Jordana Wright, author of The Enthusiast’s Guide to Travel Photography says, “The easiest way to explain what essence of place is to explain what it isn’t. At this point, you’ve been exposed to so many photographs, stories, and movies in your life that you have vast libraries of mental images for locations all over the world.”
If I asked you to picture Paris, you can imagine it easily. You might see an outdoor café with a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Maybe you imagine a bustling scene outside the Louvre or two lovers in berets sharing a cigarette and a quiet nighttime stroll down cobbled streets. If I suggest Amsterdam, you might picture fields of tulips, people riding bicycles, or smiling women in Dutch bonnets and wooden shoes. You can probably imagine a scene just about anywhere, even if you’ve never visited. These imagined scenes might seem perfectly accurate because they include such common tropes. Yet anyone who’s been to Paris or Amsterdam knows such notions are just postcard snapshots and cultural stereotypes. True essence of place is so much more. As travel photographers, our mission is to go beyond the postcard, beyond the surface attributes, beyond the clichés and create meaningful and authentic images that capture a deeper sense of mood, culture, and identity. If we do our job well, we’ll create images that make past visitors nostalgic and potential visitors long to go.
Finding the Essence
Whereas writers have the benefit of a vast and descriptive language, photographers are bound by the confines of the still image to embody a location’s essence. Instead of carefully chosen adjectives, we rely on timing, color, texture, energy, movement, line, shadow, and subject to give the viewer a holistic sense of a location.
When you arrive someplace new, you can immediately begin to observe and collect impressions to get a feeling for its essence, but through longer exploration, you’ll begin to notice the unique nuances of a location. Over time and by examining the convergence of cultural and environmental influences, you’ll begin to hone in on what makes a place so special. Only then can you begin to capture a place’s essence in photographs. A location’s essence is subjective. As a visitor (no matter how familiar), your understanding of a location is going to be different than that of a local. Moreover, your impressions will be influenced by your style of travel. If you stay in five-star, all-inclusive resorts and take curated excursions, you’ll have a totally different perspective than a backpacker staying in hostels and choosing activities on a whim. No matter how you travel, or where you point your camera, your vision of a location’s essence will be influenced by your interests, your itinerary, and, in many ways, your personality. As a documentarian, it is nearly impossible to remain totally neutral or provide every potential perspective, so you should strive to approach the story of your personal experiences with openness and honesty. The more you allow your experiences to inhabit your images, the more impactful they will be.
Depicting the Essence
To practice portraying the essence of place, begin with a location you know well, such as your hometown or a frequent haunt. Come up with a list of five or six adjectives to describe your experience of that location. Is the location peaceful? Energetic? Chaotic? Friendly? Think about what particular sites are most representative of those adjectives and seek them out. Let the representative events unfold around you and photograph them. Because of your familiarity with the location, you’ll be equipped to suss out the best times of day to capture the essence of place as you see it. Before visiting Nicaragua, I imagined it as a third-world country filled with wandering chickens, garbage in the streets, filthy barrios, poverty, and danger. My mental image library was based on the political conflicts of the past and stereotypes I had absorbed over the years. What I found when I arrived was something entirely different.
From the abundant Spanish colonial architecture to the carefully protected rainforest habitats and parks, Nicaragua was a welcoming, enchanting place filled with hidden wonders and pride in its heritage. The images I created on my first trip to Nicaragua speak to the essence of place I witnessed and came to love became the focus of my photographs to help depict the essence of place I had found. For me, Nicaragua became a place I long to revisit, and that desire shines through in my photographs.
Travel photography is hard work. This series of excerpts from “The Enthusiast’s Guide to Travel Photography” by Jordana Wright is published by Rocky Nook.
See all of the great photographic skills books from Rocky Nook.