When we challenge ourselves to push beyond the barriers that stop us from chasing our dreams, the options that lay before us seem almost endless. This is the lesson that photographer and traveller Shantanu Starick has learned during his project The Pixel Trade, through which he travels around the world exchanging his services as a professional photographer for basics such as food, accommodation and transport. He conceived the idea for the project after working as a professional photographer, and the moment he finally emptied his wallet and let himself embrace the openness of complete strangers, he discovered a way of life that has enriched his soul.
Relying completely on strangers to understand and support the concept of travelling around the world without a cent may seem like a daunting undertaking, but Shantanu Starick has long harboured a spirit of adventure. Growing up in the Border Ranges of northern New South Wales, Shantanu spent his childhood days lost in the thick wilderness of the mountain that was his backyard. His “hippie parents” allowed him to roam free through the forest, trusting him to stay out of harm’s way, or the path of a wily snake.
During those days, he didn’t think much about the future, instead preferring to immerse himself in his adventures. As he grew older, he inevitably started to think about the future, but his daydreams were always underpinned by a youthful, playful spirit. “When I started to think about careers, it alternated between creating board games for kids and then computer games started to come into the scene, so it changed a lot,” he recalls.
No matter how small or grand his ideas were, Shantanu’s parents were always supportive, encouraging him to chase his dreams no matter how hard it seemed. “Whenever someone said ‘This is the way you have to do something,’ or ‘If you want to do that you have to go through A, B and C to get there,’ I was always taught to not accept that as the only way to go about something,” he recalls.
Eventually, he developed an interest in photography, but, scared that he might undermine his passion, resisted pursuing it professionally. Despite his hesitation, however, he started to make some money from his photos and, gradually, came to realise that he could happily spend all of his days immersed in the thing that gave him so much joy. But just a few years into his career as a photographer, Shantanu became unsettled and realised that it wasn’t photography that was the problem, but rather the money he was making.
“I made good money and I was in a good position, so it became this thing of really just allowing me to enjoy what I wanted to do,” he explains. “At least that’s what I thought, but then I realised that I spent so much time planning money rather than actually doing the things that I was making the money for.”
It was at this moment that Shantanu truly began to understand the advice of his parents that had echoed throughout his childhood. Inspired to find a way to exist without money, he revisited an idea he had previously scrawled in a sketchbook. The initial idea was to travel and use photography as a form of payment where he could, but he now began to wonder whether it could be possible to travel exclusively off his photographic services, trading photography for life’s essentials. The more he thought about the idea, the more sense it made, and six months later he named it The Pixel Trade, packed up his camera gear and set up his first trade with a couple – a musician and an interior designer – in Melbourne.
Since that first exchange on home soil, his trades have taken him around the world and have ranged from taking photographs for companies in exchange for clothing or flights, to capturing images of people’s neighbourhoods or weddings in return for accommodation and some of the best food Shantanu says he has ever eaten. When organising a trade, the people he is trading with will often ask what else he needs, and that’s where necessities such as a new toothbrush are taken care of.
“It’s become this nice thing of only needing and not wanting,” he explains of his new way of life. “I no longer walk past a shop and want things, because I actually don’t really need them.”
Now at the age of 25, Shantanu has done more travelling than many people will achieve in their entire lives, with his nomadic existence taking him from opulent lodgings in winery estates to crumbling dwellings in remote pockets of the globe. One of the things he likes most about the idea is that he can offer his services to people who can’t afford to have the photographs taken and those who will allow him to unleash his creativity. “One of my favourites is people asking me to photograph the area that they live in to see what my perspective of that is,” he enthuses.
And while he has no idea where his adventure will take him next, Shantanu says that each exchange is always enriching in its own way. “When you don’t involve money in a relationship and your life becomes about a relationship with people based entirely on who they are and not how much you’re costing them or anything like that – the whole experience of being with them changes,” he explains of one of the greatest lessons he has learned on his journey. “It’s just purely this fascination between human beings and getting back to the raw elements of human interaction, so the experiences become great.”
During his wanderings, Shantanu has also discovered something he has long suspected: that it is he who has constructed many of the barriers in his life, and that he is the only one with the power to tear them down. By sacrificing comforts he previously thought he couldn’t live without, he has opened himself up to experiences that aren’t accessible from the confines of a hotel room. And it’s this realisation that has given him the confidence to continue pursuing his goal of visiting all seven continents.
“There have been barriers that I have overcome, but often they are only barriers because we think they are barriers,” he muses. “It comes back to convenience and comfort – it’s not actually that challenging, but it’s only because of what we are used to that it becomes a challenging thing. Once I can prove that you can get to every continent of the world without using a cent of money, then I want to go and try to prove something else, or go and help another culture or another group of people or something like that through another project.”
Just as The Pixel Trade has changed Shantanu’s perspective of what is possible in his life, he hopes that it will also encourage other people to expand upon his idea or try something similar. His advice to those afflicted by wanderlust is to have the courage to seize opportunities and put their ideas into action. “We’re lucky within Australia because when we have an idea to pursue something, a lot of the time it comes back to you being the only thing that is stopping you from doing it. There are a lot of people who don’t have that – you visit places and you think that the challenges and barriers they have are almost too great to break out of. The greatest thing I have achieved is the ability to realise we are gifted in that sense.”
He also shares the sage words of his parents that have long inspired him: “Question everything that is considered to be normal and find another pathway.”