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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Travel photography and writing - do they go together?

This image was taken on assignment for a magazine out of Jakarta, Indonesia known as Destinasian. I've done a couple of assignments for them over the years and they've always been great people to work for. Everything gets shot on medium format print film (which means my film cameras almost die of shock when I get them out!) and a lot of it is natural light, high quality imagery - which suits me down to a tea.

But one of the unusual things about working for these folks (at least here in Australia) is that I don't have to write anything. Here in Australia, and I believe the UK, as well as more in the US now, many travel publications expect their writers to photograph and their photographers to write. And I can't help but wonder if this hasn't played a small part in the lowering of expectations in the eyes of magazine and newspaper readers.

Being a travel writer as well as a photographer invariably means that something has to suffer and often that is the photography. Why? I think it's mostly a time thing. When you're a writer you can watch a scene and describe it beautifully for the readers back home no matter how good or bad the light, whether there is anybody interesting in front of you or not.

In other words you can take something that might make a lousy picture and make it sound fantastic. Sure the Taj Mahal can seem pretty impressive even if you visit it during the middle of the day but the written word can make it sound much more spectacular than any image taken during that harsh noon light.

Photographers don't have that luxury. Unless you're creating a fantasy world in Photoshop you're pretty much reliant on what the laws of serendipity throw your way. Which often means a lot of waiting around for beautiful light, interesting people and something that is visually enthralling. Something that a writer usually doesn't have time to wait around for. They need to be getting on to the next experience so they have plenty of things to fill their article with.

So the quality of imagery falls, especially in travel magazines where the writers are at the destination for such a small amount of time. So the publisher has a choice of either going for the images the writer took, which may or may not be publishable, or reaching for the CD of free images from the tourism bureau. Now you get into a situation where we see the same tourism images popping up again and again and again and it's hard to differentiate one publication from another. Living in one of the world's premier travel destinations means I see the same pictures pop up over and over and over ad nauseum.

But what to do about it? I certainly don't have all the answers and in some ways am just musing to myself (and the few thousand others of you tuning in) but I can't help but wonder if the answer might lie in good old fashioned collaboration. In writers teaming up with photographers to create article packages. For the photographers to create images (or pull them from stock) that align themselves with the text to create something inspirational. For writers and photographers to talk about the aims and direction of the story and work together.

Another way might be for photographers to get their own image collections on-line and aggressively market them to travel publications. But can you compete with microstock and freebie tourism bureau give-aways? Again I think it falls back to quality. Being able to offer something that nobody else can. Then it just becomes a question of whether the publications are prepared to pay for that quality - at least enough to support an income.

This train of thought was sparked by a good friend of mine by the name of Ewen Bell, a wonderful photographer who also writes beautifully. Quite a while back now Ewen and I were chatting on the phone and he mentioned that he was working hard to improve his writing. And I thought, you know what, I work every waking minute of every day to improve my photography but I have no interest whatsoever in trying to be a better writer.

I can write competently and have been published in lots of magazines (sometimes even without pictures!) but at that moment I had a bit of an epiphany. I suddenly realised that I want to work to become a better travel photographer and continue to evolve my style but I have no interest in working that hard to be a better feature travel article writer. Which made me realise that I have no business trying to be a travel writer because it's in nobody's interest to be merely good enough to be published. We should all be aiming to be so brilliant that it would be impossible for people not to publish us.

And I think if more people really concentrated on what they love and really want to excel at, then that would go a long way to improving the level of published material that we come across every day. Of course I'm still stumbling along trying to figure out how this is going to work but following your passion was never supposed to be easy.


Carl Pendle Photography said...

Hi Paul, Nice blog. Done both myself and can totally agree with you. For starters it is tough doing both as I found you needed two different heads on and, I found, the quality of both suffered as a result.

Paul Dymond said...

Thanks Carl,

nice to know someone agrees! I think I might do a follow-up post because I wasn't trying to say that if you photograph you can't write. Rather that when you're out in the field on assignment it's not always possible to do both at the same time to the best of your ability. At least I find that anyway.

Carl Pendle Photography said...

Hi Paul, I know what you mean although I think naturally a person is stronger in one than the other. Writing takes so long for me to do that I've all but given up doing it anymore.
I've talked about it and you on my blog so check it out when you have a moment.

p.s. wanted to ask how you insert the retweet tab at the top of your posts?

Paul Dymond said...

Thankyou for the mention Carl, much appreciated. I've signed up to follow you on Twitter, and just noticed you're following me too. Cheers. As for the Retweet button I got mine here

Just copy and paste the html code into the top of your blog post and it'll show up.

Graham said...

Hey Paul

Mate I have to take a different slant on this one. I find it so very much easier to write about what I have photographed, than to write about someone elses images. On the same hand I cant hope to photograph for an article I havnt written.

I find the two blend together seemlessly and I can work both very well as a partnership. One almost depends on the other for success...

Paul Dymond said...

Hey Graham,

I agree it's pretty hard to write about someone else's pictures. I was talking more about it's hard to be in the moment photographically and as a writer at the same time.

So for example if you're interviewing a person it's much easier to be totally a part of the conversation and take in everything they say, or it's easier to really be concentrating on capturing an image that portrays their personality. Doing both at the same time I think compromises the quality of one or the other.

Or a travel famil where there's organised dinners etc. You want to be out in the nice light but as a writer you need to be having dinner with the famil people.

Or tours that leave at 7 in the morning for a two hour drive to your destination. As a photographer you wanted to be up and out the door at 5 but as a writer you need to follow the tour schedule.And most tours are in beautiful places at good times for writers but lousy times for photographers.

So if you're photographing for somebody else's article and you have an idea of the coverage you can arrange to be in those places during beautiful light to capture really stunning images, as opposed to having to follow the writer's schedule.