My impression is, many people travel with a checklist. Instead of experiencing a destination, it is about having visited a place, triggered by advertising or a fashion what country is a must visit presently. Been there. Checked.
This also is reflected in travel photography. Most travel photos now are copies of other travel photos. Often, they are copies of the photos advertising made us think is a must see. Same place, same subject, often even same angle, maybe a slightly different sky. Photographed. Checked.
But…what does this kind of travel give us? What does this kind of photography give us?
Where we travel
Some people travel for relaxing (at a beach or in a city), others for getting a bullet point off their bucket list. And still a few are traveling to experience the world, getting a feel for various peoples and cultures, differences and similarities, for trying to better understand.
Many hobby photographers, unfortunately, I would see in the second category, the checklist one.
Equipped with the latest cameras and best lenses photo travelers shoot waterfalls in Iceland, snow monkeys in Japan, retro style cars in Cuba, hilltop villas with a row of trees in Tuscany. All boring stereotypes, all seen hundreds of times already.
All these places are beautiful – and fantastic stereotype photos can be shot there for sure. But don’t all these countries have interesting stories to be told beyond? Or is, let’s say, Burkina Faso not as interesting as Patagonia? What about Tajikistan, Suriname, or Gambia?
The Advertising Trap
The advertising industry is very smart in pushing the right buttons. Many travelers now are looking for pristine places to visit. So they add some urgency: Go before it is too late. But be aware, once advertised, you might be too late already.
The most popular places are not necessarily the best places for shooting unique photos. The most popular photo spots are not the best places to create unique pictures in your portfolio.
Visiting the most famous places, you will most likely be on a track paved for tourism, even if for you it seems to be an adventure. You will be on a separate track than the rest of the country you are visiting. And so will your photos be.
What about going to places you have never heard of, places you cannot find in a travel catalog, you have never seen advertising about, and you don’t get much information in internet forums?
These places exist in any country, even the popular ones. But you cannot “search” for them. You need to be curious, open minded, wander left and right and let chance take you to unknown places even though you might think to waste time, missing on the must sees. Time is never wasted, you’ve just seen something different. These other places usually bring you the better photos.
Consequences for Destinations
Traveling on the beaten path and falling for advertising and travel hypes has serious consequences for a destination: We destroy the charm and beauty of a place. While most places can handle a certain number of visitors without deteriorating, they all suffer from millions of people coming day after day.
Venice is beautiful, but can you experience the magnificence of St. Mark’s Square with thousands of fellow travelers around you? Iceland’s nature is beautiful, but can you really experience the solitude of untouched nature while being surrounded by dozens of others doing the same?
Also, the more visitors come, the more a destination seems to change from its genuine charm to a theme park, not just hosting the visitor’s needs but also building on their stereotypes – even if they are not rooted in local culture. Not even talking about the shame of light shows in waterfalls, coffee places in fragile nature, tourist markets, and more. Tourist destinations are turning into theme parks.
So, do we want to contribute to changing all beautiful places into ugly theme parks? And what do we get when shooting such a theme park destination: the place or something that reflects our stereotypes of it?
What we shoot
Many photographers not only seem to travel to the same bucket list destinations, all sticking to the same routes. Once there, they also shoot the same pictures. Some even book photo tours taking them to exactly these popular places so they can shoot their own version of an image they have seen hundreds of times before on Instagram. Don’t ask me why.
And even worse, it is not just the same location people now like to shoot, but often they apply the same style of post processing of the images they copy. Just google for Iceland photos and you’ll see what I mean.
Unfortunately, presently many photo tours feed exactly these expectations.
Instead of checking famous photography spots, would it not be much more rewarding to hunt for something new, something else than the crowd? Would it not be nice to understand the place and its local culture and have unique photos after your trip, or photo tour, or photography workshop – not just the standard classics?
Don’t you want to connect with your destination and capture “your” view of the place? Would it not be nice to surprise the viewer of your portfolio with pictures he hasn’t yet seen?
I also love to travel to some of the famous places: just finished shooting a project in Iceland (no classics, though); living in Venice in Italy part time. But why shoot what everybody has photographed already? A snapshot, maybe, but photo copying as the goal of the whole photo-trip? Let’s be honest, once a photo spot got famous, it lost its mojo – especially in nature and landscape photography.
Before traveling, I always do a quick research about what photos are taken at my travel destination. Most likely I won’t shoot them. If a place is overly photographed already, usually I don’t even take my camera to it. Then a sloppy mobile phone snapshot is exactly the “value” I give such a picture. At best. So other’s “to do copy list” is my “avoid list” – the photo spots on the list will be identical.
In a city trip, as first I do not check out the hotspots. First, I take a stroll into the side alleys, smaller and smaller and smaller – getting lost. That’s where you find the stories, that’s where you find subjects with vibe and soul. That’s where you connect with the culture you as an outsider just dropped into.
Nothing is more boring than the copy of a photo I have already seen elsewhere.
Why we shoot
Seeing all these copies of copies of copied copy photos, I have some difficulties in understanding why all these pictures are taken.
One idea: memories. Well, I assume people don’t buy a thousand-dollar camera with several lenses, get up in the morning before sunrise, for taking a nice memory photo of a place others have photographed in the same way myriads of times before – or do they?
Maybe for showing something to their friends. “Look, this is how the Statue of Liberty looks like. It’s in New York”. Hmmm, maybe that’s also not it. Though, taking a step back to the destinations paragraph this could make sense in a different setup: “Look, this is an aerial of the vast jungle in the interior of Suriname.” That would work, never heard it though.
Or could it be, that this kind of copy photography and copy photography travel is all about the photographer himself, proving what a great picture he took, what a great photographer he is – without putting too much efforts into it? Others might not know that it is a copy, or they don’t care. Looks spectacular, that’s good enough.
Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to have a beautiful own photo of anything and any place in the world, even if it is famous and photographed already. At best, the picture also has an individual touch, and sometimes that touch makes it a masterpiece. It is not necessarily my thing, but I can understand.
What I cannot understand, is photographing places just because we have seen a great photo from there and want to re-shoot it. Checked, checked, checked, checked, … and checked. “Been there, done that” photography leads to a lifeless photography portfolio in my eyes.
Neither I learn anything from looking at those photos, nor do they touch my heart.
What are the options?
We could evaluate our travel habits, why we go where in our vacations. We could think about what it gives us for our life to have seen a certain place for a few minutes, be it famous or in fashion. We could consider adding value to our travels, even if it means trading some convenience.
When visiting a travel hotspot, we can try to be open minded and wander left and right, being curious, exploring the surrounding and what is “behind the facade”.
But I have limited time. Then take your time for photography! For example, stick around a while at your destination. Visit less places but experience them more intense. Try to get a feel what might be worth showing, what the essence of the place is, or whether there is an underlying story interesting to tell.
Let’s not be too efficient in photography. Especially in travel photography it’s more about strolling around and bumping into interesting shots. Planning the day to fit in most pictures with places we pre-chose kills the travel magic.
What we shoot is also a question of attitude.
Is a good photo the one millionth sunset-sky-warm-light-Hollywood-classic? Or the most impressive re-shoot copy? Or is it a photo, still perfectly mastered, telling a story, taking us and others on a trip and showing something of value?
Do we really want to copy photos of others – or do we want to shoot our own photos? What value does a photo copy have for us? How much of stereotype do we want to allow in our photos? Do we want to show people something new or something they already have seen before several times?
Do we want to show – or show off? Do we want to be part of the “I’ve been here” checklist-travel movement or do we want to slow down and capture the core of a destination in a beautiful way?
There are no general answers. But I am sure you will find yours. And then go for it, no excuses.