Looking for details in travel photography

Travel photography as a term is so broad, it encompasses all kinds of scene-setting imagery that by definition is not in the photographer’s backyard. But I would argue the best travel photography should elicit personal perspectives and indicate a photographer’s predominant visual approach.

Unfortunately, the genre has become synonymous with representative image-making, partly as a result of servicing picture libraries. If you’re content with a straight photograph of the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower then that’s great, if that’s what you want. But for something different, an image normally not seen on a calendar or postcard, it’s important to not follow the more obvious rules and therefore make your images stand out for an experienced viewer. Ultimately, a key aim should be to subvert the typical travel photography look.

When I first saw the book Exiles by Josef Koudelka I was struck by a sense of mystery and wonder. His photographs were from across Europe and seemed strange and enigmatic.

Avoiding the obvious

Wherever I travel I always attempt to avoid clichéd or stereotypical imagery. I keep my eyes open and my camera out.  Sure, the touristy spots can yield some good results, and I still give them a once over, but I’ll venture downside alleys if I want to discover something different. In Venice, I found it almost impossible to find anything original or at least personal to me to photograph. Each time I raised the camera to my eye I realised that it had been done before. Every composition appeared to be a cliché thousand times over. Feeling slightly despondent I ended up in the crowds of the Rialto market or riding the Vaporetti (the water buses) trying to get people shots, but with mixed results.

So I tried to make photographs that avoided the clichés but still gave a flavour of the place, hence this photograph of a pink speedboat set against the reeds. It’s not the typical colour or viewpoint but it still reflects the unique environment of Venice.  Again with the woman shopper in the Rialto Market. it shows an aspect of Venice, but not the stereotypical view. A fashionably dressed Venetian woman out doing her shopping, but from a different angle that also accentuates colour and form.

Photographing people

Small details in the scene can make all the difference. It’s not always about the grand view, so keep alert to juxtapositions and humour. With the ‘Play With Me’ image, I saw the back of his outfit and then spotted the photographs of bottoms behind him. I saw it quickly and I made the exposure immediately. The same with the ‘Tate St Ives’ image. I was drawn to this chap with the hat gazing out of the window and instantly made the photograph. If he hadn’t been wearing the hat, it wouldn’t have been as interesting to me and I would probably not have taken the photograph.

Photographing on the street does seem more problematic nowadays, depending on where you are. People are more image-savvy and aware of cameras. Many amateurs interested in travel photography are either too shy, or out of principle don’t wish to photograph folk without permission, so in this case, I’d recommend photographing people from the back.  It’s here you can develop a non-confrontational approach and build on foreground/background relationships.

For example with ‘Oyster Bar’, I was out walking the streets in Manhattan and would often have to stop at the zebra crossings. At one of them, I saw the guy in front of me and the attractive Oyster Bar signage across the street. Again I shot this quickly, angling the camera to get more of the sign in and for a more dynamic composition. In any new place, I actively look for these kinds of perspectives.

Include abstract elements

Each country and location offers unique street culture, in the form of advertising hoardings, building materials etc. These are a rich palette for a more abstract approach. It’s a way of documenting anonymous zones in a creative way. I use an approach which is partly inspired by someone like Ralph Gibson. He goes in close, cropping in, to frame up a graphic and sometimes ambiguous composition.

His photographs also have a sense of mystery but at the same time contain a distinct flavour of the location, be it Italy, France or New York City. His tight, clean, and sometimes surreal compositions allow the viewer to guess what’s going on. Ultimately as photographers, we can create the narrative. It is this sense of mystery, and occasionally humorous, that I recommend you to include in your photography.

To achieve this kind of look, think about geometry and symmetry and compose the entire frame.

And finally

Alex Webb sums up the approach I believe one should take when out photographing somewhere new. He says:

“I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the unknown awaits just around the corner.”

Airports can also offer rich possibilities for travel photography (take note of restrictions depending on country location). Just look at the work of Garry Winogrand and Harry Gruyaert for examples of great images. In the ‘down time’, whilst waiting for a flight, take a wander around the terminal with an open mind – you may be pleasantly surprised. The same could be said for hotels or ferry terminals, etc. Keep your camera with you at all times. You never know when a photograph will offer itself up to you.

Nik is based in London and shoots on 35mm film. He graduated from the University of Westminster in 1995 and was awarded the Guardian/NUS Student Photographer of the Year during his studies. Some of his subsequent portraits have been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in London. You can view a selection of his images by looking at abstract scenes in our Featured section.