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Confessions of a Phototramp
© by Maciej Tomczak, June 2005

The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Since early teens I’ve dreamt of exploring far lands and obscure cultures – to see for myself how things, which I could only read about, are and tell others about them upon return.  It wasn’t until the explosion of affordable travel in the nineties when, overcoming my fear of the unknown and shedding misconceptions, I acted upon the juvenile fantasies.  And what’s a better way of bringing the stories back home than photographing the things I’ve seen as they were?

Few other activities can match the feeling of freedom of independent travel and the power of photography to record what one learns first-hand in the process.  These days, technology makes indulging in both exceedingly easy, though not without some deliberate effort and thought.  Resolving to hit the road is easily the most difficult part of a journey, but once empowered by being on the move, it’s not unusual to get hooked to the new reality and never look back…

Although travel photography is practiced by the legions and modern vagabonds abound, I have yet to find a down-to-earth advice on how to photograph with professionalism and grace on a low-budget, long-term haul.  I decided to write about when phototramping becomes a calling, the only way I know how – from experience.

Despite its popularity, long-term travel carries a stigma of demanding lots of money and time – both the commodities that many find beyond their means.  This idea is especially popular in North America where, fuelled by the belief in redemption by puritan toil, galloping consumerism and the perception that the rest of the world is repellently unsafe and unhealthy, it prevented many from looking much beyond their backyards.

Foreign travel is commonly equated to vacation – a hasty affair which, having high expectations to be fulfilled in limited time, we often leave to the ‘professionals’ to organize, and that’s expensive and potentially shallow.  It doesn’t need to be this way.

Thousands of people a year make a pilgrimage to see the Angkor complex in Cambodia for a good reason – when it wasn’t so crowded, it must have been one of the greatest sights on Earth.  The site is vast and requires a few days to explore; you’re destined to spend a night or two in the nearby town of Siem Reap.  Since I came there on my own, stayed in a small, family guesthouse and ate at the market, my biggest expense was the unavoidable $20/day site entry fee.  The site is so popular that a semi-luxurious hotel plus a tour could have easily set me back several hundred dollars a day.  I doubt that my experience would have been any richer (though I certainly wouldn’t be) – or worse, thinking that I couldn’t afford it I wouldn’t have come to see the Angkor at all.  Same place, same access, big difference.

Rolf Potts in his book Vagabonding describes the act as: “…taking time from your normal life…to discover and experience the world on your own terms… through the deliberate way of living that makes freedom of travel possible.”  I don’t come close to Rolf’s travel credentials nor to his art of relating them to others, but I’ve discovered a few useful truths during my apprenticeship:

  1. There are three daily orders of business that define the budget for most travellers: transport, food and lodging. Using public transport, eating as locals do, and settling on cheap yet adequate accommodation will extend your time abroad significantly. So will choosing your destinations carefully.

  2. Obligations at home may seem pressing from afar, but they will likely look less imminent upon return. Wait them out – Ghandi may have been on to something when he declared: “There is more to life than making it go faster.”

  3. Most foreign destinations are at least as friendly and safe as your hometown. Retire your fears and don’t trust all you hear on CNN.

  4. We all have the same needs world over – there is no point in carrying your house with you.

  5. What’s worst about guides is that one has to follow them. Most places don’t require any. Get the info, then strike out on your own.

  6. People are kind everywhere, intrinsically.

Phototramping seems to have mutually exclusive requirements: photography flourishes with loads of expensive gear, tramping embraces frugality.  Michael Reichmann, an accomplished photographer, prolific if opinionated writer, noted educator and the founder of the hugely popular website, limited himself to bringing 70lb (sic!) worth of photographic equipment to his recent ‘12-full-days’ stint in Bangladesh.  That’s not including a toothbrush or a change of underwear.  For a phototramp that's a lunacy!  With Sherpas or not…

While how you photograph and what you bring with you is a matter of palate, bringing less always pays off – bringing nothing at all would be ideal.  As with anything worthwhile-doing in life, one needs to be a bit obsessed about photography trying to do it well.  That doesn’t justify compromising your ability to move, even if you photograph professionally.  In phototamping the tramping comes first.

Phototramping is situational by definition: a mixture of opportunistic coincidence, fuelled by premeditated effort spread over long time.  National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita, complimented on how fortunate he must have been getting the many wonderful shots, quipped: “I’m paid to be lucky”.   Not all of us are, but it brings home a point: in travel photography most efforts won’t pay off, but without work there will be no rewards – guaranteed.

Here is a recipe for taking a remarkable travel photograph: take a highly unusual and glorious subject, illuminated with striking light, in an uniquely pleasing composition complete with matching background; take a technically impeccable, original picture of it that expresses wonder, humanity and timelessness (but necessarily from modern perspective) and you may have a shot at convincing some viewers to spend a few seconds looking at it.  Taking a good travel photograph is hard – getting a great one is impossible.

Travel photography is a mature medium.  A lot of the world has been brought to us in pictures and words by generations of great photographers and writers, often supported by organisations devoted to do just that well.  It’s no longer sufficient to simply show what’s out there – it’s too far in the game, and likely what’s novel to us has been already shown many times before.  But the great advantage for a phototramp is that there is no deadline, set destination or a manager that determines them – if the phototramping time is well spent by going as deeply into unexploited subjects as one can, a unique art may result.

Sometimes I feel that I know everything there is to know about photography except how to enjoy it.  Photography may seriously interfere with travel: ‘on a mission’ I’m often so compulsively focused on the necessity and paraphernalia of picture taking that I fail to see and savour what’s around me.  Life is at its best where taken in moderation and any picture is ultimately insignificant when compared to the life’s intricacies that it tries to describe.  Take heart: it’s the photographer’s company, not his skills or accomplishments, that the viewer is after.

In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde concluded that: “All art is quite useless… The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.”  And didn’t he suffer enough for it?  It’s not for me to judge when travel snapshooting becomes an art.  But megalomania is tough to overcome: we’re hard-wired to want to be recognised and get others to relate to our experiences.  Eschew self-indulgence, but not to the point of self-depreciation.

Photographs lie.  Not always intentionally, but they do.  The phenomenon is not unique to travel photography, but it’s quite intense here – we take the unmanipulated photographs as true, but it’s the truth taken out of context.  Photography is also invasive – it has the ability of bending the truth.  But that’s all good: as long as there is no spurious, self-serving agenda behind it, we’re not bound by the limitation of forensic standards and can show things the way we’ve seen them.  Perception is not a constant.  In a David Lynch’s movie The Lost Highway, Bill Pullman utters this now-famous line: “I like to remember things my own way, not necessarily how they happened.”

Travel photographers often look for the exotica of yesteryears, forgetting that what they dismiss now as modern aberrations will surely become a nostalgia item quite soon.  In Chengdu, a Chinese city modern by any standards, there was a small photo exhibit in a trendy restaurant: black and white photographs of old Chinese villages.  The owner claimed them to be “the real China”.  If that was the real China, I had really hard time finding it.  Likewise, few Saigonians wear conical hats or tend the rice fields anymore; Tibetans are certainly still fond of the praying wheels, but many are now just as fascinated by spinning Ninjas on their Nokia cell phones. 

Paradigms change, novelties excite, and then wear off…

World Press Photo is the premier showcase for press photography.  Every year, thousands of professional photographers enter the contest and the winning entries are exhibited around the world.  It’s a great and noble forum, bristling with talent and showing walks of life hard to see anywhere else – often photographed at great peril and sacrifice to the authors.  If one takes the World Press Photo photographs as describing the world as it is, the Earth may seem to consist of killer volcanoes, man-eating albino alligators and blood-thirsty, grenade-throwing thugs.  In my experience the world is not so.  I think there is a golden opportunity for phototramps to show the life dimensions that, perhaps less sensationally, but more faithfully describe how things, on balance, really are.

Some hold that the mass-travel falls victim to its own popularity, undermining the value of the experience by corrupting its uniqueness.  Tempting as it may be, it’s a delusion to lift any unusual holiday to the rank of exploration when the explorer takes care not to do anything original.  Even with the purest of intentions and great effort we could at best hope to find an occasional glimpse of truth in the places visited, if that lucky at all.  But without trying, failure is guaranteed.  It is your world to see and describe.  As a particularly insensitive quote of St. Augustine has it: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.

(This essay was published in the January 2007 issue of the PhotoLife Magazine (Vol32_N1); Editor's selection of text and photographs differed from mine)

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