There’s a big difference between travelling for photography, and taking photographs while travelling. I think it all boils down to priorities: is your priority photography, or travel? Or are you like me: photographing gives you a reason to travel, and forces you to observe and thus enrich your experience?
I still remember my first long haul international journey. It was from Melbourne, Australia, where my family had migrated, to Kuala Lumpur – our hometown. I was eight; it was quite an experience – those were the days when they didn’t really check how much luggage you brought on, kids and the curious were still allowed to visit the cockpit and talk to the pilots, and flying was still an adventure. People made an effort to be civilised, wear nice clothes and not fall asleep on their neighbour’s shoulder or demand to go to the toilet four times an hour from a window seat. I’m 100% sure that photography didn’t figure into things at all back then; we probably have two rolls of film from a four week trip. (These days, assuming I’m going to bother shooting film, two rolls might last me a day or thirty minutes – depending on the light and the location.)
Fast forward twenty years, zip through my time in the consulting firms and the start of the low-cost travel era, and we – or I, at least – am now at the point where airports and airplanes are necessary evil that one must endure to get from one place to another. It certainly isn’t fun anymore. Perhaps flying an average of 120 sectors a year for several years killed it for me, or perhaps it was the overzealous and paranoid security – not just at airports but everywhere else, too*. Packing for normal air travel has turned into something akin to hardcore outdoor travel: you weigh and debate the merits of every single thing that you might possibly bring along, because you know that the scales at check in are going to be calibrated against your favuor – no matter what your bathroom scale might say otherwise. I had a keen outdoorsman friend who would cut the labels off his clothes to save weight; now it seems a lot of people do it to avoid paying Air Asia obscene excess baggage charges.
*During a recent trip to Jakarta, pretty much every building had metal detectors and security guards stationed outside; cars were examined with mirrors on poles. Seriously: do any of them actually have any training? Can they tell the difference between a Quaife LSD and a fission core? How can they determine the contents of my heavily padded camera bag are safe by merely patting it down with their hands? Frankly, as a regular traveller, the false sense of security worries me far more than anything. It’s too easy to have something go very wrong after being lulled into complacency.
Even though cheap tickets, proliferation of long haul and short haul routes, interesting city pairs and new hubs have opened up more destination options than ever – and we’re seeing far more tourists too, even comparing places I’ve visited repeatedly during the same seasons for several years – I personally feel going away is feeling less and less special. Beyond the airline and security imposed restrictions, globalization has meant that the downtown core of most major cities looks exactly the same; I think it’s actually possible to find a location in every one of these places that is so devoid in visual and cultural cues that if you photographed it and showed it to a random person, they’d have no clue which country – let alone which city – you were in.
This is really quite sad, and certainly makes me re-examine my rationale and objectives when I’m on the road – assuming they’re not obvious ones like commercial assignments or teaching. Firstly, the most obvious thing to do is be both a bit more disciplined and a bit more open to serendipity. This might sound somewhat conflicting, but bear with me for a moment. Discipline: resist the temptation to bring more. I wrote an article in the early days of the site on the benefits of one lens/ camera to go; the specific model might have changed, but this holds true now as much as ever. How much do we really need? As much as I want to bring a bit of everything just in case – especially to a location I know will be photographically rich – the reality is that I’m probably better off bringing something safe, familiar and reliable, but boring. That way, the equipment doesn’t distract: it does its job of capturing the image, and gets out of the way the rest of the time. This applies not just to shooting envelope but also reliability and weight – it’s getting harder and harder to get away with a full camera bag as carry on, and there’s simply no way anybody in their right mind is going to check that kind of thing in. 5kg is a joke – unless you’re going with one lens, or a mirrorless system. Modern security and weight restrictions certainly make travelling with film something of a challenge – one or two passes through an X ray machine might be fine, but if you’ve got a lot of sectors to cover, from experience convincing them to hand check 50 rolls of ISO 100 film is not so easy. Exposure most certainly adds up.
By a similar token, if you are choosing to make a trip to focus on one aspect or style of photography, then it’s probably important to pack something that helps you focus on that. I’m on the fence about the ‘one chance’ mentality: part of me believes that if you have the gear you probably should use it; it doesn’t make pictures sitting on your shelf, especially when 400mm could make the difference between getting that shot of bigfoot or not. But similarly – I like to pride myself in being able to make a picture under almost any circumstance, which means falling back on one’s skills as a photographer to engineer a composition that works regardless of the angle of view. I fight with myself before every trip when deciding what to pack, but in the end there’s always something that I brought but didn’t use (or could have really done without).
I’m going to swing through 180 degrees here and come back to serendipity: if you’re not open to randomness, new experiences or just going wherever the road takes you, you’re also not going to be in the right place at the right time to get a shot you didn’t plan or expect. I think this is probably one of the biggest reasons why we travel to photograph: to see and shoot something beyond our normal expectations; to challenge ourselves to find something unique in a place where others have already been. In the modern age, it’s perhaps the closest we get to conquering something: putting a visual stamp onto a place that we can call our own.
I know I’m a very logical and ordered person: I’ve been accused of being binary and rigid as a result, which I don’t deny. (It also means that I’m good at planning, execution and dealing with contingencies, but that’s another story.) When I travel, I usually have a fairly good idea of where I want to go and what I want to see; but after finding that the most rewarding and pleasing images have been when I’ve just been in a place without an objective, I’m increasingly just turning up and following my feet – and my nose. Perhaps it’s that lack of destination that makes you more receptive to (and thus more observant of) the journey – and ultimately, isn’t that what travel is all about? MT
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