Cody Forest Doucette has found that to tell strong travel stories through photographs requires a balance of four basic elements: people, place, action, and detail.
FIRST AND FOREMOST ARE THE PEOPLE. Travel is defined by many of us through the characters we meet along the way. Second is place. Foreign landscapes, flora and fauna, modes of transportation, famous or unique landmarks, buildings and sculptures — basically, anything that makes a place different from “home.” Third is action. Capturing the moment. Samba dancers at Carnival, street jugglers in Barcelona, local boys playing a game of football on the beach, your mate’s best wave of a surf trip. Last is something I would call details. Textures and colors that form the foundation of a place and its people.
From the recent family vacation to a magazine assignment, creating a balanced set of images so that a viewer will feel a place and its people is the difference between mediocre and good travel photography. Great travel photography happens when a good travel photographer encounters those rare and fleeting moments when all four elements come together — not in a series of images, but in a single one.
Each element requires a slightly different approach and can also depend greatly on what equipment you’re using, where you are, what you hope to capture, what your goals for the photos are, and so on. Since photography is a visual medium and one that’s only improved through experience, I dug through my slide files and hard drives for some of my favorite examples of each aspect.
When shooting someone you know well, look to catch them off guard.
Cheesy smiles and poses only look good on the refrigerator. This is my brother Kitt in Svalbard during a short break from riding snow scooters (Norwegian term) across the ice to our base camp. The cold is palpable; even his eyes look frozen. I’ve traveled with Kitt extensively and love to sneak up on him with the camera. There always seems to be more honesty in photographs shot candidly, or in that moment before someone realizes they're looking into a camera.
Show and earn respect.
Shooting locals can be a tricky game. The word that comes most quickly to mind here is "respect." Anywhere I’ve been in the world, it seems people respond well to respect towards themselves and their culture. This Sumbanese Ratu (chief) agreed to pose for my lens only after a traditional meeting involving the blessing of ancestors and the exchange of betel nut and cigarettes.
Learn some key phrases in the local language.
Knowing at least a small amount of the local language is important when attempting to shoot travel portraits. Basics like "hello" and "please may I take a photograph" are a given, but I’ve found it incredibly helpful to learn a basic joke or who the local sports heroes are. Nothing encourages openness more than a shared laugh. Small and simple gestures go a long way.
Don’t be afraid to pay.
Small change is an invaluable tool in travel photography. I’ve found that a few well-placed coins or small bills will almost invariably break the ice. This is especially true when I’m on assignment. For those put off by offering money, I’ve had some incredible experiences after offering to buy an interesting looking character a beer, offering a few cigarettes, or picking up the tab on a meal in exchange for a few moments in front of the lens.
Without a doubt, the most powerful tool available to a travel photographer is a genuine smile. A smile is an international gesture and instantly establishes you as a friendly creature, and more often than not is returned in kind.
Cody Forest Doucette was born in the heartland of Wisconsin, raised in the mountains of Idaho and educated on the beaches of California at UCSB. Working with his twin brother, writer Kitt Doucette, he has spent the past six years circling the globe in pursuit of images and experiences which capture both the beauty of the natural world and the complexity of the human condition in the 21st century. You can find more of his work on his website, www.codyforestdoucette.com.