Travel Photography: Telling Stories Through Photography

photo: Trevor Lush

By  August 6, 2009

Pro photographer Trevor Lush says that capturing those unanticipated moments produces some of his favourite images.

I enjoy storytelling— and photography enables me to tell stories.  The majority of my time is spent producing images for stock photography libraries.  I love being in control of every aspect of creating the image that’s in my head—models, locations, props, lighting—everything.  Travel photography, on the other hand, is an amazing exercise in letting go.  Letting go of the control I have in my day-to-day photography.  Letting go of the image I have become so married to in my head.  Letting go of my comfort zone.  It’s a different type of storytelling.  It’s a story that I don’t know the end of yet.

Travel photography is less about location photos and more about your journey.  It’s using your camera to document your experience in a particular time and place.  Anybody can take pictures with a long lens from the window of a bus or from across the street.  I believe it’s the other images—the portrait of the kindly gentleman you laughed with at the base of the mountain, or the family at their kitchen table after they invited you in for tea—these are the beautiful images that truly tell your story.

Does it matter if you get the perfect shot of the sun setting over the (insert famous landmark here)?  Not really.  Postcards are a kinda fun memento of a place as well.  Plus you don’t have to sit around waiting for the sun!  I like to spend time exploring off the beaten path and documenting my findings.  I love the details, the textures, the colors.  These are the adjectives that will describe my story.

On a recent trip to Mexico, I found myself in Cocucho, at the home of a Purepecha Indian family who was grieving the loss of their mother.  The mother was the family’s matriarch and it was an incredibly sad time for them.  Due to some miscommunication, we arrived on the last day of mourning.  I immediately became concerned that we were intruding on a family at a very inappropriate time.  After voicing my concerns, I was assured that it was quite the opposite.  The family invited us in, offered food and encouraged us to document our visit.

Travel photography is less about location photos and more about your journey.Female friends and family were busy making tamales and tortillas for the people who would arrive later that day to pay their respects.  At one point I was invited into the kitchen to watch the women making the tortillas.  Several women sat around two fires making tortillas by hand and cooking them in copper pans.  I manoeuvred through the smoke, around the group, and found an empty spot near a hole in a wall in the back corner.  I began to photograph the amazing site before me.  As I carefully composed images of hands and faces in the soft, diffused, smoky light, I noticed the women giggling amongst themselves.  I quickly became aware that I was the source of their amusement.  It turns out that the free spot I found in the back corner was basically their chimney.  Smoke from the fire was billowing towards me.  Within moments, my eyes were watering and I was coughing.  Their giggles became full blown laughter and before long everyone, including me, was laughing and wiping away tears.

Eventually they found me a more suitable spot closer to the group.  Once I finished making my images, I gestured a thank you and excused myself from the room.  Shortly after stepping outside, I was immediately joined by one of the elderly women who began brushing me with her rebozo (shawl).  Heads turned, fingers pointed and the (now familiar) laughter resumed.  I was apparently covered from head to toe in soot.  Much to her, and the rest of the family’s, amusement.

My silly gringo moment provided some laughter and stress relief for the family.  After that, I put my camera down and took some time to take in the moment.  I enjoyed the food and listened to some beautiful traditional songs.  The images I made that day are my favourites from my two weeks in Mexico.  Not only do they have special meaning to me, but I feel they are wonderful images.  I was excited about making them and I believe it shows in the final photos.

I like to remember that day and its story.  Partially because of the experience, but also because it reminded me of the value of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.  I was prepared to walk away from that opportunity because I didn’t feel comfortable in the situation.  I couldn’t pre-visualize my images and I dismissed it as a subject.  I think that at times, my expectations get in the way of my storytelling.  I have images in my head that I anticipate photographing when I arrive in a location.  Often they’re photos that I’ve seen in films, magazines and guidebooks while planning the trip.  I’m so focused on finding those images that I don’t see the images that are actually there.  Things happen, plans change.  The basilica could be under repair or the weather may be lousy on your only day in town.  Flexibility is the key.  The best thing about my story is that it hasn’t been told before—even I don’t know the ending.

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Published in PhotoPro
Trevor Lush

Professional photographer Trevor Lush has produced imagery for some of  the industry's foremost agencies. Recent productions have taken him from  the glitz of Las Vegas to the stark beauty of the Canadian Arctic. Trevor  contributes a regular column on travel photography.

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