Monday, October 26, 2009
What is travel photography?
Seems like a pretty simple question really? The obvious answer would be it's the kind of pictures a photographer takes when they get on a plane and go somewhere. For most people it means going somewhere exotic, out-of-the-ordinary and completely different from the world they live in.
And this was always my assumption as well. My beginnings as a travel photographer started long before anybody actually paid me to print my pictures. I started as a wanderer. From Morocco down through the Sahara desert, through West and Central Africa, and then down to East and Southern Africa. Nine months travelling through Africa that changed my life. Then followed by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Nepal. You get the picture. For me travel photography meant going somewhere that wasn't descended from the British Empire, where nobody spoke English and the food didn't look like steak and three veg.
This is one of the first photos I ever took somewhere I considered 'exotic' This is Asilah in Morocco and, as you can see, even the thrill of exoticism can't save this photo! Oh and there's an old guy in a djellabah standing in the doorway but it's too dark to see him and I was too shy to ask him if I could photograph him. We all start somewhere.
I remember years ago reading a book on travel photography that recommended that photographers practice with their gear while at home so that they could be prepared for the 'real event' when they got on a plane.
And I've been thinking lately that we might have things the wrong way round. Travel photography doesn't have to be about the photographer travelling huge distances to take pictures. It's the reader that needs to be taken on the journey. And it's the travel photographer's job to show them a world that they've never seen before. Or, more difficult to do, show them somewhere that they think they know pretty well but in a totally new light.
And once you change this way of thinking about your own travel photography then I think your pictures will change as well. You'll start to imagine what a visitor to your home town would find interesting, unusual, photogenic. You see it really used to be quite easy to make the exotic look exotic. The subject alone was enough.
But heading towards 2010 we've all seen a million photos of the long-necked Karen tribes in northern Thailand, or the body-piercing festivals in Malaysia. Where once a photo of something exotic was guaranteed to wow your audience it isn't the case any more. So going beyond that requires a deep knowledge and understanding of a place. And what better place to start than your own local area. Sure it may not be the glamorous travel photography you've always envisioned but it will hone your vision to make pictures of something that is really familiar to you in a way that will surprise and delight your viewers.
So when you think of what travel photography is take yourself out of the equation for a minute. Imagine that you're taking your viewers on the journey with you. They don't care whether you've travelled 5000 metres or 5000 kilometres, they want to know what you saw, how it moved you and be shown something that they want to know more about. They want to see it in beautiful light, with interesting interactions with local people and with a story teller's sensibility. And that's the real event whether it's down the road or on the other side of the world - it's a travel destination for somebody.