Travel Writer Zachary Williams Photographs “Orphaned” Nations

Shelby Herbert reconnects with an acquaintance from her aborted Nepalese Peace Corps and finds out he’s pursued his adventures through adventurous photography and reporting.

The interviewee above in the middle of it in Pakistan.

The last time I saw Zachary Williams in the flesh, we were standing in front of a mountain of luggage at a Peace Corps consolidation point in Kathmandu as we were in the process of evacuating from our Peace Corps service at the earliest stages of the pandemic.

All 50-something of us were dogged from having been hastily flown or bussed into Kathmandu from nearly every corner of the country. We were in various states of cleanliness and inebriation and distress. A cavalcade of guilt, grief, and relief that our 2.5-year commitment to hard scrabble volunteering was suddenly over.

Zachary waved me over to where he was unloading his bags. “Sherri says hi,” he said, offhandedly.

What?” I asked.

I was gobsmacked. Sherri was a close family friend from my small hometown in North Carolina, who had taught at the same high school as my mom. Her stories of her Peace Corps service in El Salvador inspired me to apply from the very program that was, at that moment, cutting us loose for the foreseeable future.

“You know Sherri?” I spluttered.

We’re both North Carolinians, but from opposite ends of the state. The odds he’d connected me to somebody I knew personally from my small town — and completely out of the blue — were ridiculous. Was I coming down with heatstroke?

The explanation was actually rather simple: Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, “RPCVs,” are a tight-knit bunch — digitally speaking. News of the Peace Corps’ immediate suspension of all global activities had reached our loved ones back home before it had reached most of us. My family had gone some time without hearing from me, and she located Zachary through a North Carolina RPCV Facebook group for answers.

“She wanted to know if you were okay, and then she told me to give you a hug,” he said.

We just nodded at each other.

Zachary wasn’t someone I knew particularly well over the course of my cohort’s training period. He struck me as one of those inaccessibly, almost intimidatingly-cool types of people. This impression wasn’t ameliorated by the fact that he had been called down from his post to audit the demo classes we taught.

Another senior volunteer characterized him as a “badass” and a “character” who went to Nepali metal concerts and had near-misses with arrests and kidnappings on his international photojournalism projects. After interviewing Williams about his experience as a travel writer and studying his blog, Orphaned Nation, I cannot say that those initial impressions have changed.

“I have used the name ‘Orphaned Nation’ since 2012, after a conversation I had with a friend about how the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 left many states to fend for themselves, or being ‘Orphaned’ by their model or parent state,” Williams writes of his project.

“I have since used this name to apply to traveling; wandering around from place to place, especially with an interest in the politics and social issues of each of the countries I visit. It is my goal to share stories, travel advice, and photography from each of the countries I travel to, as well as to build a community based on mutual aid to help each other to travel to the farthest corners of the globe.”

The following Q&A has been edited and reformatted for clarity.

What have you been up to since evacuation? What brought you to Taiwan?

ZW: So after we got back, I got accepted to grad school in Bangkok — basically for teaching English — but then, of course, that also fell through because of COVID. So my first four months back in America felt kind of wasted. And at one point I said to myself, ‘Well, I can’t stay here in America for much longer — for my own sanity.’

And Taiwan was always a place I wanted to go and live — I visited in 2018. And just for the fact that I’ve lived in China for five years I know that there’s so much history and culture that you read about that can only be found in books. And then when you go to Taiwan, you see it actually being embodied by the people. Of course, there are other traditions in China that don’t exist in Taiwan — I guess it’s kind of a give-and-take.

But even from my own Western perspective, when you think of China, you’re thinking about, like, dragon dances and lion dances and… y’know… all of these very colorful [traditions]. And then, when you go to China, you’re like, “Oh. None of that’s actually here.” But in Taiwan, all of that is very much alive. [You get to see] other parts of the culture which have slowly died out, or were otherwise snuffed out by the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution (…) So that’s what originally brought me here to Taiwan.

But within the last year, I’ve unfortunately kinda lost the habit of writing because of COVID. I haven’t stopped taking pictures, but it’s not always necessarily with the goal of telling stories in mind.

When I was back in America, I think [I struggled] trying to use the same “lens” I use when I’m abroad. I like seeing festivals and holidays. I like seeing culture come alive — seeing people embody their culture.

And I gave it a shot back in America — I used to go to, like, Black history month events, country barbecues, bluegrass festivals… Native American pow wows… Things you could point to and say, “This is American culture.” But since COVID came into effect, I couldn’t do any of that stuff! So I just started going out and taking pictures.

So the thing I ended up doing was just riding around the countryside, trying to capture some beauty and… Oh! And then I got threatened with a gun on a guy’s farm — like, he said he was gonna shoot me! Yeah. That kind of extinguished my flame to go up and take pictures and talk to people.

Wow, that sure sounds like North Carolina! Could you speak a bit about what led up to that?

ZW: So, I wanna say that I don’t just hop over things to take pictures, and that I keep away if I see an obvious fence or a sign that says, “No Trespassing.” And I always go into these things with the understanding that I’m not doing anything wrong — that I don’t mean anybody harm. And if I see anybody, I’ll come over and say, “Hey! How you doing? Is this your land? Do you mind if I snap some photos here..?”

That sounds perfectly reasonable.

ZW: Well, it almost got me shot! So basically, whenever I’d be driving around and see something cool, I’d just pull over the car and take pictures of it. And what caught my eye that day was this dilapidated little house with like the roof caved in — and then behind it, there were all these cows in a pasture.

So, I started taking pictures of this collapsing house and the cows — behind a fence, mind you — and this guy came up to me on his four-wheeler. He said, “You know… you’re coming out here, and it’s really dangerous. This is how people get shot.” Then he said something like… “You know how people say: Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness? That’s bullshit.”

And I was just like, “…Sir, if you want me to leave, I’ll leave. I have no ill-intentions here. I just saw the abandoned house and wanted to take pictures of your cows.”

What?! Could you tell if he had a side-arm?

ZW: Well, it’s rural North Carolina. You can safely assume. But then in the end — he ended up talking to me for like thirty minutes about his cows!

So yeah, that’s what’s so different about doing this in America — and maybe you could attribute this to the white privilege we have abroad. But almost anywhere else I’ve been, if I accidentally stumbled into somebody’s property, they’d invite me in for tea or something.

SH: On that note, what’s the riskiest situation you’ve ever found yourself in on a photojournalism project?

ZW: Well, there have been a couple close calls… The one that comes to mind is when I nearly got thrown into an unmarked car in Turkmenistan while I was taking some lightstream pictures. I think they were just trying to get money, because in Ashgabat, you can get fined for nearly anything — like having a dirty car.

So, I had my tripod out and I was trying to do a long-exposure shot of some neon lights. And then an unmarked police vehicle came up to me, and I just blurted out one of the only things I knew in Russian:

“Ya ne ponimayu po-russki. Ya glupyy amerikanets.” [Я не понимаю по-русски. Я глупый американец.] And that basically means, “I don’t understand Russian, I’m a stupid American.” That phrase usually gets me through most of my conversations.

But yeah, they stopped me and asked why I was taking pictures and I was like, “Oh, look at this — beautiful, beautiful building and all the lightstreams from cars… But if you want me to delete them, I’ll delete them! No problem.” But they kept on telling me that they were taking me to the station to pay money — and all the while, they’re trying to shove me into this unmarked vehicle.

So that was the closest call I’ve had for almost getting arrested… But then this other time, I was trapped in Afghanistan for two weeks. I was in this little border village, hanging out for a couple days. And it was just one of those places that are really hard to get out of — if you go up to the mountains, you’re basically stuck there for a month. And I wasn’t really feeling like being in the mountains for that length of time… But then I couldn’t really go anywhere else, because the Taliban was like two kilometers away.

How did you know the Taliban was two kilometers away?

ZW: Oh, people would just come right out and tell us.

So, like, when you cross the border into Afghanistan, you have to go to the police station and give them like ten passport photos. And at one point, I was just walking towards the market and I saw a couple guys walking towards me — they were holding hands, which is a culturally acceptable thing for men to do in some countries — and one of them comes up to me and pulls one of my pictures out of his robes and says, “Heheheh, secret police.” And then he tucked my picture back into his robes and walked away.

But anyway, it was Eid and they were going to close down the border for like two weeks. And so there was this huge rush to get out of the country, and I found some Polish mountaineers who had just gotten off the mountain and we just piled into their car. And this is, again, white privilege — which is kind of unfortunate — but they saw us and just let us cross the border.

But Afghanistan is amazing! I was invited into so many people’s homes. I would just be walking around and everyone was giving me food, giving me tea… Just being extremely nice to me — which, I mean, they really didn’t have a reason to be.

If you had to direct a complete stranger to your work to a single story you’ve produced, which one would you choose?

ZW: Probably the Yulin dog meat festival, which everybody knows about because… you know. But my whole thing is that I’ll hear something that says, “Alright, this is evil — these people are evil.” And then I’ll want to go over there and see for myself — are these people really that bad?

So I went to Yulin. And my first night in my hotel, at three in the morning, I had like ten police at my door. I literally had to answer that door in my boxers. They came into my hotel room and they started asking me questions like, “Why are you here?”

They thought you were an activist.

ZW: Yeah. I mean, there’s tons of people who go to this thing and take videos — mostly people from other parts of China or foreign tourists. And from the Yulin perspective, foreigners are the people who advocate for not eating dogs. They’re the ones who come here to protest.

So, [the police] asked me why I was there, and I told them I was just a tourist. And I’ve actually eaten dog before, so I really have no qualms about… eating… dog. And it’s not like they’re just grabbing somebody’s pet off the street! It’s not like they’re kidnapping and killing “Fluffy” — like, it’s a certain kind of dog that they [raise to] eat. I’d also heard some pretty sensational stories about how they torture the dogs before they eat them… Because it’s supposed to make it taste better, or something? But that’s kind of the reason I wanted to go — like, okay, are the streets really going to be running red with dog blood? Are they really going to be tortured? What’s actually happening here?

So the police took my videos and my passport, and I told them in Chinese, “Hey, do what you want, you’re the police. I get that this is just a security thing and you’re doing your job.” And then they were like, “Okay, fine, you can have your stuff back and keep doing what you’re doing. But you’ll have a police escort with you every day.”

Sure enough, every time I walked down to the hotel lobby in the morning, a plainclothes officer would be waiting for me there. This was actually a great help, because when I went to the market, I found out that the presence of journalists and activists had driven a lot of what I came to see into the background. And when I found that part of the market, one of the community police came up to me and started pushing me around while I was taking pictures.

So I turned to him and was like, “What’s up, man?” He asked me why I was there, and I told him I was just participating in the festival — not reporting, just participating. Mind you, this guy wasn’t [part of] the “proper” police — not like my plainclothes escort, who was always about five steps behind me.

And when the community policeman started threatening to beat me up, I started [trying to leave the market], but he kept on following me, until I got stopped at a red light at a crosswalk. Fortunately for me, that’s when my cop stepped in to stop him.

That sounds so tricky! Do you have a certain set of ethics you follow for cross-cultural reporting?

ZW: My thing is always going into a place with respect and treating people with respect. That’s pretty much what it comes down to — that I am a guest, no matter where I am. Whether I’m in America, whether I’m in Taiwan, in Nepal… If you’re going to be taking pictures, you are a guest.

I think that when you’re taking a picture, y’know, you’re literally behind the glass. You’re [on the] outside looking in, and you’re not actually participating in the event you’re photographing. And that can be kind of sad sometimes! Because maybe you see something really awesome you really want to participate in — and that’s when you leave the camera home, because you don’t want to be that “outsider.”

Whenever you have the camera, you’re that outsider. And when you’re invading people’s lives, invading an event — you need to be aware of: “Am I getting in the way of what they’re doing.” Am I getting in people’s way? Am I shoving my camera in their faces? Even if I was invited to be here — am I overstepping my boundaries? Am I pushing through the glass too much?

Can you tell me about the most memorable person you’ve met doing one of these projects?

ZW: So, for some context, when I go somewhere, I just love taking pictures of people. It helps you get good stories, it gives you good experiences… And I love nature, I love architecture, I love all that stuff. But if it’s devoid of people? I just don’t get as much out of it. It’s always the people that makes it special.

And I think the Middle East is a place where women photojournalists really shine — they’re really able to go into some spaces where male journalists haven’t been able to. Men usually have no problem with me taking their picture, but it’s not always culturally acceptable to ask a woman the same. And I definitely don’t do candids, because that’s a great way to get your ass kicked. I find this unfortunate, because it’s really difficult to really tell the story of a place by exclusively representing men.

But I remember this woman I met in Iraqi-Kurdistan — to put things into perspective, I didn’t even have a conversation with her, because I don’t think she could speak English. I wasn’t having any luck getting people to let me take their pictures that day, and then I saw this group of women dressed in these beautiful traditional hijabs and I said to myself, “Why not. Lemme just go up and ask them.”

And so I just went up and said, “Hey, I’m a photographer and I’m trying to write about the area… And I have these little business cards, if you wanna see.” I carry those around with me because it makes me look more official.

Then they started telling me “no,” but then this one woman — she didn’t even say a word. She just motioned for me to follow her. So I started following her, and then she took me to a graveyard.

And then she laid down over one of these graves, where she let me take her picture. I was trying to parse out whether it was her husband who died — who this person was to her. And she picked this white flower from a nearby tree while she was getting emotional next to this tombstone — after which, she handed it to me.

But it really made me think, like, “Who am I?” I’m not working for Times Magazine or anything. I’m not working for a big publication. Who am I out here, masquerading as a professional? Like, I have a few thousand followers on Instagram. This [project] is really more for me than it is for anybody else, and if I can capture some interesting moments — great. But the realization that this woman really opened up a part of herself to me was like… Oof.

Any parting thoughts on your project?

ZW: I just want to say that I’m really humbled to be doing this, and that I’d like to plug a big influence of mine — Richard the Travel Tramp. He’s been doing a lot of amazing [travel writing] in England. I met him in North Korea, and we’ve traveled many, many places together since. I’m extremely grateful for him, and he’s been a huge inspiration for the work I do.

Zachary continues his work in Taiwan, documenting traditional festivals and the underground metal scene. He also collaborates with his girlfriend, Lynn (Instagram: @immortallynndesign), on her business startup promoting local musicians and creating wearable accessories from vintage cassette cases.

Media Tips Q and A by Shelby Herbert for the Reynolds Sandbox

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