The Wonders of Exploring the World With Your Camera

“One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller

A few evenings ago I left my office in Waterloo to head home to see my rambunctious kids and have dinner with my wife. The evening had an interesting feel to it, a misty, wintry fog hung in the air but around the edges there was a burning glow of spring light. It was an intriguing clash of seasons and so I diverted my journey to go explore the river and take some photos. I got a few nice shots but my brain was not playing ball, it felt disturbed.  Running through my mind was a blog my wife and I had been working on for another website, all about the art of seeing. I kept looking at things and seeing the words clash in front of my eyes. Compositional rules started to play out in front of me, like a mad cartoon replaying over and over again on my eyeballs. It was almost too much.

I wanted to start with this because for me it’s so important to hold the ideas and suggestions that you are absorbing in your photography learning, very lightly. Too much thinking can make you, as I was, stilted and stiff. What I am always trying to encourage people to do with their photography is to loosen up, relax into themselves and their own creativity, enjoy the process. Nothing I have to offer is so weighty that it needs to be adhered to like dogma. It’s just small ideas, small prompts, small inspirations.

So, with that in mind I wanted to offer some thoughts and suggestions on finding your subject when you travel.

Venice at Dawn, © Anthony Epes 2015

What are you looking for?
I am not a travel photographer or photojournalist, and so I am not looking for a comprehensive vision of a city for my dawn projects. The prep for that kind of photography is totally different. I am an artist, so I am looking to capture my vision of a place or of the city. Of course I want to photograph what makes a place iconic – there is a reason that the view of the Eiffel Tower from the Trocadero is well photographed: it’s awe inspiring! In those places I am looking for something different. A different light, a different angle, people…something that will be just mine.

Unless you have a very specific assignment or project you are working on, here are some questions to ask:

  • What kind of things am I interested in about this place?
  • What kind of things do I want to capture?
  • What drew me to this place?
  • Is there anything I hoping to find here?

And then, allow for that but not be too confined by the answers. You are on a journey, an adventure, you want to discover new things as well as making sure you get what you came for.

Venice at Dawn, © Anthony Epes 2015

  One insanely important thing to me when I plan my Cities at Dawn  books is that I don’t want them to have a touristy feel – that I only captured the ‘surface’ of the city. I want them to be picked up by a local who then says – yes, this is my city!  For instance, like how I photographed the water that is incessantly pumped out of the gutters in the morning in Paris. It’s not something you may notice but when you see a photo of it, you are reminded: of course! This is what it is to live in Paris, seeing these thin streams of water cleaning the streets. Looking not just for what is photogenic, but what it is to be there.

How much to prepare
I am a big fan of just going off and exploring and seeing what I can find. I don’t want to limit new discoveries by a pre-organised shot list. But sometimes arriving in a new place can be overwhelming and trying to get a grip on it can just be too much. So I like to get a bit of a sense of some fall back places that I want to photograph. I use Google Earth a lot,  firstly to explore and then pin a bunch of interesting places onto a map.

The picture I am trying to paint here is one of balance. You need some organisation to keep you feeling sane and focused, but you need to also have a relaxed attitude so you are open to the new experiences that travel will present.

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Venice at Dawn, © Anthony Epes 2015

Start taking photos before you go
I like to start a new photo project when I am in the middle of something really good elsewhere. Perhaps it’s like that salesman maxim:  the best time to make a sale is when you’ve just made a sale. Or (another one from my wife): how Ernest Hemingway would try to finish his writing for the day in the middle of a really good piece of writing so it was easy for him to get started the next day. If you are trying to start fresh every day then the blank page / empty memory card can feel overwhelming intimidating. But also when we are feeling creative, when we are in the flow we are more likely to have interesting ideas.

So, if I am not already working on a project back home I like to make sure I get one started before I leave. Or at the very least have a few photo walks to new places. Gets me in the mood.

Going beyond the exotic
The challenge with photographing in a new location, particularly one that is massively different from where you are from, is you can get completely distracted by what’s new to you (but not new to the world, we are no longer living in the age of exploration), and you end up taking tons of boring photos. What will give you the ability to create unique photographs of a location is how quickly you can get into the feel of the place and see it in a fresh, true and honest light.

I really enjoyed this podcast with photographer David du Chemin, who explains this issue really well – he talks about ways to combat your excitement in being in a new place so that you don’t just take all of the standard shots (look, elephants!) He suggests getting your intrigue at the exotic things you see out of the way quickly (more elephants! men with interesting headdresses!) so that you can then start seeing what’s really there, what’s really going.  When you can see the place in an objective, fresh way you will find something unique to you.

To take great photos, first you must feel
I read this is a great interview with photographer Steve McCurry by travel photographer Oden Wagen recently and I love a couple of the points that McCurry makes. First:

“A picture of a guy in the street in New Guinea, with a bone through his nose is interesting to look at. But for it to be a really good photograph; it has to communicate something about what it is like to live with a bone through your nose. It is a question of the moment to reveal something interesting and profound about the human condition.”

Ansel Adams talks a lot about the feeling behind your photographs, and I think a lot of photographers forget that. Photographer Joey L (his surname doesn’t seem to appear on this site) in his tips for travelling as a photographer talks about not being a looky-loo and just snapping away, particularly in developing countries. Spending time connecting with your subject, travelling slowly, and most of all being human is the best way to get good portraits. (Joey L also has some great other travel tips, like make your fancy, expensive camera look old to limit possibility of theft).

Venice at Dawn, © Anthony Epes 2015

Follow what fascinates you
When Wagen asked McCurry the question of how you can create original work in this heavily photographed world, I thought it was a great response –

“In time, you start to develop your own way of seeing and then it’s your own personality coming through the camera. We are all unique individuals; we all have our personalities. We all have our own voice, and our own style. If you look at the photographers whose work we admire, they’ve found a particular place or a subject, dug deep into it, and carved out something that’ll become special.”

This makes me think of Irving Penn’s ethnographic studies of tribesmen and workers around the world and Sebastian Selgado’s work on the forgotten communities around the world in Genesis (great Ted talk by him here where he talks about the project.)

You know the pen in some form has been around for quite a long time and yet writers always seem to have something new to say. And think about fashion, I mean, jeez, how many different styles of trousers can you make? A lot it seems…

I particularly like the concept of ‘digging deep’. You know you don’t have to come back from a photo trip with 1,000 photos of everything. 200 photos of one or two subjects, where you have dug deep into a subject that has really caught your imagination will reap more fruit for you long term than lots of photos that you (or anyone else) are unlikely to look at again. Quality not quantity.

Go off the beaten track
In my work I have noticed that I am drawn to the juxtaposition in cities of beauty and grittiness. It was particularly obvious in Paris, such a beautiful city but with lots of stark contrasts – graffiti (which I like to photograph) and dog poo (which I do not). So I find it’s always worth while digging a little deeper into a city and finding alternative views on what you will find there. When I make it to Berlin I want to go on this night time, underground art tour. For several of my trips to Paris I stayed in the area dominated by north and west African communities in Barbes Rochechouart. It’s quite a rough area in the city that few tourists experience, let alone visit (this is an interesting perspective on the area) but I really liked exploring. It gave me a totally different perspective on the city, the country and its history (great North and West African markets, amazing food like tagine and kebabs in the cafes and restaurants). It reminded me a bit of Dalston in London (although the latter is fast being taken over by the hipsters, so it’s unlikely to stay like it is for long.)

Venice at Dawn, © Anthony Epes 2015

Push yourself
This is where the practice of seeing is really powerful. And you need to push yourself on this one. What’s on the overpass up there? Is that an abandoned building? Where does that little alley go….? You have to work harder than the tourists, harder than the other photographers who are also wandering around, you have to be more relentless in your search. Don’t settle for a few nice shots, go for something no-one has ever seen before. And I am here to tell you that it’s possible.

Think about doing a project on people
The easiest way to get involved and to get to know a culture is to talk to people. Maybe you have an idea before you go, or you get one when you are there, but having a subject to focus on is a really awesome way to dig deep and develop your photography.

The whole journey is the trip
I think sometimes we can get a little anxious about achieving things in our grown-up lives and in our productiveness-obsessed culture. We think OK – I’m off to Rome. We pack our bags, get on a plane, get to the hotel – rush rush rush –  we have breakfast, and then off we set to take our photos. But by then you’ve already missed so much. As soon as you’ve made your decision to go on a trip you’re on the journey. The thoughts of the place, the ideas you come up with on where to shoot, your investigation of the culture, that is all setting you on the path of your journey. Your vision of your world at home has already changed as you start to mentally prepare for what is coming. Today I am London, playing in the park with my kids, chatting to my neighbour, but deep in the recesses of my mind I am wandering through the streets of Istanbul listening to the voices as I get lost in the back streets. I won’t be there until the end of the month but I have already started my journey. And so I must always have my camera with me.

Every experience you have, everything you see becomes another filter on your camera. That’s how you change as a photographer.

Don’t take crazy amounts of photos
I know the temptation to always have camera in hand, or even to spend more time looking through your viewfinder than being in a place, or being in the moment, as they say. But that really limits your potential for great photos. Firstly, it’s like a barrier between you and the place, it’s much harder to fall into conversation with people, to notice things when your camera is out, right there.  Have your camera available but not always stuck in front of your face.

Secondly, you can’t absorb the culture when you are just thinking of it as a series of photos, and having  an understanding and a feeling for the place will be communicated through your photos. That will be what creates the power of the image and evokes feelings with the viewer. As Maya Angelou said:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Thirdly, and this is shocker: life isn’t just about photography! Enjoying yourself, relaxing, having a good time also need to be part of the trip (and if you really need an excuse then think the more relaxed you are, the better your mood, the better the photos.)

The photos in this blog post are from my Venice at Dawn project. I chose this selection because I like how they show the more unusual views of the city. The abandoned building I found whilst wandering along the eastern edge of the island, the brilliant little gas stations that appear on the shoreline, the main tourist drag eerily empty of people.

So there we go, some of my thoughts to get you in the mood for travelling with your photography. I have a bunch of photo workshops coming up that you are always welcome to join, in Istanbul, Rome, Venice, Paris and of course my wonderful home city of London.

If you have any questions about them, myself or Diana are always happy to answer.

Happy photographing!

And if you need any advice please do email me . I love hearing from you. Or comment on my blog 🙂