Travel Photography is STILL dead: A rant.

In Thoughts & Theory, Travel by David18 Comments

travel-photog2Ok, inflammatory title aside, this one’s gonna hurt some of you. I hope it’s the good kind of hurt, like when that girl dumped you in high school but then you fell in love with the wonderful woman who’s now your wife and the mother of your children. Oh, still not over that one, huh? Ok, make up your own metaphor, or sing Rod Stewart’s “Hurts so Good” – anything to get you in the mood to read this with a positive outlook.

A while back I wrote an article about the death of travel photography. It got taken the wrong way by the people that take things the wrong way. Mutinies were staged, theses were nailed to doors. It nearly got ugly. And the point got missed. So. Will people continue to travel with camera? Yes. Will some of them get paid well to do so? Yes. Will people always love lolcats? Unlikely, and way off topic. Try to focus.

As a descriptor, telling people I am -in part- a travel photographer is helpful. But at the same time is there really such a genre? If I live in Venice and shoot the gondolas are those images “travel photographs” if I didn’t do a lick of travelling?

The point is the creation of compelling images that capture how you think and feel about a place, a people, and a culture – not whether you got on a plane to do it or not.

Why am i still going on about this instead of writing about something else or speculating about the Canon 5D MkII? Because the sooner we change our perspective, and with it the words we use, the sooner we’ll start putting greater energy into our craft and less of it into which lens is “best for travel photography.”

Yes, traveling with gear presents certain challenges and I can geek-out with the best of you. But it’s high-time we chased our vision more passionately than we chase our airmiles.

Travel Photography is Dead. Long Live Travel Photography the vision to create extraordinary images of this planet and her people, whether you need a plane, train, or bicycle to get to your location.

As for the arguments, I suspect when we immediately jump to defend a cause it reveals something about which we’re deeply passionate. It should also be an opportunity to make sure we’re defending the right thing. So if, like me when I first read someone ask if travel photography was dead, your first reaction is “the hell it is!” perhaps it’s time to make sure our passion is in the right place. Some of us are more passionate about defending the name of our pidgeon-hole than we are about our vision and our craft.

I’d love to find a new way to describe this genre. Comments are open for ideas/discussion.

Thus endeth the rant. Have a great weekend. Go shoot something you love.


  1. Great! I love it. I do not have the blessed opportunity to travel that much (although I wish I did), but I love just walking around my home town, or even my property with camera in hand searching for something new to capture. So maybe my dream of being a “Travel Photographer” doesn’t have to die just because I can’t travel that much. Maybe I can be a “Vision Driven, Travel When I Can Photographer.”

  2. I believe that travel photography has gotten its name because when you live in an area, be it next to the Taj Mahal or the suburbs of the middle of nowhere, you become jaded to the beauty it offers. As a “travel photographer” you can see all the beauty and wonder a place and its people have to offer. You, as a travel photographer and foreigner, can appreciate even the most mundane details of a city or village or town because they are different from what you are used to. Even though the locals may see the sunset over the Rocky Mountains every day, when you (and your camera) see it, you see it in a completely different light, and with an entirely different mindset. Thus, while I agree that “geeking-out” can be a waste of time, I also believe that travel photography will never die, because looking at something from a new perspective is what creates beautiful images.

  3. Author

    Matt – i completely agree, but still maintain that calling it “travel photography” places the wrong emphasis on the whole thing. The point is not travel, but to capture the uniqueness of a place and culture. The fact that we can’t see it for the familiarity is just another challenge and as photographers we should be seeing a little more keenly than others, regardless of the challenge. To call it travel photography places an unnecessary burden on it.

    Still, you might be on to something and part of the reason I write this stuff is to stir the paint and get replies like this. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what we call it, so long as the images are compelling and we’re not kidding ourselves by thinking our images are “good” just because they’re “exotic” – that’s an important distinction. I’m not saying images of travel are no longer profoundly important, I’m suggesting the nomenclature needs revisiting.

    Lastly, I appreciate your thought that looking at something from a different perspective is what creates beautiful images, but if that were so the world would not be so inundated with mediocre images of new places. In reality there is a great deal more craft involved than simply going somewhere new. Though being somewhere new certainly oils the gears.

  4. David, I agree. the challenge is one of the big reasons i take pictures; if it was easy, anybody could make amazing images. i believe that photographers should see more keenly because of the challenge, not regardless of it. We should recognize that the area that we occupy most and know the most about is the area we are BEST suited to photograph. Once we get over the challenge and learn to see it as an outsider might, then we open our own eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. One of my highschool photography assignments was to lock myself in a room for 20 minutes and shoot a roll of 36, black and white. After the assignment, the class talked about the challenges associated with taking pictures of a place you were very familiar with, and the concensus was that after 5 of 10 minutes of sitting and looking for something interesting to photograph, a new mindset would kick in, and most of us finished a roll of 36 in 5 minutes, and had to sit there for the final 5 of 20 minutes, wishing we brought more film.

    Perhaps if we are so attached to the phrase “travel photography” we can ‘travel’ to places we know well, and, just like in highschool, lock ourselves wherever that may be. The local outdoor market, a church, heck even a room in your house (bathrooms really are quite interesting). By doing this, we avoid fooling ourselves into thinking our images are good because they are exotic, because to us, the images are of the mundane and the every day. they are the exact opposite of exotic, so we shoot with higher standards. Everyone has seen the mediocre pictures of famous places, and i believe that is because people believe that the subject matter can make the picture. sure, it helps if the subject is interesting, but I know of a photographer who made a wonderful image or two of some sponges…. 😉
    if the composition, lighting, texture, all those “technicalities” come together, it really doesnt matter one bit what the subject is, so it might as well be a 5 minute drive from your house.
    and if it’s that close, you might as well walk and take some pictures on your way 🙂

  5. I can’t fathom how travel photography could die…given that there are more people traveling than ever before in the history of mankind and 99% of them have digital cameras. I think the thing that is changing is what travel photography is defining. I think now that travel photography describes more a niche in publication than it describes a dedicated profession. I imagine that 10 years ago if you were a photographer who traveled to find your subjects you were considered a travel photographer. Not so much now with the accessibility of digital cameras and the internet to distribute said images without the need of a publisher. As you say, if there is a talented photographer in Dubai willing to submit his/her photos of the area to a travel publication, he/she is not necessarily a travel photographer…they may really just be an architecture photographer from Dubai. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so…it still means you have to find your photographic specialty and then be able to successfully market to as wide a variety of markets are you can, and if that includes travel oriented markets then so be it. But that’s just my 2 bits…for what it’s worth. I’ll still travel…and I’ll still take photographs while doing so. Call it what you will.

  6. Author

    Not sure I see the logic in there, Troy. Unless by “travel photographer” you mean “traveling photographer,” I don’t see why the photographs the man in Dubai takes should be classified any differenly than the same images taken by a shooter who came 30,000 miles to take them. It’s a false distinction, and one that places the emphasis on the travel, not the photograph. Why should my photographs be any less “travel photographs” than a visitor’s? They shouldn’t – unless as I suggest, the term has become meaningless.

    I think what we call it is crucial as what we name things comes to define the thing itself. The internet is full of “travel photographs” shot by people under the delusion that exotic photographs are good photographs. If we changed the way we talked about things, we would come – perhaps – a little closer to being clear about the goal. The goal is not travel.

    As I stated up front, this is not an issue of whether or not people will travel with cameras – it is whether or not the words “travel photography” are meaningful or not. I contend that they hem us in with a false premise.

    I repeat: the point is the creation of compelling images that capture how you think and feel about a place, a people, and a culture – not whether you got on a plane to do it or not.

    As for publications using “travel photography” as a description of a style or genre, I think you’ll find that’s less and less the case. People are more interested in whether images are lifestyle oriented, or editorially oriented. Which is where this whole thinking started for me – to say a collection of images is “travel photography” is to say nothing at all – these days it doesn’t even imply someone travelled to get there.

    Still, what’s important is that these discussions take us to a place beyond our previous thinking, a place wherefrom we can shoot better images without the baggage of a meaningless label.

  7. Sorry, maybe I was not very clear. What I was trying to get at David is that the definition may be shifting or blurring, and as you say, possibly becoming meaningless in some regards. But I think it’s only meaningless if you are not careful in your use of them.

    My example of the Dubai photographer was meant to illustrate that a good quality photograph can be used as a travel photo regardless of the label you put on the photographer. It does not matter whether travel is involved in getting the photo…it’s the photos itself that matters, The photographer in Dubai can take a photo of a local attraction that is a fantastic travel shot, but that does not make them a travel photographer by default. What matters I think is the label we give ourselves and *WHY*. Labels are tricky things…to be uses with caution and skill. They should be guides not blinders. If the label you want to give yourself helps to guide your vision (something I know you find of utmost importance) then by all means label away…but don’t pigeon hole yourself with a label for no reason other than it’s what you want to be.

    Your point about lifestyle and editorial is something that intrigues me. Mostly because to me these seem to be very broad levels of classification that umbrella most other labels. Are the lines on blurring here? Are the labels that were once good guides being abandoned for broader terms for lack of new and accurate labels?

    Good discussion…I learn a lot from these as it forces me to put my thoughts into a somewhat logical order (which I apparently failed at in my first attempt, lets hope this time I get my point across better!) Thanks!

  8. Author

    Troy, I suspect we’re coming to the same destination from different places and therefore taking different paths.

    Are lines blurring? Absolutely. Editors don’t look primarily for a “travel photographer” precisely because it means nothing. It doesn’t inform about style in the least, only that a person goes places with a camera. What they look for, beyond experience and an ability to travel, is the more important stuff – do they like your style and are they confident you can produce the product they want on budget and on time?

    In short, it’s a shrinking world – everybody everywhere has a camera – so the fact that you travel isn’t relevant. What matters is your ability to see a place and a culture in a unique way and translate that into your own unique style.

    At the end of the day my interest in writing these pieces is to stir the paint and challenge our assumptions. If that produces better photographs, then call it what you like.

    Good discussion, thanks.

  9. I think the term “travel photographer” is born out of the West. The westerner was the person who had the money to travel, own a camera and shoot all the images. When they returned they made slide shows and invited everyone to come and see their travel images and thus “Travel Photography” was born. As the world has become flat (read Thomas L. Friedman) things have been greatly equalized and we are now all on a level playing field and now the term makes less since. We now have Indians going out their back door taking photos of the Taj, we have people almost everywhere taking pictures of almost everything. Yes, it is all due to the cheap travel and even cheaper digital media. The traveler in no longer the person with the unique point of view and his/her images are no longer uniquely exotic. I think David is right, what we knew as “travel photography” is dead. So now the challenge is to be an excellent “cultural photographer” or “Ethno-photographer”. But the key word here is excellent. Remember the playing field is flat and there is a lot of competition out there and only the best will survive.

  10. Great post and comments! Just yesterday I found a second-hand copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson in India and I expected the photos would blow me away – how could they not? But they didn’t. Maybe HC-B’s talent for finding the extraordinary moments in ordinary life just didn’t translate when he travelled to a new place that would have been all extraordinary to him?

  11. Author

    Kate – It could also be that images, but for the most extraordinary and iconic, lose their impact with time. What to us is mundane might have been powerful for HCB’s day. I like his Kashmir work. Have you been to India or Kashmir? Perhaps having been there allows us to appreciate the image in a different way as it allows us to read things into the frame that are not there – that reside in our memories but get read into the frame. Just guessing, but I suspect there’s something to that.

  12. Kate, Sorry I just re-read my reply and it sounded rather short. I did not mean it that way or that tone. It is just that I have always been moved by his images of Kashmir. As David said, having lived there for so 13 years I think they speak to me on a personal note. So please forgive me if I came off too strong.

  13. I find myself in an unusual and unfamiliar situation reading this post and the subsequent comments in that I agree with almost everything that’s been said. And that can’t be right 😉

    I suppose to say whether Travel Photography is “dead” we must first agree on a definition of “Travel Photography”. Perhaps an example is the best way to illustrate my own definition. I’ve lived in South-West England for most of my life but will be photographing in London this month. It’s a place I’m very familiar with but I’ll be taking “Travel Photographs”. They’ll be the sort of images you’ll find in a Lonely Planet guide book or in a newspaper travel supplement. I won’t have travelled far to reach my destination but the style of photography is one that I’d call “Travel”.

    The photos will be different from “Editorial” photos because they’ll avoid the less aesthetically appealing areas of London and I’ll crop out the rubbish in the streets and I won’t photograph any homeless people. I guess you can also rule out “Photojournalism” here as well. They won’t be “Architectural” images although they will contain lots of architecture. They won’t really be “Landscape” photos although I hope to get some sweeping vistas of the Thames and surrounding buildings. My “Travel Photography” is simply a general, vague style of photography with a specific use and market.

    Having said that, I think it’s mostly about interpretation and I can’t honestly get myself too worked up about whether the term itself is dead or not. What does it matter? As has been said already in far more eloquent terms than I’ll manage, it’s the photography that’s important. I don’t care if you want to say “Travel Photography” is dead, it won’t change the photographs I’m taking. However, tell me that MY photography is dead and then you’re going to have a fight on your hands.

    Do we even need a definition? It’s a handy short-cut to answer the “what do you do?” question that people often ask but it doesn’t really have any impact on our work. Does it?

    I think everything that’s been said so far has been spot on but I wonder, with all respect to David, if this isn’t a debate in danger of heading in the wrong direction.

    “The point is the creation of compelling images” David said, and that’s the crux of the discussion as far as I’m concerned. If some people are more concerned about kit than they are about content, then that’s a shame but perhaps that’s what makes them happy. If getting on a plane is more important to some people than photographing what’s there when they get off at the other end then that’s a shame too but, hey, ho, that’s their call.

    Troy asks if the “lines are blurring” but I think they’ve always been blurred. Steve McCurry calls himself a “Photojournalist” but so does Don McCullin. Anyone who says they have a similar style wants their bumps feeling. We make labels to use as short-cuts. We do it in everything, music is a good example as anyone who has tried to establish playlists divided by genre on their MP3 player will know. Are Radiohead “Alternative” or “Indie”? Should I put Spandau Ballet under “New Romantic” or “New Wave”? Should I even have Spandau Ballet on my MP3 player? (OK, that’s a different conversation).

    I suppose my view is this: who cares? Rather than asking “Is Travel Photography dead?”, I agree with David, we should be asking “Is this a compelling image?”, “Do I love this picture?”, “Does this image speak to me?” and “Am I going to get up early tomorrow and shoot what I REALLY love, wherever in the world it is and with whatever kit I can lay my hands on?”. If the answer to the last question is “You bet” then you call yourself whatever you want as far as I’m concerned.

    For what it’s worth, I’m still a “Travel Photographer” to those who ask.

  14. Matt – no worries, I didn’t take your comment as terse. Though it does make me want to go back and look at the book again. I haven’t been to India or anywhere in Asia at all. I’ve only seen pictures. I’ve also never been to Paris, but HC-B’s pictures from Paris blow me away – instantaneously and pretty much every image.

    I do find I’m prone to snap judgments, and some of my favourite things didn’t do much for me on my first exposure (this happens a lot with music for me but sometimes for photographs too). So I’ll give it another chance. Thanks!

  15. Author

    Don’t we all, Kate. I think some images are immediately high-impact, but many others take time to “read” or need a second listening, if you know what I mean. I often go back through my archives and re-discover an image I’d initially rejected and it goes on to become a favourite.

    I think too, sometimes we become so consumer-focused, we see an image that we don’t like that we don’t stop to listen to what the author was saying. As my favourite songwriter says about poets – “you and he may not agree/ but you need him to show you new ways to see.” (Bruce Cockburn, Maybe The Poet)

  16. So, perhaps the ‘travel’ in ‘travel photography’ is what happens in our head, and not (necessarily) about the location of our body. ‘Travel’ takes us to a place outside of ourselves, our routine 9 – 5 life (and that of our peers), whether that happens 1 mile away or 1,000 miles away.

    Editorial photography may show us what is most ourselves (as tragic shots of Katrina zero in on our own fears). Travel photography may show us what is most ‘other’.

Leave a Comment