Get to Know Sheila Archer: Photo Guiding in North America’s Busiest City

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Sheila Archer is a native Brooklynite with a passion for photographing urban imagery. Trained at the International Center for Photography, she is also a New York City Licensed Sightseeing Guide who recently served as a Municipal Art Society Docent conducting Grand Central Terminal tours. We caught up with Sheila between shoots and asked her what it’s like to be a photo guide in the city that never sleeps.

Hi Sheila, your background is in photography so how did you come to be a tour guide in Brooklyn?

First of all, I am a native Brooklynite. But the idea for Brooklyn NY Photo Adventures began in Paris three years ago when a photographer friend of mine took me night shooting in several off-the-beaten-track places, unfamiliar even to native Parisians. While we shot, he filled me in on historical and cultural details of each locale. They were the best tours I had ever taken. It inspired me to replicate that experience for photographers/visitors curious about Brooklyn, drawn to its renaissance in street style, attitude, and culture.

Upon my return, I researched neighborhoods layered with history, multi-cultural life and a very particular urban rhythm that I call “the soul of Brooklyn.” After walking for hours in different seasons and all kinds of weather, I formulated a relaxed, intimate, insider’s tour for like-minded explorers, the only tour of its kind in Brooklyn. 

I had been to this spot during the day on many occasions but wanted to shoot it at night and have that building window in the foreground to give it an intimate feel. I was lucky that there were two buses mid-point and a slight fog for the background.

What does a typical day look like for you?

If I am giving a day tour, I meet up with my clients by 9:30 a.m. We spend the next three hours walking and shooting in the locale they have chosen. Based on their skills and goals, I give them the technical tips they need. But just as important to their photography, I want to impart a feel for the history and culture of that neighborhood as well as for Brooklyn. Photography is not just technique, it is truly a state of mind, being able to experience a place and have that translate into an image. Most of all, I want everyone to enjoy themselves.

On the days I am not giving a tour, I am usually out shooting my personal work. Always I am exploring since New York is a constantly changing city. Much of my time is spent researching both history and current cultural events. I also write a blog on street photography. And, last but certainly not least, I am always busy marketing my tours. Running my own business is exciting but it is a 24/7 merry-go-round.

Whew, I just looked at what I do and decided I need to go get a cup of coffee.

"I went to Williamsburg early Sunday morning to shoot street art. I was heading to the subway when I saw this couple in front of this incredible panorama. Pulled out my camera & knew this was my 'sweet' shot of the day."
Have you got a certain style of guiding, or do you just run with it on the day?

My style is basically to put visitors at ease. Prior to the actual tour, I usually send each person a questionnaire in order to find out if they have any special requests, what their skill level is, what equipment they will be carrying, etc. When we meet I am ready to give them individualized attention.

Flexibility is really important based on the visitor, the weather and all the unknowns connected to conducting a city tour. For instance, on one occasion we started talking to a Minister of a local, very small church, which was under reconstruction. He invited us in to see what they were doing and we ended up hearing a wonderful history of the church and the neighborhood. It was a totally unplanned and enjoyable experience.

What is the best part of your job?

Meeting and talking with people from all over the world is absolutely the best part. And I love seeing a light go on when they’ve learned something new, applied it and then got the shot they wanted. That is very fulfilling for me.

“I am always busy marketing my tours. Running my own business is exciting but it is a 24/7 merry-go-round. Whew, I just looked at what I do and decided I need to go get a cup of coffee!”

Every job has its ups and downs. Are there any aspects of your job that you don’t like or aren’t that keen on?

I really love what I do. The only issue that becomes problematic is rough weather, as in this past winter. It is simply impossible to conduct a street photography seminar/tour in snowy, icy, zero degree weather!

As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain to our readers what the benefits of hiring a guide are?

Two things ring out. One, when you are on vacation, time and energy can be limited. Working with a guide, who knows the territory, will give you an in-depth look at a neighborhood and places that even the locals don’t know.

Two, good guides are up on all that is current. Street art is a big attraction for visitors. But from one week to the next there are changes. New York City is fast-paced. Buildings go up almost overnight and old buildings are renovated either revealing or discarding architectural detail. Again, staying on top of what is changing takes a dedicated tour guide.

"I trekked to Brighton on a cold morning and angled my tripod and camera for an interesting view and to catch the first rays of sun. Along came this man walking his dog. Took a couple of shots then went to find a warm place for breakfast."
In your view, what makes a good tour guide?

Knowledge, authenticity and thoroughly enjoying what they do.

And finally, have you got any tips for people who are interested in booking a guide like yourself, but aren’t too sure what to look for?

Ask questions. Email them, call them. Their responses will tell you what you need to know.

For more about Sheila's life as a Photo Guide, check out her blog at: www.brooklynnyphotoadventures.wordpress.com

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  • Anonymous
    Reply

    If you are a friend of Joseph Duncan who currently lives in Oklahoma, we met you years ago in Montclair, NJ and I would love to hear from you. Call
    email sd25476@gmail.com.

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