|Nanjing Lu shopping area, Shanghai, People’s Republic of China|
I’ve just returned from six weeks of travel on three different continents, and one thing I’ve noticed for sure: The world is getting smaller. I don’t mean that global warming is actually shrinking the planet (although it may be, for all I know), but that more people are traveling, and once-exotic locations are now becoming as tourist-frequented as Disneyland during President’s Week. Part of this is due to the phenomenon described in Thomas Friedman’s book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. As the tiger economies of India, China and other once-developing nations are swelling their ranks with educated middle-class consumers, those consumers want to get out and travel, just like us.
We’re talking now about populations so large that their middle class almost exceeds the entire population of the U.S. or Western Europe (there are estimated to be some 200 million college graduates in India alone). Combine this fact with the explosion in interest in photography since the advent of digital, and it’s not hard to see why the world’s major travel sites are swollen with tourists, Flickr just posted its two billionth photo, and there’s speculation that within two years, the Internet itself may not be able to handle the traffic without a hugely expensive infrastructure overhaul (that, to date, nobody wants to pony up for).
The immediate upshot of this for travel photographers is that it’s getting darn near impossible to photograph any of the major sites without including hundreds of your fellow tourists doing the same thing, let alone a fresh perspective or a new angle. On this recent trip, I literally was pinned against a wall in a chamber of Ta Prohm, one of the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for 10 minutes (I started timing it after about a minute) as hordes of Korean tourists marched through (I lost count at 115, and I’m estimating it was more than 300 people, judging from the amount of time it took me to escape and the number of huge buses that were parked outside the temple). The experience left me a bit claustrophobic, not to mention despairing of getting any kind of unpeopled shot of this moody complex. This is a place which, only a few short years ago, if you showed up anytime before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m., you had almost entirely to yourself.
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.
Yes, the iconic views won’t be available to you, but on those days, even if you’re a pro, that’s not a great loss. Like beautiful landscape photographs of the American Southwest, these types of shots are satisfying to shoot, beautiful to look at, but almost impossible to sell as stock because of the oversupply of imagery and general lack of demand (see my column "For Love Or Money?" in the September 2004 issue of OP). So relax, the days when a shot of Big Ben could earn you a lot in a stock collection are long gone. The stock photography business, especially in travel, nature and wildlife, is undergoing a kind of implosion, thanks to royalty-free, microstock and the advent of the 50-cent picture, and the rules are changing. There will be new ways to make money in travel photography, but it won’t be the old paradigm of mile-wide, foot-deep coverage of world icons. The problem is that, at this time of flux and change, it’s hard to know exactly what the new way will be.
I suspect, though, that the new paradigm for a professional travel photographer in a smaller, flat world might involve more in-depth coverage in multimedia form of fewer or less common places. It might involve shooting places you know well (like the area in which you live) or an exotic location you visit often enough to know it like a local.
Actually, developing a local component to your travel work has been a good strategy for a long time. When I left my newspaper job 28 years ago, I got my first major magazine assignment for National Wildlife Magazine, shooting a story about fishermen on the Hudson River, a quarter-mile from where I lived. My first National Geographic story was about New Jersey, my home state, and even today, I spend a lot of time shooting locally, producing books on my area of Pennsylvania, as well as the Jersey Shore. It’s a great visual exercise to try to make surprising shots of familiar places, and it’s a relief to not battle for tripod space every time you set up for a scenic!
It can be profitable, too. In my own stock library, Philadelphia has overtaken Venice as my best-selling destination for photos. Why? More people visit Venice than Philly, that’s for sure, but more photographers cover Venice. It’s easier to shoot Venice (you really have to be blind not to get beautiful shots of this unique city). You have to dig a bit deeper and work a bit harder to make interesting pictures of a place that doesn’t have the built-in visual appeal of the exotic. But because I’m a local, I have insider knowledge of places, activities and viewpoints that aren’t readily available to, say, an Italian photographer who’s blowing into town for a quick five-day shoot for Gente Viaggi or some other Italian travel publication.
Does a smaller world mean staying home to do travel photography? No, not in the least. There are still plenty of reasons to grab your camera and wander. But a smaller world means that workmanlike coverage of exotic places no longer will cut the mustard—nobody will be impressed by mediocre pictures of far-off places anymore. As far as travel photography in the 21st century goes, Marcel Proust, the early 20th-century French novelist, was prescient in his observation that, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."
For a schedule of Bob Krist's workshops and seminars, check his website, www.bobkrist.com.