Travel Photography and ‘Writing With Light’

Jeff Pflueger: On the problem with "trophy travel photos" -- and what to aim for instead

11.05.09 | 9:39 AM ET

Photo by Maki Kawakita

There is a bond between travel writers and photographers that goes beyond cravings for weird food and questionable style (I’m thinking of the convertible pants/shorts I own). You see, “photography” literally means “writing with light.”

Think of the implications: Writers have their keyboards (electronic typewriters). Now we photographers have our light writers. Or think of the people on our travels who don’t want to be photographed. Who’d ever say no to, “may I make a light writing of you?”

Seriously, though, when we photographers think of ourselves as writers, we make better photographs; like writers with words, the best photographers write compelling stories with images.

This simple lesson was driven home to me the day I joined a team of 24 great photographers from around the globe to photograph the island of Tasmania. Technology and photo guru Mikkel Aaland had orchestrated the event as a way to road-test Abobe Photoshop Lightroom 2.0 while photographing for his book about using Photoshop Lightroom.

This assemblage of accomplished photographic storytellers was an inspiring and daunting crew to be a part of.

I pursued stories centered on people enjoying the wilds of Tasmania—climbers, kayakers, hikers, mountain bikers. Each of the other photographers had their story about Tassie to tell, but Tokyo- and New York-based commercial photographer Maki Kawakita’s project was one of the most fascinating. Maki was capturing self-portraits with complex costumes. In one series of images, she dressed as the anime character Kiki in the very place that Japan’s version of Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki, had conceived of her while on a trip to Tasmania.

As strange as the endeavor might seem to the uninitiated, for millions of Japanese, Tasmania is known as the place where Kiki had her bakery. In fact, Japanese pilgrims travel frequently to the town of Ross in Tassie just to see this place. Maki’s recreations of Kiki were by no means the dull travel snapshots that clog Flickr, bore relatives and fill dusty shoeboxes in the back of the closet. Maki’s images, rather, were great storytelling, and surely would compel even more anime pilgrims to the island of Tasmania.

When we write, we need to have something to say. When we photograph, it is the same.

When aspiring photographers ask me for advice, I urge them to stay away from making the trophy pictures—the ones that that say, “Look at me! I was there.” That story is old and boring.

Instead, pick just one thing and play photojournalist for awhile. Make friends and get invited to a pirate wedding in Tasmania. Tag along and document fishermen at work, or hike with climbers to photograph them as they ascend the mythic Tasmanian Totem Pole.

By remembering to ask yourself what story you are trying to tell before you press the shutter release, you’ll find that you make more compelling travel photos—and you’ll likely learn something about a place that you never would have known had you not been looking for that perfect story.

Jeff Pflueger

Jeff Pflueger is a San Francisco Bay Area based photographer and web geek. His adventure travel photographs involving all kinds of outdoor lunacy have been published in National Geographic Adventure, the New York Times, Men's Journal, Sunset and other publications.

6 Comments for Travel Photography and ‘Writing With Light’

Arun 11.06.09 | 2:39 AM ET

I sometimes wonder if travel photography is merging with photojournalism. Can they be called different at all?

Understandably, travel photography does involve unearthing traditions, cultures, anthropological observations and things similar. But I have also seen suffering and newsy stories portrayed as travel photography? Where to draw a line if there is one? Even more important questions is, should there be a line?

Melanie Monte Travel Photograhy 11.12.09 | 7:26 PM ET

What a really great article. As a newbie photographer, I am going to take this to heart. I guess I need to beat the “trophy” photo idea out of my head :). Thanks for the advice!

Nancy Harder 11.16.09 | 2:50 PM ET

Thanks for this article. Travel photography is, indeed, about telling a story and evoking a sense of place, rather than presenting a “trophy” photo. Both photography and writing can benefit the other.

Vacation Deals 11.30.09 | 10:45 PM ET

photos show it’s own story.
it really defines a lot of explanation whenever you’re looking at it.
it has it’s own story to share.
thanks for sharing your story with us..

mark - digital photo buzz 12.28.09 | 3:51 PM ET

Great insights.  You are right on that travel photography is really about telling a story of the location, learning about the culture and showing the readers a glimpse into another world.  “writing with light” is a great way to put it!

tanjila jesmeen 01.03.10 | 1:00 AM ET

nice post.thanks for sharing.

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