I just had a lively conversation with Cindy about the meaning of traveling and photography. Why do we have to make photos while we’re traveling? Do we do it to document our personal experiences? Do we do it to have a sense of “conquest” of a foreign place? Do we do it to “prove” that we went somewhere?
If you went on an epic around-the-world trip for a year, and visited dozens of countries, and you didn’t take any photos — would your trip have actually happened?
Why do I take photos while traveling?
I’ve found it personally hard to make interesting photographs while traveling.
As my teacher Constantine Manos said, when you’re traveling in an exotic place — you get “suckered by the exotic.” We mistake what is “exotic” for what is “interesting.”
For example, if you’re visiting Vietnam for the first time you might be inclined to photograph people in rice patty hats, motorbikes, and street vendors. Why? Because it is all so exotic and different from what we experience back “home” in the west.
Now a more important question — are these photographs really meaningful? More so, are taking photos of exotic people in exotic places personally-meaningful to us? What do these photos say about us?
What not to photograph while traveling
I had to travel to India at least 3 times before I started to make (what I think) are “interesting” photos.
I had to not photograph the obvious scenes. I tried to avoid photographing the local Indians with interesting faces. I tried to avoid just photographing people against colorful backgrounds. I tried to avoid the standard “exotic” National-Geographic/Steve McCurry-esque types of images.
What I tried to do is photograph like a local.
When I shot street photography in India, I walked with my buddy Kaushal Parikh all the time. He’s local, and has been photographing the streets of India for many years. So I tried to follow his lead— knowing which visual cliches to avoid, and knowing which street scenes were more unique.
Can you make a better photograph than what you see on Google images?
When you first travel to an exotic country, I do recommend to take your touristy photos to send to your friends back home. But once again ask yourself, “Why am I making these images?” Do you really need another photograph of the Eiffel tower? Can’t your friends just Google image an (even better) photograph of it? Do you really need to shoot a beautiful landscape to “prove” that you went there?
Make your travel photos personal
What I recommend is to make personally-meaningful photos while you’re traveling. Make photographs of people you meet, make self-portraits of yourself, and photograph as if you’re at home.
Another way to think about it is this: image yourself as a local. What would you photograph and not photograph?
Even when you’re traveling abroad, try to think of yourself as a local—not a tourist. Even when it comes to eating and hanging out — ask other locals what they like to do for fun. Try to avoid TripAdvisor and other travel websites like the plague.
Ask the locals
While here in Vietnam, we tried using TripAdvisor to find good eats. They all end up being quite over-priced, and catering to rich tourists.
What we did instead was ask our local friends what they used to find a good bite in Hanoi. They all use an app called “Foody” (like the Yelp of Vietnam). With this app, we’ve been able to find amazing street food (like Bun Cha, Bun Dau, and authentic Pho).
A tip I have when you’re traveling — don’t ask people, “What is popular to do here?” Ask them a personal question — “What do you like to do for fun here?”
Avoiding “exoticism” while living abroad
Sorry I got a bit distracted. Going back to the point of traveling and photography — I find myself taking fewer photos of “exotic” scenes and landmarks when I’m traveling. I take fewer photos of the “exotic” or unique meals that I eat.
Rather, I’m striving to make personally-meaningful photos of my personal connection with Vietnam. And frankly speaking, because I spend most of my time with Cindy — that means to just continue taking portraits of her (The Cindy Project) just being here in Vietnam.
A lot of people ask me how it is like living here. Honestly, it doesn’t feel too different from living anywhere else. It almost feels like being in Little Saigon (the large Vietnamese community in Orange County, California) — except everyone speaks only Vietnamese. We still have huge grocery stores here (even bigger than Costco), we have super-fast wifi at coffee shops, we have expensive and cheap restaurants, and we have lovely people (like anywhere else in the world).
While living here in Hanoi, I don’t find myself taking that many photos. Only a few meaningful photos — whenever I meet someone truly fascinating, whenever I see a street scene with a lovely composition, or when I see a nice color-combination of Cindy and our environment.
After about a year of living here, I have no idea what kind of images I will have from Hanoi. I have made a few street photographs that I quite like — and I think the reason I like these photos is because I could have shot them anywhere.
Why do you travel, and why do you take photos while traveling?
The next time you decide to travel— ask yourself, “Why do I want to travel?” Are you traveling to escape from the mundane office-life of your 9-5 job? Are you traveling to have novel experiences? Are you traveling to find some sort of “enlightenment”? Are you traveling to tick countries off a check-list or bucket list?
And when it comes to traveling and taking photos — ask yourself, “Why do I want to make photos while traveling?” Do you want to make photos while traveling to create beautiful “art”? Do you want to make photos while traveling to “prove” you really went somewhere? To show off to your friends on social media? To finally make a portfolio-worthy series of images?
Make it personal
There are no “right” and “wrong’s” when it comes to traveling and photography. But be clear about your intentions, and do what is personally-meaningful to you.