When traveling on assignment or on vacation, always do your homework before leaving and arrive a few days early to explore. The goal of travel photography, especially for editorial, is to capture the unique identity of a destination helping readers choose a vacation that best suits their needs and desires. This is virtually impossible if you never spend enough time in country to appreciate the culture and people.
Seen one bedouin, seen them all…
Pick up any travel guide to the middle east and look at the pictures of bedouins in different countries. Invariably, they begin to look all the same. Now, look at the souks without reading the captions. Can you tell whether they are in different countries or not? Often, the only defining photos are those of known monuments and special interest sites. If you want to be published regularly, it is your primary job to stand out from the crowd. This is accomplished by taking new perspectives on the required shots and truly insightful photos of the rest.
Virtually no place on earth has not been photographed, at least once. This makes research all the more important. Knowing what must be shot, what has been shot and from what perspective is the first step in planning an assignment. Let’s face it, you are being sent to capture certain monuments, places of interest and cultural identities. These must planned beforehand, since no editor is going to pay for you to return to Agra because you forgot to capture the Black Taj or Agra Fort in your excitement to capture the Taj Mahal with the perfect light.
The second goal of your research is to identify any and all unique aspects of the destination, culture and people. All your work in-country will be guided by this insight. What secondary monuments have rarely been shot? What are the people known for? What is their cultural and ethnic history? How do they differ from their neighbours? Is there a culinary specialty? What is the best hotel and what is the oldest? Who are the indigenous people? How is the political and religious climate? What other cultures have had a historical impact? How does music, art and dance figure into daily life and ceremonies?
Travel guides…the obvious and the obscure.
The first place to start research is the most obvious choice for any destination…Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, etc. I use any one of these depending on their coverage and the target readership for the assignment. Lonely Planet has extensive research of what to see and shoot but is still essentially for backpackers and low income travellers. I find their hotel reviews to be biased by this. Rough Guide, on the other hand, is for couples and families from 30 to 50 years of age with more disposable income. However, they sometimes overlook the hard to find or less popular sites.
Using any of the general guides, you will already have a good feel for the country, its people and the culture. Make a first itinerary based on this information. This is your ‘don’t come home without these shots’ list.
The obscure falls into two types of books: Herbert Ypma’s “Hip Hotels” and a locally published specific country guide. Hip Hotels is my bible for hotels that must be seen. If one exists in the assignment country, I contact them immediately to set up a shoot date. Whether these photos end up in the assignment package or whether they remain for a future article, I can almost always find a market for this work.
Local guides exist for most countries written by a foreigner who for some reason has a passion for that country. They provide insider insight to every aspect and will always highlight places and activities missed in the general guides. They can often be hard to find but a quick search on Google and Amazon will invariably surface something. To know the subtle nuances of the people and their lives you will need at least one such guide.
With the obscure in hand, you can finalize your itinerary knowing that 95% of the work you will need to do has been accounted for. The last 5% happens in country once you have explored and gotten lost a few times. A future article will discuss how to maximize your in country experience and find those never seen shots.