Sharing economy

How a bored office worker hit the road to Hong Kong and the rest of the world – and did it for free

Londoner Richard Tilney-Bassett dumped his office job for a camera and now barters his way around the world on his Glass Passport adventure, taking photographs in exchange for food, a bed and plane tickets

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 4:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 4:16pm

Two years ago Richard Tilney-Bassett was living in London and feeling lost and directionless. After earning a degree in biosciences in 2013 he’d fallen into an office job that paid the bills, but didn’t excite him. These days he travels the world doing what he loves and making new friends along the way – and it doesn’t cost him a dollar.

Inspiration for his dramatic life change came from Australian photographer Shantanu Starick who set up a project in 2012 called the Pixel Trade, trading his services for a few days, photographing any subject, in return for necessities. Starick’s stated aim was to “reintroduce the bartering system into day-to-day life in a global environment”.

The project reminded Tilney-Bassett of a musician who went to university with him, Josh Savage, who used connections made online to establish “The Living Room Tour”, solo touring across five countries and playing intimate gigs in the homes of online fans.

Tilney-Bassett had only left Europe once and wasn’t well travelled, but he was determined to change that. He bought a camera and in the summer of 2016 he launched his own venture, The Glass Passport.

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“I live and travel the world as a photographer. No money changes hands, instead I trade in three alternative currencies – food, accommodation and transport,” says the 26-year-old.

Tilney-Bassett photographs a project for a host in exchange for each of these three things. His first trade was in June 2016, photographing work for an artist in York, that was followed by a project for a small brewery in the same city and then a job for a travel company in Scotland. After six months travelling around the UK and living out of a suitcase, The Glass Passport took off and he has since travelled to four continents. Australia is next.

“During that frustrating time in London I identified my priorities and things I wanted to pursue: to photograph and work for myself, and travel. It’s not been all sunshine and rainbows, there are challenges, but they are good challenges. I know I’m developing,” says Tilney-Bassett.

A particularly memorable trip was photographing a marathon in Uganda. The marathon was organised by a British charity and the young team running it didn’t have the budget to pay for a corporate photographer.

“It was a fantastic team to be part of and it was a spectacular natural environment,” says Tilney-Bassett. “I was travelling down dirt tracks strapped to the back of a motorcycle. They paid for my return flight from London and I stayed with the team in the house that they operated out of in Uganda.”

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In October The Glass Passport brought him to Hong Kong to do a job for an events company and then a smaller project for a subscription dog food business, staying on Lantau with the business owner. He also spent a few days in Repulse Bay, photographing a family and staying in their spare room.

“With Hong Kong being such a hub for so many nationalities and people from different backgrounds it makes it easier to find hosts receptive to the idea of trading,” he says.

Hong Kong provided a good base to travel to other jobs in the region. During the past few months he has visited Vietnam, Singapore and UAE.

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“There are larger projects that are booked further ahead and justify flights and transport,” he says. “And once there, I’m free to find smaller projects.”

I live and travel the world as a photographer. No money changes hands, instead I trade in three alternative currencies – food, accommodation and transport
Richard Tilney-Bassett, photographer

Tilney-Bassett says relying on the kindness of strangers can be a rewarding experience. For one, he is usually very well fed. “People go into hosting mode and more often than not take me out and share with me their corner of the city,”he says. “I get a glimpse of their part of the world, places I would never have gone to as a tourist.”

Eighteen months into the project he has done almost 90 trades and in most cases stays in touch with the people he has photographed. The Glass Passport is serving as a global apprenticeship in photography and although he hasn’t got a fixed date for how long the project will continue he is aiming for all continents.

“It sounds glamorous. There have been almost constant challenges, but that is what I like about it, it nudges you out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Sometimes the logistics encroaches on your head space, but I’ve learned to accept that somehow things always work out and I’ve learned to trust that process.”

Follow Tilney-Bassett’s adventures at theglasspassport.com