After several years of photographing some truly wonderful corners of this planet I get more than a few emails each month asking me where are the best places to photograph in this city or that country. I try to reply helpfully, but what I want so much to say, without sounding like I’m being contrary, is this: there’s no such thing as best places. There are wonderful places, to be sure. There are popular places, and busy places. There are places that appeal to some and not to others. But photographs happen at the intersection of place and light and moment, and the corner in Venice that for much of the day is flat and crowded and in all ways uninteresting, might for one moment on one given day give the photographer a gift he never dreamed. And the must-see list from the Lonely Planet might give us nothing.
I can give you lists of the places I like, but I like them for so many reasons and at such specific moments, that those lists would be no good to you. They would encourage you to buy the illusion that you just have to show up at the right place with the right lens and make the same photographs I’ve made. And just maybe that happens. And then you’ve made a photograph someone else has already made. Now what?
More harmful in the act of giving you that list is that it won’t encourage you to do the one thing that will give you both unique and unexpected experiences and the photographs that come from those experiences, that is the act of getting lost. Of having your own experience. Of being forced to encounter a place on your own terms and make the kinds of photographs only you can make.
There is a heartbreaking tendency in photography towards the homogenous. Nothing would make me sadder as a teacher than to inadvertently push you in that direction. So, to put a more positive spin on this, when you next ask me where the best places are, here is my answer:
The best place is the place in which you experience wonder, where your eyes are open to things you’ve never seen. The best place is the place in which you are lost, beyond your notions, a little off-kilter and looking for balance. They are places full of possibilities and unhindered by the need to make a photograph just like the ones you came hoping to make, but instead make something more, something better than your expectations.
The best places are within; places of receptivity and possibility, of courage. They are places into which we go empty, and emerge filled. You will find none of these on a map, or in a guidebook.
They are places to which, often, you can never return, and to which no one but your curiosity can lead you. And I want so much just to be able to put my finger on map and say, “Here, friend. This is where the magic is.” But whether it is or it is not depends not on the place but on the eyes with which you see it.
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