(The tongue in cheek title for this post comes from some banter – about the role of chance in photography – with my friend David Barrett on Twitter @streetfotouk. Thanks Dave.)
I recently attended an engaging talk by renowned travel photographer and writer Michael Freeman. He voiced the perennial concern of travel photographers:
When global tourism grants camera toting tourists access to all conceivable locations, how do you come up with novel images?
This is a recurring theme in my conversations with photographer friends. Specifically, the issue is one of avoiding taking the obvious ‘tourist’ shots.
There is nothing wrong with obvious shots of course. Every photographer I know takes such photographs (as personal records or for sharing with family members). They just don’t make for very interesting photographs. They’re just too easy, obvious and familiar to be interesting.
So the challenge, for photographers wanting to express themselves, is how to get beyond ‘I was here and saw this’ record shots.
Pro photographers are constrained by the expectations of publishers. They’re expected to photograph in something approximating the National Geographic style (alluring shots with saturated colours). After all, they’re in the business of stoking demand for the services of the travel companies on whose advertising spend they depend.
Amateurs have no such constraints. An unattractive reality needn’t be expunged from our photography. Consequently, we amateurs have many more potential subjects and decisions to make about how we portray places.
For me, interesting photographs means greater subjectivity. Photographs that are interpretations of, statements about and/or equivalent to the actual experience of a place are almost always more interesting. It’s about photographing beyond ‘this is what I saw’ record shots to ‘this is how it made me think and feel’ photographic statements.
This type of photography isn’t the result of pre-trip research, the so-called golden hours of day, staging images, or clichéd viewpoints. The process is more fluid and subject to chance. Failure is much more frequent than success. It requires long hours on the street, persistence and comfortable shoes for the many miles walked. You often aren’t sure what you’ve shot exactly (until you see the result on screen).
The images below, all taken in Delhi, act as examples. Delhi is a wonderful city with many beautiful sights. However, it is also grimy, dirty, chaotic, noisy, traffic jammed, overcrowded, and blighted by poverty for too many of its inhabitants.
Wonderfully insightful post. Photos are spectacular (I love gritty, raw, ordinary people photos the best). Yours are very expressive. Thank you! : )
Thank you. Much appreciated. Best, John 👍
Ditto to Serendipitous. I am the tourist with a camera that strives to get into the dirt and grit of a place, past the obvious tourist attractions.
It’s where the best photos are to be found. Regards, John
Great photos John. India is incredible for street photography because the people like being photographed. One of my favourite places was Varanasi. But Delhi was pretty good too.
Thanks Alison, I’ll be back in Varanasi in January as we set of travelling throughout 2017. We can’t wait to hit the road.
I also wanted to say that I don’t think I’d have been a very good film photographer and am truly grateful for digital photography – as you say every shot a throw of the dice, but with digital we get many throws. And for me photographing the people of the places we travel to is as important as the famous sites. The people bring it alive.
Couldn’t agree more. Here is a project I did on the people of Varanasi with an Indian photographer:
I love the photos with the two young girls, and the one with the toddler on a cart. I’m nothing more than a wannabe photographer, and whichever technical gap I have is compounded by being a bit shy and not feeling like I want to propel myself into somebody else’s life. Even if I’d have found myself in the same situation as you in those two photos, and I have, and even if I had the skill to take those photos, and I haven’t, I wouldn’t have ‘dared’ to take them. I suppose I’m missing out, but it’s not something I can easily overcome…
Thanks for your comment Fabrizio. It’s surprising how often the curiosity is reciprocal. I took the photo of the child in the cart as I was being photographed by various members of an Indian family who were visiting India Gate nearby. Best, John
Ha, who would’ve thought?! Brilliant. Thanks for your reply John.