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?
early teens I’ve dreamt of exploring far lands and obscure cultures
– to see for myself how things, which I could only read
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…
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 –
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:
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.
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.”
Most foreign destinations are at least as friendly and safe as
your hometown. Retire your fears and don’t trust all you hear on
We all have the same needs world over – there is no point in
carrying your house with you.
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
People are kind everywhere, intrinsically.
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 Luminous-Landscape.com 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.
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 –
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
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.
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
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
Paradigms change, novelties excite, and then wear off…
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.”
was published in
January 2007 issue of the
Editor's selection of text and photographs differed from mine)