Off The Wall With William Jans
"My misfortune is your entertainment!”
That, in a nutshell, is William Jans' mission statement. Jans is a B.C.-based corporate photographer, but he has a much more interesting sideline. One that involves travelling the planet in search of distant places and compelling adventures.
Let's start at the beginning. Jans loves to travel. Not to all-inclusive resorts or crowded beaches. He's a “road less taken” kind of guy and every few years he embarks on a lengthy solo journey in search of unique experiences and interesting people.
Luckily for us, he doesn't keep his travels to himself. Over the years, he's shared his adventures with thousands of people through what he calls “live multimedia extravaganzas!” His live shows are hugely popular on the West Coast and, in his hometown of Vancouver, it's not surprising to see hundreds of people lined up in the rain to see him.
Unlike the hostage situation-like desperation that often accompanies family holiday video presentations, Jans' shows are fun, uplifting and anything but boring. You won't find yourself nodding off at endless hours of shaky video with bad sound and no point. What you will see is an enthusiastic storyteller eating weird stuff, trekking with indigenous tribes and sharing his wonder of the world.
It helps that Jans is a pro photographer. But it is his joy of meeting people and willingness to try new things that make his shows a feel good experience. The honest interaction portrayed in his videos and photographs is exactly what he gives to his audience.
Standing on stage with his computer, big screen and miscellaneous props from his travels, his slick shows appear quite simple. Jans talks over his photos and between the videos. But don't be fooled – building a show requires a lot of time and effort. It can take up to a year to sort through all the media and then assemble it into a compelling story.
“I'm bound by the truth and what happened and by the footage and images I've got,” he says. “When I come back, it's all about trying to put it all together to make that story tell itself. I don't get the luxury of going back and getting another shot.”
When Jans travels, he travels alone, which is not exactly easy when you're shooting pictures and video. “I don't have a crew, I don't have a sound guy. It's just me!”
Well, him and a 30 kilo backpack. Even though advances in technology have made much of his gear lighter than when he first started, he still carries a lot of stuff. A camera body, three lenses, a flash, a small tripod, a computer, extra hard drives, two video cameras, chargers and cables. That doesn't leave a lot of room for things like clothes. He also has to leave space to bring show props and souvenirs back – like the full Mao suit he dons during the Off The Wall show.
His trips aren't easy. He sleeps on floors. He's often cold and uncomfortable. And then there was the time he was gored in the groin by a yak. How's that for some entertaining misfortune?
Jans' second career started pretty much by accident. Back when he was in his 20s he took a transformative six-month trip through India and much of Asia.
“It really changed me,” he says. “I came back with pictures and quirky stories and I booked a tiny little community hall and brought 80 friends over and showed them pictures and told stories.”
His friends thought he should do it again. So he put up posters and his shows grew and grew. To date he's sold out 15 shows and has audiences as big as 850 a night.
“It's become an extension of me,” Jans says.
His current show, “Off the Wall in China”, is his sixth. It's based on a two-month adventure in the Philippines and China where he climbed volcanoes, camped on the Great Wall and witnessed the Crucifixion Festival near Manila. He strapped on a camera and went for a stroll on what is likely the most dangerous hiking trail in the world – a hair-raising path of 2x4s nailed to a cliff with a 1500 metre drop.
And then there's the food. Jans has no fear when it comes to eating regional specialties. In his current show he enjoys munching on a scorpion, eating chicken intestines and downing the notorious balut – an egg four days from hatching. It's a crunchy treat of beak, claws and feathers.
Not surprisingly, Jans says that after six shows, it's a challenge to keep outdoing himself. “It's become more intense because people's expectations become that much higher,” he says. “It keeps me on my toes.”
Asked for his best bit of travel advice, Jans says that travellers just need to take things in stride. “I still truly believe that you can have more fun trying to get to a given location than actually being at the location.”
Learning a little bit of the local language can go a long way to breaking down communication barriers, he adds. Don't be afraid to participate and smile. “Being friendly makes a lot of things work incredibly well.”
If you've always wanted to hang off a cliff in China or eat weird food or watch people get nailed to a cross, but don't have the time, the money or the guts, then one of William Jans' shows is great option.
And if you're lucky, he might even let you touch giraffe poop.
Off the Wall in China – Vancouver – May 25, June 1
Tales from Tanzania – Vancouver June 8
And if you'd like to learn more about travel photography, William Jans is holding a photography workshop, also in Vancouver, on June 10.
More information about his shows is at www.wrjphoto.com/shows