Street and travel are genres of photography that are near and dear to me, as they’re where my photographic journey began. And I continue to derive so much joy and excitement out of photography through these mediums.
Travel photography is, in a sense, simply street photography in another location. So in this article I’ll be treating them as largely the same.
ETHICS IN STREET/TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY
When you’re out in the world, you’re photographing people, places and things that you aren’t necessarily personally connected to. So I think it’s helpful for us as photographers and observers to think of ourselves as guests. We should be thankful to the places we’re in and consider it an honor and privilege to photograph them. As such, it’s important we treat our subjects with utmost respect.
Here are a few things to keep in mind in order to do so:
The golden rule, one I would drill into every single photographer’s head if I could, is: always get permission before photographing someone! It should be second nature. I especially hate when people (usually white) approach and photograph children (usually Black or brown) who they don’t know and whose parents they haven’t asked for permission. Would you photograph random children playing in your home town/country? How would you feel as a parent if you looked outside and saw an adult stranger taking pictures of your kids without your knowledge/consent? Don’t do it! This doesn't only go for children however, it should be standard practice with pretty much everyone.
Exceptions to this rule include:
ofConsider how you photograph different locations
If you’re lucky enough I travel a lot, do your photos from France look different from those you took in Morocco or Cambodia? How and why? How are the notions you arrived in a particular country with affecting how you choose to depict this country? As someone traveling and documenting, and presumably sharing your photographs with folks back home, how are you affirming or challenging stereotypes? Photographing what you see isn’t a problem, and of course two different places will look different from each other. But how you chose to portray a place, and what things you choose to emphasize, is something to pay attention to and challenge.
If you search google images for Europe photos, you get monuments, churches and bridges, Africa photos, and you get animals landscapes and large groups of people. Is Africa devoid of impressive architecture? Is Europe devoid of wildlife? Again, there’s nothing wrong with photographing Notre Dame in Paris or a lion in Tanzania. However, especially if you’re a photographer with some sort of wider-reaching platform, consider how else you might choose to depict these places. Both to challenge our established notions/assumptions/associations, and to avoid being a cliché!
As an example, National Geographic, is sort of the bible for travel photographers. And it has been sharing photos of faraway people and places with western audiences for over 100 years. This magazine has been extensively criticized for the stark contrast in how it portrays different places and people. In fact, I even had a textbook in college, Reading National Geographic, which delved deeply into the magazine’s affect on visual anthropology in our society. The magazine did eventually acknowledge its racism in a 2018 statement, where their editor in chief, Susan Goldberg (the first woman and first Jewish person to hold the role), held no punches in decrying their history of not only what they did publish “happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché”, but also what they didn’t “There are no voices of black South Africans. That absence is as important as what is in there. The only black people are doing exotic dances … servants or workers. It’s bizarre, actually, to consider what the editors, writers, and photographers had to consciously not see.”
That conscious not seeing is a very nefarious thing for all of us to be aware of and avoid.
As protests around the country and the globe continue, street photography blends with journalism as professional and citizen photographers take to the streets to record what is happening. So, in these and all instances where power institutionalized power is at play (ie at all times and in all places) I ask all photographers to carefully examine both what they are seeing, and what they consciously are not.
TIPS FOR COMPELLING STREET/TRAVEL PHOTO IMAGES
Every photographer has their own style, and their own sense of what subject matter interests them. That said, there are a few techniques you can employ to elevate your photography if you’re feeling stuck, or if you just want to try something out!
Look for something that intrigues you
For me, one of these things is apartment building exteriors. I grew up in an apartment in a small city in Massachusetts. I think the idea of a shared living space, where one building contains many lives, experiences and stories that are affected by each other, holds a certain level of romance and intrigue for me. I also just think they look cool aesthetically. So personally I know building façades are something I look for when I’m out traveling or doing street photography in my neighborhood. This is just one example of something that intrigues me, there are plenty of other things, and everyone will have their own set of scenes that catch their eye. Pay attention to yours and soon you’ll develop a voice all your own! As you build up a collection of photos under a unified theme, you may even be able to start developing a series, and eventually host a show, how grand!
Try new angles and get close
If you feel like your photos lack a certain something, playing with angles is the easiest and most surefire way to spice things up. Think about it, if you stand upright, bring your camera to your eyes, and then click, you’re showing people things from a perspective they see the world from every single day. Whereas if you get low, or high, you start to distort and show people another way of seeing otherwise mundane/everyday things.
For example, when I was in Taipei I was exploring the neighborhoods along the MRT’s Wenhu line. Walking along the street, a saw an arch. And underneath it was a wooden staircase leading up into some woods. I had to check it out! So I climbed the stairs and after ascending about 300 yards through the trees I arrived to a clearing with a brick courtyard in front of a small building. The courtyard was covered with hundreds of little white flowers that had fallen from the tree above. The scene was so magical I had to photograph it. So I took some photos but was really disappointed that I wasn’t evoking the feeling of the place, but then I had an idea. I placed my camera on the ground, face-to-face with the flowers, and pressed the shutter from above. The result is the image below.
Explore negative space
Negative space is the area in an image that is “empty”, so to speak. Leaving some negative space inspires the viewer to draw their own conclusions on what’s outside of the frame, and what the spirit of the image says to them. With my images of apartment buildings, I’ll often frame a few with just the edge of the building visible, and taking up less than 25% of the frame, leaving the rest as open sky. This strikes an almost musical note for me, and really evokes the feeling I myself feel when I’m witnessing these scenes through my lens. Negative space can be sky, a solid wall, or any plain background really. See my images below for some examples of how to employ negative space in your work.
Symmetry in your photos can be a great thing to play with. Either try to achieve it or try to break it with an asymmetrical composition. Our eyes are acutely aware of symmetry, so it can be a powerful tool to manipulate!
Don’t be afraid of dark photos. I think recently there’s a tendency for photographers to shoot hyper-bright images. Darkness can be great! If you took a photo at night, let it look like you took it at night! Avoid the urge to brighten up your images in post production. Darkness can create some really cool moods in your photos and it’s something to learn how to wield, just as much as brightness is!
While capturing a whole scene is great, honing in on smaller details can result in some captivating images as well. Look for fine details in the scenes your shooting, or even a small segment of the overall scene that might stand well on its own. You can get some really intriguing stuff that way.
I hope these tips offer some novel ideas for how you may approach your own photography. There are as many photography styles as there are photographers, so in addition to trying some of these, be confident in forging your own path! If you have any ideas or techniques that you’ve had success with, please share in the comments, I’d love to hear them!