So You Want to be a Travel Photographer…What’s in it for you?
This post was written for Ying Huang in Scotland, who emailed me about the essence of travel photography. Thanks Ying for inspiring this post and the last one!
Although travel photography is long, lonely, hard work, there are a lot of benefits.
You Get Great Experiences and Learn a Lot
I traveled a lot as a kid, missing a lot of school. But for this, I have to thank my parents, who were global nomads while they raised me, for the experiences Iâ€™ve had first hand could not have happened to me in a school room. Iâ€™ve come face to face with a beached whale, played magnetic Scrabble in a boat pitched violently by a storm, learned how to sleep on a bus, a boat, a Toyota Land Cruiserâ€¦the list of cool stuff I learned from traveling is long. The point is, without being able to travel, the learning I gained from wandering around the globe would not have happened.
Travel is a masterful teacher. Itâ€™s helped me to be persistent when things donâ€™t work out. To respect cultures different from my own. Itâ€™s helped me to see people without first focusing on differences because as a traveler Iâ€™ve had to look for similarities first, to find a friend. This openness has helped me as a travel photographer.
Sometimes you get a story that stretches your worldview. A recent memorable one is when I went to Bhutan to shoot and write a story for Canon PhotoYou Magazine (Check out the Summer 2011 issue!). In Bhutan I met anatomically detailed giant penises painted on walls as charms to ward off evil spirits. Then I learned that the paintings were related to a local hero, so I sought those stories about him…and found he was a prophet and saint whose most repeated stories challenged the hypocrisy of local religion and all involved sleeping aroundâ€¦even with his own mother. Oops, did I really want that much information? I had to process these stories as part of my experience in Bhutan, and it was a challenge to separate myth from fact and get to a story that would work, especially as my editor cautioned me against being â€˜too mysticalâ€™. In the end, I realized the story was the mix of fact and myth, because that was Bhutan.
Travel will make a photographer uncomfortable at times. But remember that this discomfort is a sign of learning, so be open to it, and it will reward you with insight.
You Meet Lots of Cool People
I am fortunate to count so many people all over the world as â€˜friends,â€™ not in a Facebook sense, but in the sense that once, we shared a day or a moment as human beings. Iâ€™ve enjoyed noodles with the entire roster of residents in an old folks home in Burmaâ€™s heartland. Another time, in another village, I spent a night watching a soccer game with the whole village on the only television in that place. In Da Lat, Vietnam, I met a man who was the first person in his village to graduate high school. From his last email, I learned recently that heâ€™s started a cooperative for the tribes in Da Lat to regulate the production and sale of their craftsâ€”something that will help them both find appreciative markets and preserve their traditional arts. In Cambodia, I met a shoe shine boy whose dream was to be able to afford going to schoolâ€¦I canâ€™t list all the inspiring people Iâ€™ve met while traveling in this blog post, but in every place, there have been people who have again and again restored my faith in humans.
You Learn to Live Simply and Resourcefully
As a traveling photographer, you learn how to make do. It makes you appreciate the small things, like the banana a local matriarch gives you for breakfast while you wait for the sun to rise and the fishermen to come in on a lonely stretch of volcanic beach in Indonesia.
You also know that you have to travel light, so you become more resourceful. While in Burma during Thingyan, the water festival, I was on a long sampan in a waterway, flanked by locals on the banks ready to douse the boat tip to stern with a fire hose. But my camera bag was dry, wrapped in a large plastic garbage bagâ€”something I now carry with me everywhere, along with some rubber bandsâ€”a low cost, light waterproofing solution to wet locations. In Borneo last April, the plastic bag became a raincoat, keeping dry both my camera and my clothes while I scouted for orangutans along the Panabangan River.
Being a travel photographer means being able to bring home images that will give someone insight into places they may not ever visit. It gives you a chance to teach an audience, to tell stories with your images that many people will enjoy. It also means taking home some intangibles, like insights and friendships, and new learning that make you better appreciate your world.
Few people make a fortune with travel photography, but the experiences you gain as a travel photographer are priceless.
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