Thoughts about place in travel photography

If I am honest, my real enthusiasm in photography is in documenting my responses to the places I visit on my travels, and I travel a lot at the moment. Four trips are already booked in for this year, with a long weekend in Venice being the first, in only a couple of days time. I therefore want to consider how I can use my studies to benefit these activities, and vice versa as well. To this end, this post is about several series of photographs from Lenscratch (what a wonderful resource this is), which have a clear sense of place while offering a glimpse at another way of life , and to consider some of my own images in that context.

Yoann Cimier – Nomad’s Land

This is a series by a French photographer living in Tunisia. She has taken photographs of the ephemeral beach tents that local people set up to protect themselves from the sun, and the individuality that come through the different constructions says something about both current Tunisian culture and its nomadic past. This is an outsider looking in, in a social documentary style. The images are washed outand do not feature people directly, although some are shown as a by-product of the exercise.

Thom Pierce – The Horsemen of Semonkong

Pierce is a British photographer working out of South Africa. He has produced a number of series of local cultures, and this focuses on the people of mountainous Lesotho, who still get about by horse, as cars cannot cope with the terrain. These are portraits in a similar style to my own assignment 2, but what particularly draws the attention are the wonderfully complex and mismatched clothes that the subjects wear. Again, these photos were taken by an outsider, and combine documentary and portraiture.

Karoliina Paatos – American Cowboy

Another outsider, Paatos decided to make a long term project of visiting various cattle ranches in mid-USA to document the life there – so romantic in films, but difficult and only marginally financially viable in reality. Her images mix landscapes, portraits and general documentary genres and look at both the hardship and the harsh beauty of the lifestyle.

Shandor Barcs – Family from the Mist

Barcs is a bit different from the previous photographers. He’s a Mexican photographer and film producer, and this series is about a family who live high in the remote mountains of Oaxaca. Here, the members of the family happily mix old cultural ways with modern inventions like the mobile phone, while going about a very rustic way of life, which has not changed much over centuries. Barcs uses a mixture of documentary style, and also mis-en-scene, to give a romantic, magical realistic tome to the images, which is entirely in keeping with the Central American way of thinking.

All of the above series have strong sense of the place in which they were made, and each has been treated in an individual way to make them internally cohesive. So, what do these series say to me, and how I should go about my own work? Firstly, when travelling, having identified a subject or theme upfront helps unify a series, and gives a better starting point for editing. Secondly, identifying a style of photography before one goes is also good for unifying the results. And finally, and probably most importantly, one person’s travel documentary is another person’s local environment, and I should not forget that what is close to home can provide as interesting and illuminating subject as what I see on my foreign exploits.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts about place in travel photography

  1. Simon Chirgwin

    I can identify with this. On Flickr, my albums divide into two main strands: camera used and location. The bulk of stuff that I like is taken “away” rather than “home”. Similarly I wish I could apply the same degree of scrutiny to my home environment. Where I’d differ is that I think I take my better shots abroad on my second or third trips, after getting my pre-conceptions out of the way on trip one. So my good stuff lies somewhere between the unknown and the overly familiar; I need to somehow estrange myself from my home environment, but not so much that I start seeing “Walthamstow” again (or God help me, “Awesomestow!!”). Doing this probably relies on repetition and an awareness of ongoing change (through the seasons, through decay and through gentification in my case, living in E17)…

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  2. Anne Bryson

    I agree with Simon in that I need to establish my bearings before I manage to get anything worthwhile and that usually means a second visit. If you look at the work of most documentary photographers though, they are expected to produce the goods straight away. As you say though, going with a clear objective and having done the research up front makes this possible. Your last point is very valid, we are all so familiar with our local surroundings that we can’t see what is in front of us. Having said that, I return to Gloucester Docks time and time again. Enjoy Venice.

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