The Cult of Travel in Street Photography

If you look at most street photography sites and the work of many photographer’s, you’ll start to notice something. They tend to make a big deal about traveling. I’m not talking about photographers like F.D. Walker who are “travel street photographer’s” (I’m discounting him and those like him as it is part of his thing and he makes it clear he is a “travel street photographer”) but there are plenty of street photographers who talk about how it’s worth not buying gear and instead better spending that money on traveling (or a workshop) instead. It’s a line I’ve heard repeated myself and I think there is some truth to it, experiences are better than things. The problem is the idea that lurks behind it all which suggests that we have to travel to take good photos. It’s almost like there is a cult of travel in street photography.

This is something which I believe is negative for street photography as a whole, and so while I don’t think there is anything wrong with traveling and taking street photos as you do, I think we need to be more critical of these voices which seem to declare that we must travel because we take street photos.

Why traveling is great for street photography

Personally, I know that some of my best moments in my street photography have come when I have travelled and just after I’ve travelled. I think my photos during the Camino de Santiago were some of my best ever thanks to the theme and constant practice that I had, as well as meeting a friend in Lisbon and being inspired by his photography. But in truth, those were the key factors, the clear goal and message, the inspiration from a friend and the regularity of shooting. These mattered more than the fact that I was in Spain and Portugal.

Still, when we travel we often bring an outside eye to the place we are in. We notice things for the first time that many other locals usually miss. We aren’t burdened with our past expectations and so we can approach it in a unique way.

Why traveling isn’t great for street photography.

Living in Krakow, a popular tourist destination, I see a lot of people pass through with their cameras. This last year I’ve noticed many more people taking “street style” photos. That is candid photos of people in public places. Some of these were polish people from krakow and other cities but many more were tourists. In most cases I noticed them in the same few familiar places. In the old town, next to the Mary’s church and the cloth hall or perhaps by the train station. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve taking photos in these spots, but it is extremely rare that I’ve seen people in other spots, places which are less touristy and more reflective of the character of Krakow.

That’s the problem I often see in traveling. We look at things from an outside perspective, but that outside perspective tends to be shallow (not always). It’s gravitates towards that photos of the guy in the main square who dresses like an old polish solider (but with someone modern in the background), the guy who makes bubbles during the summer for kids to play in, or the arches in the clothhall.

It’s lacks a familiarity which reminds me or the Robert Capa quote,

If you’re photos are good, you aren’t close enough — Robert Capa Click To Tweet
 That’s emotional closeness not neccaserily physical closeness.

Finally, (and probably most importantly) it promotes this western culture of consumption. We travel to consume a place and mark it off our map. We don’t care about the environmental cost of flying nor the possible exploitation of locals, it’s all about what we can benefit from our trip. This suggests that a local couldn’t take a good photo of their location but instead some western travel with their expensive camera is able to “truly” capture the place they go to.

We end up lusting to travel to these mythical magical places that will suddenly magically make our photos better rather than seeking to make the best of our limits in our local environment. Those will no doubt be even greater photos.

Travel Isn’t all bad, but it isn’t all good

I’m not saying that you should never travel, nor that you shouldn’t take street style photos when you travel, but It isn’t a magical potion that will instantly improve your photography. Some of the side effects

  • motivation,
  • regular practice,
  • an outside perspective,
  • a project

may help you and lead to some great photos, but remember that you can brings these elements to your local environment and probably take better photos that an outsider never could. Why not focus on the creative constraints of your local environment and working out how you can take better photos where you are.

[I should add that I am as “guilty” of all these things. I’ve traveled and shared my photos of traveling and talked about the benefits of traveling for street photography. So yes I am a hypocrite.]

Originally published at Chris J Wilson.

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