"I would say that my guru would be W. Eugene Smith," Harris says, "and his photo essays in Life. He never sat around at all. The great photo essays often germinate from a desire within or an interest. When I did an interview with Eve Arnold years ago, she said it's a very stressful life; you're either overwhelmed with work or you're just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. And so she started developing her own projects. In China, probably her greatest book, came from that. She developed this project herself and she did it. I think I do the same thing. I love getting assignments—when I get a phone call to go shoot this or that—but often it's something that I've thought about, like North Korea, specifically, or The Way of the Japanese Bath. Both resulted in books, and they came from a desire to explore a certain area.
"I asked Manuel Álvarez Bravo about his work," Harris adds. "'Where does it come from?' He said, 'One doesn't necessarily know their own motivations for things, but it's finding its way into the work.' That's for sure. I'm definitely drawn to Asian culture and philosophy. After seeing Miss Saigon in London in 1992, I said, 'I have to go to Vietnam.' So I went, and I shot probably my first strong documentary work on the streets of Vietnam. In fact, one of my strongest photos still is a little boy carrying his sibling on the street. A Chinese magazine called Photographers International published a big series of my work in Vietnam, and that really then started opening doors more for that kind of work—the heavier documentary kind of things."
So began Harris' career as a documentary travel photographer. He learned quickly that it's not enough simply to go to a new place and take pictures. First comes the story.
"The Japanese hot springs sort of taught me a lesson," he says. "There's sort of a mantra in travel photography that a location isn't a story. You can't say, 'Oh, I want to do a story on Japan,' or 'Oh, I'm going to do France.' It doesn't work that way. When I teach travel photography workshops, I emphasize finding a story. But North Korea is so off-the-beaten path, I felt I could do a book."