Recently, I made a drastic life change that allowed me to completely re-evaluate my thoughts and practice of travel photography. I moved from Nashville, Tennessee to one of the most rural areas of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti.
Normally when you think about travel photography experiences your mind journeys to a few trips that lasted a week or two and you came away with some shots of iconic locations and local fare. That’s what I always thought of when I would plan a travel photography gig.
However, it’s time to go beyond a week’s experience.
We currently live in the most exciting time the world has ever known. No longer are we bound to a specific desk, an office building, a specific street, a city, a state, or a country. Whether you like it or not, photography and the world has gone completely global. If you have an internet connection, you can work anywhere and do anything you want!
When I first got to Haiti I thought my photography would revolve around travel photography. I quickly discovered that travel photography isn’t the same when you actually live in the culture and know the people and subjects you’re shooting. This isn’t a bad thing either! The photographs actually got better as I started to learn more about the culture, lighting, places, and the language.
HOW IT’S DIFFERENT
When you live in a completely different culture than one you have known your entire life there is a huge learning curve. But people help you. I’m used to interstates and tall buildings; not passing donkeys on gravel roads. Did you know that people will actually send their donkeys to the local market without supervision or guidance? The donkeys just know where to go! It makes for a tremendous photo too…
Which leads me to my next point. When you immerse yourself into a new culture you become more aware of local secrets and customs that go on outside of the normal places tourists visit. Why do these make better photos than photos of iconic places? Well, for one, no one else is shooting the backstory of a culture. Everyone flocks to places others have photographed and frankly those locations have become so overshot that they lose their luster and mystery. Secondly, photography of other places and cultures is fifty percent about the story behind the photograph. When you experience a culture differently and photograph that culture differently, it completely changes how you tell others about your experiences.
I would be remis if I didn’t touch on a very popular phrase that accompanies nature photography and apply it to travel photography. Leave no trace.
When you travel and photograph a place, are you adding to a culture for the better or are you taking away from the culture? Many times, tourists have a bad reputation for not respecting the places they travel to. They may leave trash, not know proper customs and manners, or they completely offend locals by mocking language and action.
As photographers, it is our job to conserve and preserve the unique customs of unknown places for the same reasons that we should protect fragile landscapes.
Maybe we should figure out how to bless the places we visit with our photography. Yes, we can go in and photograph people, but what if we did something more? Most of the time in places like I’m located the people I photograph don’t have mirrors and don’t really know what their own face or smile looks like. Showing them a photograph, I took makes their face light up with excitement.
One of my favorite Instragram profiles is @givephotos. They travel the globe and give out polaroid copies to the people they take photos of. I can speak from first hand experiences that people are extremely excited to have an image of themselves to take home and put up in their house.
HOW IT’S THE SAME
When it comes down to constructing a high-quality photograph, photography is photography. If you don’t know your compositions or what it might take to create a strong leading line or foreground, chances are you might come away with a less than optimal photograph. Your photographic technique doesn’t change when it comes to rethinking travel photography. The top photographers from the time photo technology was introduced have been using the same general tricks we use today.
For example, this photograph I took at a local food market shows nothing special when it comes to the construction of the photo.
I used the eggplants this woman was selling as a foreground and a way to give the viewer a sense of what was happening. I positioned her strategically within the frame to balance the photograph visually.
Nothing about the photo is amazing. However, the person, the event, and the story of the experience at the market was what made this photograph come to life.
Even though techniques and strategies of constructing a high-quality composition are essentially the same process no matter where you are or what you’re shooting, diving head first into a completely new place gives photographers new creative life. Challenging lighting and perspectives light up my eyes whenever I have to get creative to find new photograph options.
The most challenging thing I’ve experienced so far whenever I shoot is finding good foregrounds for night photography. While the Milky Way and stars are extremely bright here, it’s not the safest place to be out exploring at 2:00 AM. I have to get especially creative to add a good foreground subject that I haven’t used before.
So, what’s the point of sharing this? I hope that you take away the desire to see the world differently. I hope that instead of seeing a vacation as a travel photography opportunity that you would instead research a culture extensively and find things off the beaten path to experience and shoot. I hope that you don’t get fixated on what other people have done or composed in a photograph to go copy, but instead that you would have the desire to see something unseen and never before captured in an image. I hope that you would find a moment and a deep experience to cherish instead of a meaningless click of the shutter.
When you rethink travel photography, you rethink how cultures collide and mesh with one another. That’s what leads to personal relationships with those whom you interact with. Don’t strap yourself down to one place! Experience the global explosion that’s happening right now! Photographers have the unique ability to freeze experiences, so get out into our amazing world and find great moments.
You might also be interested in:
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Things to Consider When Traveling Internationally for Photography
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Intimate Scenics in Travel and Landscape Photos
Using Photographic Creativity to Bring Home Stunning Travel Photos
About the author: When David Johnston isn’t leading photography workshops and tutorials or hosting his popular photography podcast, Photography Roundtable, he can be found traveling the world taking photos to awe and inspire his viewers. David has a passion for sharing his knowledge of photography and has many educational offerings designed to help photographers improve their work. Visit his website at https://www.davidjohnstonart.com/.