I speak to many young photographers looking to study the photographic medium and without doubt the most common answer when asked why they want to become a photographer is to travel. The desire to explore and expand horizons is strong in many of us in our late teens. I believe it is a desire to be encouraged but you don’t need a camera or a knowledge of photography to travel.
When questioned further it is clear that little thought or consideration has been given to the initial answer. Who will pay for this travel? Where will you go? Why would you go there? What will you photograph and where will those photographs appear? What stories will you tell?
These final questions are the ones a photographer needs to address that the traveller does not need to. Anyone can go travelling but not anyone can be paid to travel or sell the work created on those travels. To do either of these needs an understanding of storytelling.
To understand storytelling you need to read, to listen to narrative in all its forms. To understand how to research and construct a body of work that respects the subject, whilst acting as a bridge between those being documented and those who are viewers. This is not travel!
The desire to travel as a reason for being a photographer also raises additional ethical considerations. Issues relating to the ‘parachute photographer’, the ill-informed outsider ignoring the foundation of a story in favour of ‘powerful’ images created to please a client or competition jury. The role of the photographer has long been one of the observer and documenter, but times have changed. We cannot look back at the past for ethical arguments on how to act based on previously accepted practice, although we can look back to identify how to act as a response to mistakes and misapprehensions of the past.
Travel was once the preserve of the wealthy just as photography was easier if funds were not an issue. Today, both have become more affordable, it is easy to make photographs and to jump on a plane, but this does not mean that it is easy to combine the two with meaning and purpose. There is a big difference between holiday snaps and a body of work. There is a big difference between going on holiday and travelling with purpose.
So, my advice to young photographers wanting to travel, is to go! Go travelling, exploring and discovering but do not confuse photography with travelling. They are not the same thing, one can and does exist without the other. However, if you want to bring both together be aware that the story comes before the flight ticket, the map comes before the journey and research comes before a plan.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2023
Also perhaps know and understand yourself and establish your point of view ? Always leave yourself open to chance and serendipity.
Simply spot on as always.