“My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.”
– Steve McCurry
Photographers travel. I’ve been back home in Singapore for two months now, and I’m never more aware of this than when I am back here. Anecdotally, trying to pin one photographer down (for coffee/a meal/a shoot/book chat) is a challenge. Getting several together in one place at the same time? Next to impossible! Half the group will inevitably be elsewhere in the world.
Some of this a Singapore thing – it is a small country and a major transit hub, which makes travel very easy if you have the means, which a lot of us do. We travel for more than leisure, with family, jobs and businesses outside of the country.
Some of this might have something to do with the people I connect with. Being nomadic, I am drawn to others who are the same.
It’s the chicken and egg question: is it travel that makes us want to photograph, or does wanting to photograph make us travel?
It’s hard to be a photographer and not get excited about the photographic possibilities outside the familiar. Getting to apply our skills to different settings, in different light, with different circumstances, is ridiculously exciting. This potential exploration is what all the debate about gear, the learning of new skills, the conversation about what equipment is best to capture what situation, is about. The hunt for that perfect picture.
But does it start there or does that happen because we once went somewhere, made a picture and were struck with how close it was to how being there, doing that, in that light felt…but not quite? But it could be next time? Yeah, you all know what I’m talking about, don’t you?
For many, photography while traveling starts out as a log, of the “look, I was here, and this is what I saw” variety. Some of this is for ourselves, some of it is for others. But all of it leads, hopefully, to growth of all kinds. It is hard to be unchanged by travel. If nothing else, putting ourselves into new situations require that we push past the autopilot to make sense of what’s going on. We redefine our internal systems a little every time this happens. And when that happens, new opportunities arise to extend ourselves further.
And for many of us, the photographs we end up with are just the end of the process. It is the making of these photographs – the work involved in seeking out the right spot, at the right time, with the right light and people and things and situations – where our work is done. Photography is a vehicle with which we interpret the world and our place in it – and yes, this applies to the Instagram/-selfie crowd that gets so much flak these days, as it does the “serious” photographers. When we travel, we’re all annoying tourists to some degree, getting in the way and making mistakes. We all belong together, finding our way through this crazy world.
I didn’t make the connection between camera and access until quite recently. For one thing, I am quite fond of my actual passport. It’s a good one, gets me across many borders freely. My camera on the other hand, has yet to earn me a “welcome to ____ stamp” from airport staff. For another, I don’t do travel photography. I don’t pick my destinations based on what they will yield photographically. I choose them for the environment I want to be in, say, some place with broad, open roads if I’m in the mood (and financial position) to take a road trip, hills for walking, rural spaces for quiet, mad metropoles when it gets too quiet, and places with castles because, well, I like castles. Especially if they come with fog.
Then the penny dropped and I finally realized that while having a camera doesn’t fling doors open, it does grant me a path to learning more about things that catch my fancy. This is a realization I should have had far earlier, but it took running around in the rain in rural Denmark to figure it out. I never took any interest in landscape photography until my partner and I started spending time long stretches of time with his late father, who lived in a country house surrounded by crop fields. Learning about the natural and cultural history of the area suddenly imbued what I saw around me with great significance. Making pictures of the land went from an activity to pass time, to a method of ingesting this knowledge, and honouring its connection with him.
A lot of travelers I’ve come across are photographers. But others are musicians, writers, designers, actors, filmmakers and myriad other creative folk. The culture of the craft and industry might have something to do with it, but I am starting to think that maybe it’s the urge to create that invites us to wander. Maybe that is part of the creative journey – the provocation to push our perspectives and other boundaries to find links in the disparate, familiar in the foreign, and how we are all ultimately connected to one another.
For those of us who must go through life with a camera. the pursuit of that perfect frame is our process of slowing down, attending to our own journeys, and bringing some of those lessons home, wherever or whatever “home” means to you.
For me, home continues to be a destabilizing place. Coming back here after half a life away takes some getting used to, since I typically start from near scratch each time I return, inevitably from a long period away. It’s photography, ultimately, that is teaching me to adjust. In the same way it helps me to build a connection to place and people when I am learning to live somewhere new, it is helping me learn what my own country looks like, connect with those who live here, and understand (slowly!) what it is to me, if not anyone else.
My camera is a passport to the world, and a ticket home too.