South Africa, Central African Republic, Congo, to name a few.

SSTK: Can you tell me which photo series you are most proud of?

NM: One of my favorites is from the three weeks I spent living with the Bayaka Pygmies in a remote rainforest corner of the Central African Republic. Then, the photos I took of gold miners in the Sahara Desert and my collection of images of grandparents and grandchildren around the world, which is very dear to me.

Two Basotho Boys in Lesotho, Africa
Two young Basotho boys pictured riding a donkey in a field of wildflowers in Lesotho, Africa. Offset image by Nicolas Marino/Mauritius Images.

SSTK: As for equipment, what do you use to take your travel photography?

NM: Until not long ago, I used to carry a full-frame DSLR body, the Nikon D800, together with the holy trinity of lenses: 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm. These days, technology is so sophisticated that the differences between such high-end gear, and even mobile devices, have shrunk by a lot, and they are sometimes negligible in social media. Now, I moved on to the full-frame, mirrorless Nikon Z6, and I’m building an f1.8 prime lineup of 20mm or 24-35mm, and 85mm. When superb optical quality isn’t a must, I’m very comfortable shooting with my OnePlus 7 Pro phone for outstanding results. 

SSTK: After everything you’ve experienced, what has been one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a travel photographer?

NM: That photography comes second. In the beginning, I was over-excited about photographing everything. However, as I grew more and more experienced and devoted most of my time with people, I realized that the photography I wanted to take was natural in consequence, spontaneous moments of pure and genuine interactions I was having. It became very clear to me that I wanted my images to be the result of that and not the end in itself. Photos would need to flow naturally, and that meant they might not even flow at all. I’d accept that happily because I understood that photos of people aren’t trophies.

A Tea House in Farafra, Egypt
A man from the Sahara Desert smokes shisha in a traditional tea house in Farafra Oasis, Egypt. Offset image by Nicolas Marino/Mauritius Images.

SSTK: For now, the pandemic has put everyone’s travel plans on hold, but looking ahead, do you think your journey will ever end? 

NM: No, it won’t until this body gives up, which will only give way to a new journey anyway. Once this pandemic ordeal starts to fade, I can hopefully set off to explore some of the places that, for some reason, I couldn’t explore yet. The Indian Himalayas, Chad and Niger, Georgia and Armenia, eastern Siberia, some islands of eastern Indonesia, and I wish to live to see the day in which I can visit Yemen.

Cover image by Nicolas Marino.

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