Travel photography is, by its very nature, difficult to define. An even harder, if not impossible task, is to identify and define a ‘travel photographer’. I have done the impossible. Following are five distinct and definitive schools of travel photography.
The Usain Bolt School
The title gives this one away. Acolytes of the Bolt school of travel photography attempt super-human imaging results by being on location for less time than it takes to unpack a small suitcase. Speed is everything. Photographers of this bent usually arrive out of breath after a last minute budget flight. They visit a local tour agency before checking into their hostel and book three one-day sightseeing tours in a row. If they’re lucky they can even fit in a half-day city tour before sunset. The methodology is simple: jump out of the coach before everyone else, shoot wide-angle to get the ‘hero’ shot and then use a standard prime to get the ‘detail’ shots while hopefully avoiding the other three dozen tourists that the bus also spewed out. Total time on location: thirty minutes. Repeat six or seven times a day over the following three days and these productive individuals hop back onto the plane to return home happy in the knowledge that they can cross another country off the list.
The James Bond School
In essence, the James Bond school of thought maintains that a photographer must be flown first class and then booked into a luxury hotel by his or her client. After rising late and enjoying an extensive breakfast, they stroll out to the hotels pool area and snap off a frame or two (blue cocktail in the foreground with out of focus blue swimming pool and cloudless blue sky in the background) before returning to the lounge to order a morning coffee. Exhausted after such productivity they wait until the Michelin quality lunch is served and then take a much deserved nap. Being true professionals and determined to give their clients value for money, they rise at about five and take a short stroll to capture that obligatory sunset image. Having achieved more than could reasonably be expected within any twenty-four-hour period, they retire in satisfaction to the pool deck for an alcoholic beverage, which they add to their generous expense account. This doesn’t mean that they days hard work is complete, however, they still need to decide on whether to have the duck or lobster for dinner.
The Bear Grylls School
Although easily identifiable these travel photographers are rarely seen. Clad in khaki and wearing combat boots, they are usually festooned with National Geographic branded equipment. The underlying premise of this group is that every image must arise from an ‘authentic’ experience. Not for them is the tour bus and local guide. Meals must be taken at restaurants (preferably on the street) where other tourists cannot be seen. Travel is conducted with paper maps and as many different forms of local transport as possible, to cover the shortest distance. All communication must also be conducted in the local language by use of a phrase book – irrespective of how well the locals speak English. The photographic goal is not the final image, but rather the time, confusion, misunderstandings and discomfort it took to arrive at taking the image. In addition, the one imaging virtue prized by these photographers above all others, is to take a photograph that no one else has taken before – even if that is because no one has ever seen any merit in taking such a photograph before.
The Bill Bryson School
In the words of the great man himself the modus operandi of these travel photographers is to visit the most beautiful places and have the worst possible time. The key to their success is an almost total lack of preparation and planning. Logistically it’s important to always find the worst accommodation possible and technically it’s essential to have left the lens they most need at home. Vital to artists of this school is the ability to arrive on location the day after a unique local festival has ended or, failing that, to at least arrive during the winter rains or monsoon season when sunlight is limited to less than ten minutes a day. Visually their work is well composed and exposed, but by its very nature cannot contain any distinctive cultural elements. Indeed, if done well, it should be almost impossible to know where the photograph was actually taken. Where they excel, like their master, is in writing and publishing blogs of their excruciatingly painful experiences, accompanied obviously, by rather boring images.
The Arnold Schwarzenegger School
These individuals are the true heroes of the travel photography community. Not only do they pack, bring and carry every bit of photographic equipment they own everywhere they go, followers of Arnie take great pride in buying kilos of new ‘essential’ kit for every trip they make. Online, ‘Arnie’s’ are well known for their long forum discussions regarding how to avoid airline weight restrictions. On location they are barely visible, buried as they are, under a bulging Lowepro backpack and one or two more shoulder bags and of course, a massive tripod bag. An obvious advantage to this is, that while they arrive at a location dizzy with dehydration and fatigue, they are so late that all the other tourists and photographers have already left. Sadly they are rarely able to create the photographs they had hoped to, as by the time they have searched through their various bags, found the lens they wanted and a body to attach it to, the sun has gone down and the opportunity for that blue hour photograph has long since passed. Undaunted they will look forward to the next morning’s sunrise shot, although by the time they have arrived and set up lunch is invariably being served at their hotel.
As I write, somewhat tongue in cheek, I am reflecting upon how many of you will recognize, or even identify with, one of these ‘schools’ of travel photography. I am confident, however, that many of you are also wondering upon which group it is that I belong to. Sadly, truth be told, over the last twenty-five years I have flirted with all of the above. Without, I should mention, becoming a certified card-carrying member of any. Travel photography is an evolutionary experience. We all have to start somewhere, and most pass through various phases before arriving at the place which, for the present time, best combines our resources, skills, temperament and photographic goals. The important thing is not so much where you are coming from, but rather, where you are figuratively and literally going, Kugara zvakanaka!