On the last day of 2011, Kien Lam W’06 logged on to his YouTube and Vimeo accounts and posted a video he’d made. He’d been trying his hand at time-lapse videos since October, but there was something special about this new one. It swiftly became an Internet sensation and in less than a week, it had almost a million views on YouTube alone.
Titled “Time Is Nothing” or “Speeding Around the World in Under 5 Minutes,” depending on which video-sharing site you visit, Lam’s video has now been viewed more than two million times on YouTube. The New Yorker listed it as a “To watch” video. The Atlantic shared it with readers, too, and Lam even appeared on CNN to discuss his work.
In addition to its stunning photography, viewers loved the video’s inspiring back story: In August 2010, Lam left his job as a financial-firm strategist and spent 343 days traveling around the world. He visited 17 countries and took more than 6,000 photos. When he got home, he established himself as a professional photographer and, by the end of 2011, had fused his travel photos into a time-lapse video. (He even squeezed in a nod to Penn. Don’t miss the Locust Walk scene at 3:05.)
Now based in San Francisco, Lam put down his camera to answer a few questions about his incredible round-the-world trip.
Can you run me through the events that transformed you from a 9-to-5 employee into the world traveler who created this video?
I used to be very envious of the people I’d meet on my travels who told me they were traveling around the world for six months or a year at time. Where we met was simply just one of many places they would see on their journey. I would return from my two-week trip wishing that I could quit my job, pack a bag and explore the world more than one country at a time.
In 2010, I felt like it was a good as time as any to take a break from my career and travel before it became too hard to leave. I wrote down all the places I had always dreamed of traveling to, packed a bag and bought a one-way ticket to London, where I’d get to visit some friends and start my journey. I had a general idea of the direction I’d be headed, but I left it pretty open-ended. I didn’t always end up where I thought I’d be going and often times found my “itinerary” was created from city to city.
Along the way, I wanted to capture my journey in a way that could both preserve the spirit of the trip and what I experienced. I didn’t want to only capture beautiful landscapes devoid of people. How do you show the busy maze-like city of Fez without showing the people? How do you capture locals and visitors hurrying about in Taksim Square? Wherever I was, if there was some form of movement in the scenery and I happened to have my camera, I would set it down and take about 40 to 60 photographs timed a few seconds apart. As the pages of my passport filled up with stamps, so did my portable hard-drive with thousands of images that would eventually be put together to form this video a few months after I finished my travels.
Did you have regrets about leaving your job at any point on your trip?
It was a little unusual at first to think that I’d no longer be receiving a bi-weekly paycheck or that I had to wake up a certain time to get into the office, but that disappeared pretty early on. On a few occasions, I would miss the sense of accomplishment you get after delivering on a big project and grabbing celebratory drinks afterwards.
Tell me about some of the most memorable moments from your travels.
I am a big fan of scuba diving and I could go on and on about how amazing it feels to be underwater and watch as a school of barracudas dart about perfectly synchronized or swim ever closer to massive sharks or a baby turtles. Above land, I think about celebrating Christmas in 80-degree weather on a tropical island in Thailand, riding a motorbike through heavy Bali rush-hour traffic and returning the rental in one piece, and sleeping under the stars in the Sahara with nothing but miles and miles of sand in every direction.
Which places are at the top of your list to re-visit?
I would love to go back to relax on the beaches of Lagos, Portugal, dive around the islands in Thailand and Indonesia, and explore the landscapes of Bolivia and Peru.
What are you up to now?
Somewhere along the way, I made the decision to pursue photography as a full time professional and it is something I am dedicating my time to for the foreseeable future. Beyond just taking images, I like to tell stories and capture moments whether it’s with a camera, on film or with a brush on canvas. At the moment, I am splitting my time between portrait and wedding photography.
What about travel? Where are you hoping to go next?
I’d love to explore Eastern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, take the Trans-Siberian train between Russia, Mongolia and China, and somehow get to Antarctica to get to that seventh continent.