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Saturday, March 1, 2008

It's A Small(er) World, After All

The voyage of discovery requires seeing with new eyes

The longer view on this problem is this: If the major sites and cities are being overrun and photographed to death, what can a travel photographer do to stay fresh, original, relevant and, for the professional, profitable? This one will keep you up at night—there’s no neat, short, concise and correct answer to this conundrum.

Of course, the quick answer is simply to say: Don’t go to the major sites. Now, that’s an easy out for someone who already has been traveling for, say, the last 30 years or so. They’ve already seen the sites and probably have seen them with fewer restrictions and more freedom to photograph than we‚’ll ever have again.

I was with a 60-something archeologist friend recently, standing in line (with about 200 other people) outside Machu Picchu at 6 a.m., waiting for the ticket booth to open. He started reminiscing about coming to Machu Picchu in the ’60s and ’70s, when not only were there no lines or ticket booths, but he was actually able to pitch his tent and camp in the ruins! Those days are gone forever. Today, with more than 3,000 visitors a day, you’re lucky to be able to get to the Watchman’s Tower overlook before the sun rises, some one-and-a-half hours past opening time.

But you just can’t say "skip Venice" or "blow off the Great Wall" or "avoid Angkor" simply because there are thousands of other visitors flocking to these great world wonders, too. These places have become so popular partially because they’re so spectacular. But while it may be impossible to totally avoid your fellow tourists at these major world sites, there are things you can do to lessen the severity of the effects of overcrowding.

The first is choosing the time of year. Because of weather considerations, there are high seasons for almost every tourist spot in the world. For instance, almost all group tourism to Angkor Wat occurs from November to April. The weather is comfortable—it’s the crowds that are stifling.

During monsoon season, though, the opposite is true. Sure, it’s hotter and steamier, and it rains for a couple of hours almost every day. However, there’s little large group tourism, there are lots of small local groups of visiting monks and wedding parties (great photo subjects), and you don’t get that Disneyland feeling. While it’s hotter, the skies are generally just as clear. You’re sacrificing a bit of comfort for better pictures, but chances are, you’re also enjoying lower hotel and airfare rates, which definitely help offset the discomfort.

The second thing you can do is choose your time of day. Even in the off-season, Venice is crowded beyond belief in the middle of the day (the majority of visitors come to this city gem on day trips), and you won’t be able to get a shot of St. Mark’s Square without hordes of groups. But wander that same square at dawn, and not only do you have better light, but you’re sharing the square with the streetsweepers, the early commuters and maybe another photographer or two. So trying to get to a place early or after the midday rush of the day-trippers will give you a better chance of getting more atmospheric pictures.

A third strategy is to go to fewer destinations, but stay longer. This helps you not only in terms of cherry-picking the weather, but it’s amazing how often you’ll find a "slow day" occurring—one of those serendipitous days where there just doesn’t seem to be as many people around and the weather is perfect. This is especially important if you’re hoping to get something new or different of a popular destination. If you’re on a tight schedule, you’ll be lucky if you can pull off the cliché views, let alone come up with something fresh in terms of angle, point of view or weather conditions. So slowing down is important.

The most important thing we can do, though, is try to engage with the location and not trophy-hunt icon photographs. If you go to London, say, just to get pictures of Big Ben and the Tower Bridge, and both those structures are under scaffolding (believe me, it happens), is your trip a bust? Not if you spend time photographing the people in the markets on Portobello Road or do a picture story on taxi drivers of London.


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