TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY (and why we shoot what we shoot)
by Michael Mortimer
Much has been written about both the fetishization of the local people that travel photography often captures and on the voyeuristic aspects of tourism generally—slum tours in developing countries (or “poverty photography”) being a prime example. I admit that I struggle with these criticisms whenever I travel. Am I obligated to depict some reality, tell a story, or just present something pleasing or interesting to the viewer?
As a frequent traveler, and one never without my camera, I’ve become increasingly self-aware of the role I may be playing in the social dynamic of a photograph.
So what makes a travel photographer? It’s someone that departs their home, Point A, for Points B through Z. But what does a travel photographer do? Why do they take the pictures that they do? I’m often asked by colleagues, “Why are you taking that shot? What are you seeing?” My reaction is most often an exasperated “You are RUINING” this for me!”
But let’s consider perhaps some more constructive reflections:
- Travel photographers are not logging everything they experience. We are not taking selfies in front of every tourist stop, documenting for friends and family that we were there. We’re not cataloging memories. We are looking for something else.
- We do seem to shoot what’s different from what we’re used to. What we cannot find at home. What strikes us as somehow “exotic.” A respected Croatian photographer friend once remarked to me how funny it was that Americans come to Europe and photograph so many doors. Guilty as charged—I’m a door fetishist. But the rationale is simple: the doors we have in US are by and large lackluster, mundane portals, with no history and no character. We shoot foreign doors to experience what they offer, what ours lack. These doors offer a photographic subject we seek out—color, shape, texture, and most of all history.
- What’s exotic is always alluring, and has been since the relatively wealthy have been able to indulge in tourism. Let me give an example. In a crazily hectic, poor, steaming hot alley in Chennai, India I snapped this shot of a little boy clambering around a bicycle that was probably new when Gandhi was a lad. I couldn’t resist the shot. He and I connected for a brief second through the lens. But would I take a similar shot in the US? Probably not. Why not? There’s nothing inherently exotic about a little boy. I used to be one. So is choosing to take this photo exploitative or fetishistic?
- Let me provide another example. Waking up with Marina Beach, Chennai India is trippy. It’s a sandy expanse—more of a desert with an ocean attached than a proper beach. It’s one of the largest urban beaches in the world complete with a dizzying array of fisherman slums, martial artists training, carnival rides, and the destitute calling sand and a blanket home. Available data suggest that nearly 100 million people live in slums in India and almost 900 million worldwide. For this reason we routinely expose (no pun intended) our sustainability graduate students to these communities as the residents face particular and pervasive environmental challenges. But I had never seen anything like Marina Beach. What might be the most valuable real estate in any other city, is in Chennai a mashup of disparate uses with no resorts or coordinated development anywhere to be seen. However, travel photographers can easily misrepresent and distort the reality of this place or any other. Consider this photo—a quiet, solitary, reflective moment.
Versus this photo—the distilled chaos and clutter that is also Marina Beach.
Both shots were taken within a few feet and a few minutes of each other. The travel photographer may owe some responsibility for the depiction, some responsibility for a photo with a caption “Morning at Marina Beach.”
And so what obligation or responsibility does a travel photographer bear, if any, to the viewer? I’m no pundit or pedant, but the answer may depend on the purpose and intent of the photograph.
- If it’s storytelling, then tell the story and the viewer needs to understand your intent. Every story will necessarily include and exclude certain elements—stories are not encyclopedic.
- If it’s journalism or photo documentation, then by all means what’s being depicted owes a debt to reality.
- But if it’s artistic expression or a personal impression (as nearly all my efforts are), then perhaps the rules are considerably more flexible, leaving viewers to make what they will of the photo.
And what does the travel photographer owe the subjects? Should you take every shot that presents itself? Does guilt arise when you do? Are you paying someone to pose? Have you intruded or imposed to get that great portrait? Do you wonder if taking the photo may be exploitive of the subject? Are you preying on someone’s need or despair? Is local culture or context being distorted?
I have no tidy answers. I will offer only this: if travel photography instills some degree of cultural awareness, if it gives you pause to reflect on your purpose, and, if you find yourself asking what does this photo mean to me (and to others) as you later sit in front of Lightroom, then travel photography is doing its job as teacher and provocateur. So keep pressing that shutter.
May all who come as guests… leave as friends®