Why Your Travel Photos Suck

20160703-L1004016-Edit20160702-R1100615-EditHotel de Ville, Paris

I was lucky enough to have been in Paris this last week, where I often visit. It’s a beautiful city, full of visual treasures, though, as a photographer, it’s easy enough to be aesthetically lazy there. Most everything there is picturesque, designed to give visual pleasure. Acclimated to an American culture where public spaces are constructed for their vulgar utility and everything of value is monetized and commercially exploited, a simple walk through Paris can be a revelation. I’m not speaking now of the usual Parisian tourist trek: Notre Dame, Latin Quarter, Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, Champes Elysees, Louvre etc, which in this age of travel as mass commodity have all the authenticity and charm of visiting Disney World, but the real Paris where people live and work and carry on their daily lives. And, of course, Paris has the best food in the world, but it’s not just found in the elite Michelin rated restaurants but in the unpretentious corner cafes and patisseries and boulangeries you’ll find on every corner. If you’ve ever sat down to breakfast with a flan nature still warm from the corner patisserie you’ll know what I mean. (And for god’s sake, please do not go to Paris and sit in a Starbucks, which, given there’s a cafe about every other meter in most Paris neighborhoods, just might be the single stupidest American affectation sullying the city.)

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Ironically, competent photographers who’ve spent any time in Paris with a camera know it’s an incredibly difficult place to take interesting photographs. This is because it’s easy to fall into cliched ways of seeing your experience there – you know, the lovers kissing on the Pont des Arts, the guy with the baguette and the beret, the view from a table in a boulevard cafe, the pretty woman in a dress with the toy poodle on the rue, the de rigueur photo of the Eiffel Tower somewhere in the picture as a trope that says “I’m in Paris!” Please. Good enough for a cafe exhibition in Indiana? Probably. Been done a million times? Most certainly.

Am I begrudging those of us who’ll be in Paris once or twice in their life and want to record their experiences for posterity? No, of course not. What I’m saying is this: if you aspire to say something with your photography, aspire to say something about you. How you do that is not by recycling tired cliches that represent the stale vision of others, however scenic they’ve proven to be, but by presenting what you see and how you see it. To do that you don’t need the beauty of Paris. You need your own sense of aesthetics and interests, developed and cultivated with your particular vision.

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Cliched tropes can often be a barrier between you and the richness of the potential experience in front of you, something that restricts your ability to really recognize the breath and intricacy of what you’ve come to see. Looking for that perfect picture of the Eiffel, you can miss the quotidian beauty that’s all around you. Of course, the same thing can be said for the overly familiar; we can become habituated to a place and not really see it anymore. When in Paris I stay with a good friend, a lifetime Parisian. He’s also an exceptional photographer, his work exhibited around the world. In the room in which I stay there’s one of his B&W prints on the wall, a simple street scene in some non-descript lower Manhattan neighborhood. I was with him when he had taken the picture; it was of a scene I’d passed a million times, nothing scenic or remarkable, something I didn’t “see.” But he did. It’s a reminder to me that I don’t have to go to exotic places to find things to photograph. They’re there, everywhere you are.

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*All photos taken with an M8 and a 35mm Summicron. As this was a personal trip for personal reasons, I left the film Leica and the 50 rolls of HP5 at home. Actually, I really enjoyed using the M8. Still a great camera for what it is. I certainly can’t see why you’d need anything more if your interest is a digital rangefinder.

13 thoughts on “Why Your Travel Photos Suck

  1. Andrew

    Great piece.

    I’ve never been to Paris, but find myself in Seoul, Korea at least once or twice per year, every year, for the last 22 years. I used to photograph the palaces and temples, the noodle shops and everything else distinctly Korean.

    More recently its interesting people doing interesting things, an item vastly out of place or something incredibly mundane, yet striking. I just wish I had as easy (still quite challenging) a time finding such things in small-town Bakersfield, California. Its here, I just look past it every day.

  2. Jon

    Presumably the first two pictures are examples of howlingly poor holiday snaps. I enjoyed a number of the photographs in the rest of the post though.

    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Possibly. What I like about the second photo is that it’s a cliched photo that contains another cliched photo.

  3. Bernardo

    I go to Paris more or less every two weeks, and I can’t agree more. Cliches are everywhere, and the risk of being trapped by them is real. However, I think that it’s almost impossible not passing from cliches before developing your original eye on Paris: it’s a sort of ritual, which everyone should pass through.

    One thing I do not agree is the “best food”. But I’m Italian, so I’m not objective…

      1. dominic

        i know this is a very “personal” preference of taste, but is it just sushi you are referring to that is best in tokyo, or sushi is your best food(period).?

        personally, the best meal i ever had in tokyo, was korean bbq. top grade wagyu beef in korean spices. AMAZING!!! but one can not eat a 1k meal everyday. tskuji for sushi for breakfast is also a favorite. but as an everyday meal, no matter what city throughout the country or prefecture in tokyo, or small village, you can’t really go wrong with ramen. but the best of the best, are the home cooked meals by my former mother in law in the countryside outside of chiba city.

        if you live in tokyo, get out of there!!! you’re spending too much on a meal that can be truly enjoyed outside of tokyo prices. but i am sure you are aware of this if living there already.

        in paris, its love the northern african cuisine much better. steak frite is a bore, and I’m sure i can cook it better. 😉

  4. Adam Singer

    I liked the article,but Paris does not have the food in the world. Arguably it has the best French food in the world. In the list of the worlds top 50 best restaurant a Parisian restaurant doesn’t even make the the top 10. Most Japanese would not rate French Cuisine that high, and many of us think Italy does the best food in the world, I only say all this to help you with the cliche about French food, but I did like the pics, which were definitely more Alain Ducasse than Escoffier.

    1. Jon

      I lived in Paris for a year in the mid nineties. I love the City; its compactness, the variety between its arondissement and the sense of unwittingly participating in some sort of pantomime. The best Parisien food is to be found in Paris- but this does not amount to much- onion soup is Parisien! French food is regional and seasonal and therefore the best French food is found in the regions where the techniques and ingredients originate.

      As for photography in Paris, a move one hundred metres away from a typical route will reveal the multi-cultural underbelly of the City. A holiday snap with a photojournalistic mindset may better reveal the stories behind the trip, create a series of images which better define the experience. I found a cafe owned by a Central African family who served the best and cheapest food I ate during my time and the pictures of their premises (and coincidentally the two beautifal Siberian backpackers taking advantage of a cheap meal!) are the most ‘Parisien’ shots I had. I think I was one of the only foreign white folk to ever have stepped foot in there. This was a side street or two away from the main route in to the Pompidou Centre, with tens of thousands of tourists passing closeby each day! All it takes is a sense of adventure and local knowledge.

      Holiday pictures in my mind have a tendency to concentrate on the place, not the people. The dynamism and magic of a City is for me better captured in its people. So many photographs of buildings are not worth showing- converging lines, poor levels of architectural detail and traffic in the foreground all make for messy, dull scenes.

  5. Wayne

    To maybe say the same thing:

    I think many travel photos suck because, in the final analysis, there is really no “travel” involved. Generally, they are photographs of a bunch of places that the vast majority of humanity considers worthwhile destinations, e.g. NYC, Paris, Budapest,….. Getting aboard an aircraft in one country/city, sleeping or reading for a few hours as you rocket across the globe, and getting off of the aircraft in the destination country/city is about as much a bastardization of “travel” as digital capture is a bastardization of  “photography.” Something important is lost; and I believe that something is the journey itself. ……. The toil, inconvenience, fatigue, but ultimately, the familiarity realized by time and effort. 

    one of my favorite photo books is Here, Far Away by Pentii Sammallhati. It is not about “street” or travel photography; it is about places far distant from one another. Each photograph exudes the idea of time, effort, and familiarity; and to an extent that you feel you are there…..and familiar. 

    On Paris:

    I never made it to Paris. My visits to France came about as part of a nine month (Iranian Hostage Crisis) Mediterranean/Indian Ocean cruise aboard a 30 year old destroyer. We did stop in Toulon and Marseilles and, once there, spent days traveling, via bus, to various smaller towns in the French countryside. I recall the high point of the visit was being part of a group of sailors “volunteering” to provide muscle for an order of French nuns trying to renovate an ancient, dilapidated, old monastery.  My Chief was married to a French national and was able to find all sorts of ways for a Midwestern boy to get to know France. I did not have a camera at the time but dearly wish that I had. I am certain, due the intimacy of my contact with the folks I met, I would have been given any opportunity. 

    In hindsight- this is where Leica film rangefinders come into play- the most useful camera that I could have had with me, is one that could have been carried, and used, as if photography was simply an afterthought to the whole experience…….Something that could have been casually brought into use once I had become comfortable and familiar with the environment; something that would not have been a burden to living the life/lives I wished to photograph. It is odd, but the genius of Oskar Barnack continues to amaze as I log hours with his cameras: recently, I discovered that my IIIA fits easily into the front pocket of my shorts and can always be with me during any activity in which I become engaged; and obstructs nothing, as it sits idle, ready to bring its magic to any “decisive moment” that may impose on my activity. 

    Presently, I am interested in taking a photograph of the Lincoln, Herndon historical law office in Springfield, IL. Fortunately, it is within walking distance of Honest Abe’s family home. I could take snapshots of the office building, but something tells me I will need to spend some time walking between the home and the office before I am able to figure out what I am really looking for. The IIIA will be no burden to the project of mind- melding with Abe as he left his family at home to start his day at the office. It may be a silly notion, but I think there may be something in it. 

  6. Chris

    Well done. Pat yourself on the back. This is brilliant stuff, and really helps other not be so cliched and trite in their work. I especially like all the signs… nothing captures the spirit of a place like advertisements. Really, really good stuff!

  7. Greg Brophy

    Walk into a small patisserie, my wife and I agree, just one croissant. 5 croissants later the waiter is laughing at us. A regular at the shop saw my polaroid and asked if they still made film for that. Turns out he was the owner of a gallery across the street with original Warhol polaroids on display. Paris is magical.

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