Thursday, 8 November 2007

Is Travel Photography Dying...or Dead?

Image Copyright © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

A few days ago Heather Jacobsen of hk imagery and a reader of TTP, asked me whether I thought that travel photography was dead...she had heard that statement from many in the industry, and was interested to know my view.

Well, here it is: I do not subscribe to the notion that “travel” photography is dead. It has evolved...and I mean really evolved...not a progressive kind of evolution, but it changed with a relative abruptness that left many of those unprepared gasping for air...and not only was the change sudden, but it happened dynamically.

The confluence of many factors contributed to the evolution of “travel” photography. The relatively cheap travel, the accessibility of the ‘off-the-beaten path’ places, computers, digital photography and all its hardware and software accouterments, the Internet, mini-stock agencies and free photo hosting websites, to name but a few, are all factors that changed traditional ‘travel’ photography industry.

So my response to Heather was essentially that traditional "travel" photography had evolved so much and so rapidly, that many deemed it dead. I guess the emphasis here is on 'traditional'. I also made the rather obvious point that photographers needed to acquire new skills to adapt in this new environment.

Everyone realizes that anyone with a half-decent digital camera can now produce sensational photographs of the Pyramids or Angkor Wat, but that doesn’t mean that working photographers should give up and stay home doing something else. It just means (at least to me) that photographers who travel to photograph must develop skills and abilities more akin to those of photojournalists...they need to tell stories with their photographs.

I follow the Travel section of the New York Times quite closely, and see how photographers and its photo editors are using its website to effectively showcase travel photography. I recently posted a multimedia feature (by Chris Ramirez) on Trinidad which combined photography with its food and wine industry: one of a rapidly expanding genre in the travel photography domain.

There are photographers at the top of the food chain...the members of the ‘oligopoly’… who still sell technically perfect photographs of the Pyramids, or of infinity swimming pools in the Maldives, or of coconut trees swaying in the wind...and who get handsomely paid...but even they are a dying breed and their days are numbered.

While I'm at it, let me add this about the photo tours business...and I've been saying it for years. Photographers -whether celebrity or not- who lead photo tours can no longer rest on their laurels. They too have to evolve. The days of doing the same itinerary over and over are gone...and the "hey! shoot like me!" days are also gone. Photo tour leaders have to research and offer, not only new itineraries, but guidance as to how to weave the participants' daily inventory of photographs into eventual photo stories....how to build compelling stories out of their photographs. Yes, that's right...more workshop-like than just a photo tour.

I firmly believe that the future of "travel" photography is where the photojournalists are treading...and where they’re going...and its adherents will face the same challenges photojournalists face. They’ll have to tell and sell compelling stories though their photographs, by adding creative multimedia effects and sound recordings, and become in effect almost documentary filmmakers. Some will embrace this evolution, will continue to evolve and will thrive, and others will not.

Survival of the fittest...it's that simple.