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Well composed travel photograph, or contextually lacking travel porn? Image by Justin Ornellas

Paul Sullivan of the MatadorU faculty identifies some problem areas in travel photography.

IN A RECENT MATADOR ARTICLE on plight writing and travel porn, senior editor David Miller talked about how travel writers, often unwittingly, reduce people to stereotypes — “the small Thai man with the broad smile.”

Photographers, usually equally inadvertently, do the same. But while we all like to see people smiling in front of the camera, how indicative is this of someone’s everyday reality? Do people wonder around beaming all day long? Or are there moments when they feel confused or sad, pensive or angry, or even simply content? Tempting as it might be to make your subject grin before the camera, other moods often tell us more about the person, a situation, and the human condition generally.

The Photographic Society of America defines a travel photo as:

an image that expresses the feeling of a time and place, portrays a land, its people, or a culture in its natural state, and has no geographical limitations.

And yet so much of what seems to pass as travel photography today fails to express this “feeling of a time and place,” preferring instead to package travel and place as a kind of product.

To avoid commodification of people and place, we must learn to think in a non-commodified way. If our objective — consciously or not — is to “sell” a destination, chances are that destination will indeed be reduced to its stereotypes, or at least bowdlerized by excluding anything deemed ‘off-putting’ (traffic jams, fat/ugly people, building sites) and emphasizing more alluring elements (blue skies, coruscating cathedral spires, pretty women in Prada).

The image chosen to illustrate the travel porn article (above) is a case in point. An evocative enough image at first glance — well-composed, Rule of Thirds applied throughout, harmonic colors, a telltale wave crash to show us that there is motion in the water — is in fact a perfect example of ‘visual travel porn.’

The image raised for me, as a photographer, the same kinds of questions that context-less descriptions (ex: “sun-drenched beaches”) might for travel writers.

What story does it relate? What, in the end, is it saying, beyond “here is a slim girl with a nice butt (also relative) on a sandy beach on a sunny day.” Answer: not much. It reduces both place and person to their most superficial components.

Can an image like this really be classed as travel photography? According to the definition above, I think not. The mission of serious travel photographers isn’t to provide generic images that support preconceived notions of place, but to supply visual reports of the world-as-it-is to others.

Each time we click the shutter, we make a conscious (and sometimes subconscious) choice about what information to include or exclude.

When travel photographers strive to bring a more honest representation of a place to their audience, in a way they are drawing on a documentary photography mindset. Defined (by Wikipedia) as “truthful, objective, and usually candid photography of a particular subject, most often pictures of people,” documentary is largely regarded as a separate school to travel, but any photographer working in ether field knows there are obvious overlaps.

How do travel photographers avoid creating travel porn? For me, the more detail and context we provide in our images, the less they’ll seem like pretty but meaningless postcards and begin to take on a narrative — that is, a “soul.” We photographers may not have nouns, verbs, and adjectives at our disposal, but we do have angles, light, perspective, and framing, amongst other compositional tools and strategies, to present alternative interpretations of a scene.

Each time we click the shutter, we make a conscious (and sometimes subconscious) choice about what information to include or exclude — which means we make a choice about the kind of photo we take. To return to the example above, moving closer to the sign may have revealed a specific language, which would have perhaps given us more of a sense of place. Shifting angle to include at least part of the subject’s facial expression may have given us clues about her identity or state of mind. A different angle may have also opened up a world of detail in the background.

Neither cities nor people are perfect, and the non-beautiful aspects are intrinsic to telling a story and building a more truthful and compelling narrative. This professional photo essay about Iceland is just one example of how photographers can provide viewers with poignant insights about a country without resorting to cliché.

Check images 9, 13, 23, and 27 — rainy scenes, grey skies, building sites, and a depressed-looking youth drinking beer. None of these would be used for a tourism campaign, but they are beautiful images in their own way, and bring us a more honest and realistic insight into Iceland and the lives of its people at a specific time (in this case, following the economic crash).

In an insightful interview, Stephen Mayes from the famed VII documentary photography agency says, “There’s a tendency to see something which we recognize, and reward it because it’s familiar.”

'Personally I just love to wait,' says MatadorU photography student Christian Giarrizzo about this shot. 'Especially when you have the luxury of time, try to absorb every single soul you can. I always recall this pic with a big smile. Taken in the middle of Inlay Lake in Burma. The guy who brought me in that spot was trying his best to keep the little paddle still...Thank you my friend.'

This is a very human and therefore natural tendency, but one that should be fought if we’re to avoid stereotypes. One of the most inspiring things about viewing the world through a camera lens is the opportunity to see it in a different way — to observe things you may not normally notice, to discover the exotic in the familiar, and the familiar in the exotic.

As any documentary or travel photographer will tell you, a good way to improve your images of people or place is to spend as much time as possible with your subject/s.

Note MatadorU photography student “>Christian Giarrizzo’s sentiments about “loving to wait” on this photo at right.

Rushing through cities and communities without taking time out to understand or explore properly can only lead to superficial representations. And since most photographers (and travelers) associate ‘travel’ with being somewhere ‘new,’ this is all too often the type of travel photography we see.

At the very least, some decent advance desk research about a country, city, or culture can help provide ideas and knowledge. If you don’t have enough time to spare on trips abroad, try shooting at home. For many travel photographers, amateur or professional, this sounds mundane, but advantages include more intimate understanding of your surroundings and subjects, more confidence to engage and shoot, and more access. These can often lead to powerful results.

It’s not just professionals who can do this. Our students at MatadorU have been naturally applying a documentary mindset to their work, too. Our weekly Photo Labs, in which students are encouraged to share their work and get it appraised by faculty members, often prompt interesting crossovers. This week, for example, we got shots like the one above by Christian Giarrizzo.

Or this image by Sarah Shaw:

'I passed by this wall as I was walking through my neighborhood in northeast Seoul. I was interested in the tag (unusual to see in this part of Seoul) next to some clothing that appears to be from an older man or woman. I like the contrast of the clothing and the tag because it highlights the rapid changes taking place in Korean society. I also was drawn to the teal spray paint on gray.'

As David points out in his article, “Everyone is a local somewhere, and a traveler everywhere else. Thus, a few simple descriptions about someone else’s hometown is effectively travel writing to you, just as a simple description of your hometown is travel writing for others. When you start with what you know well, your points of reference draw instinctively from specific names and details while simultaneously taking into consideration the history of the place, how it’s changed (or remained the same) over time, and how your experiences there are affected by the time of year, the season, and various factors unique to that particular place and culture. When applied to writing, this multi-layered perspective can lead to a sense of “life unfolding” or the place “being alive.” We refer to this as writing which has a specific temporal sense, or temporality.”

We strive to achieve as much transparency, or “ground level” reporting in our writing, film, and photography courses as we can. A photo of a ‘stunning sunset’ or a ‘pristine beach’ might be subjectively enjoyable to produce and even share with friends, but in the end it says nothing aside from “this sunset / beach is nice.”

Borrowing from a documentary mindset, traveling slowly and thoughtfully, thinking about what’s inside (and outside) your viewfinder before you click the shutter: These are all ways to avoid visual travel porn — and to make a much more intimate connection with your audience.

About The Author

Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan is a freelance writer, author, editor and photographer covering music, travel and culture. His writing and photography work has been published in The Guardian, Sunday Times Travel, National Geographic UK, Matador Network, Wax Poetics, XLR8R and more, and he has scribed/snapped several guidebooks for Time Out, HG2, Rough Guide, Cool Camping and others. He currently lives in Berlin, where he runs the sustainable travel portal Slow Travel Berlin. Check out his photography website, follow him on Twitter or join hisFacebook photography page.

  • Hal Amen

    thanks for this essay, paul. valuable concepts in here.

  • Brad Salzman

    I think both realism and idealism has merit in photography and sometimes can be one in the same. Take south beach Miami for example where the top image that you use as an example of porn is a common reality. The great thing about art is we can do both, we can creating a stricking realistic image or we can spend hours in photoshop crafting an impressionistic ideal. To pass one off as porn and the other as correct is limiting art.

    • Paul Sullivan

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment Brad. The article was written with the specific paradigm of travel photography – and in particular where photography forgoes any pretension to art to become commerce and cliche. We cannot claim every photograph as art simply because it’s part of the photographic medium; lines have to be drawn somewhere and that’s what I was trying to do.

  • Brad Salzman

    I understand that. Living in south florida where it is as idealic as it gets ( I joke often that our only natural resources are beaches and beutiful people lol) thus many of my photos fit that modr, your article is challenging me to look beyond that. I was simply saying that we need to be careful with words like porn that might misrepresent an image.

    • Paul Sullivan

      Totally agree Brad. It was a deliberately provocative term but this kind of travel photography does have strong parallels in the porn industry in the way that an experience is stripped (forgive the pun) of context / narrative and reduced to base stimulation.

  • Baxter Jackson

    The irony is, of course, that a ‘travel porn’ shot was used to get people’s attention on how to avoid taking ‘travel porn’ shots. Oh, and the biggest travel porn mag in the world is Conde Nast.

    • Paul Sullivan

      Nothing ironic about it all Baxter – the image was chosen deliberately as an example (and subsequently analyzed throughout the piece). Agreed on CN, definitely high up on the list of culprits.

    • Baxter Jackson

      An example that illustrates what you’re talking about is ok – it just shouldn’t be the headlining photo (if that’s what you’re trying to get people to avoid).

    • Paul Sullivan

      I see your point Baxter. In all honesty the image was not used as a ‘draw’ to lead readers to the article in that sense – but if it did, then it also underlines the (fairly ubiquitous) power of such images to capture the attention – and hence why we need to also be a little more wary as viewers.

  • Sarah Shaw

    This is a great article, Paul. Thanks again for including my photo. :)

    • Paul Sullivan

      Thanks Sarah, and thanks for the photo use also.

  • Taylor Brooke Gabby

    I thought that was a very interesting piece to read, but there was one thing that caught my attention in particular. When describing a few of the photos in the photo-essay of Iceland, you reference photo 23 and describe it as, “a depressed-looking youth drinking beer.” This is actually entirely false. For one thing, if you look more closely at the bottle, you can see that it is a bottle of Sprite. Furthermore, if you hover over the photo, the caption says, “Taking a break at a children’s disco.” So the ‘depressed youth’ is actually a tired/bored person at a disco. I agree with the article as a whole, but you might want to pay closer attention to those little details in the future.

    • Paul Sullivan

      Fair enough Taylor. I actually didn’t see the caption for that particular image, so didn’t realize the context so well. It’s all about looking out for the details for sure – but then it’s also easy to miss them sometimes too, being only human ;)

  • Kevin Otieno

    I found these articles more intresting,am more than happy to be one of matadorian.www.lelenisafaris.com

  • Cristóbal Martinez

    I very much like the idea of waiting and looking for the mundane. “Mundane” is a word that is taken as bad most of the time. However, it is the mundane what makes everyday life what it is.

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