Holiday photos are not something I’d previously ever given a great deal of thought, but after working on a single photographic project for several weeks, it was something I had cause to consider during a couple of recent weekend trips.
The first trip, to Bruges, was a visit to a very familiar place. I’ve visited the town a good few times over the years, so I knew pretty well what to expect. And, as Bruges is a such a familiar place and it was a social occasion, I hadn’t anticipated doing much photography this time around. It’s also a town where almost every shot you take is a tourist cliché, so there’s not a lot of motivation. I took a few photos when I had the chance and, when I got home, I felt disappointed with the results.
On reflection, I decided this was mainly due to the lack of thought I had put into the photos. In my defence, I didn’t have much time to take any pictures and, more often than not, I was trying to take photos in driving rain. Nevertheless, I resolved to be more contemplative when taking photos on the next trip (regardless of the weather).
The following week, we were on the coast of north Norfolk. Although we were familiar with the kind of countryside you get in this part of the UK, we hadn’t visited this particular part of East Anglia before, so we weren’t sure exactly what to expect. After unpacking our bags, we left the hotel to explore the surrounding area. After a few minutes’ walk, I took my camera out and I was lining up a shot and, suddenly, I realised my intention was to take a photo for my pathways project, which I was not out to do. That set me thinking, I’m on holiday, what is the brief today?
people and places
Holiday photos are, perhaps, the closest the average person gets to documentary photography. A holiday photo album tells the story of the trip: the people, the places, key events and so on. It’s a simple, often haphazard, but usually linear story. Sometimes these stories end up on blogs and in photobooks – and to get to that point there’s often been some sort of planning. But, by and large, these amateur projects are the result of a combination of serendipity and talent. The notion of a brief is rarely consciously considered.
For me, that’s, the crux of the problem – happenstance is not enough. There has to be a clear reason for pressing the shutter button. As a photographer, wherever you are, you’re always keeping an eye out for opportunities to get great images and you never stop looking. But a holiday isn’t a project and it usually isn’t research, you may stumble upon on new ideas and locations, but that’s not the primary reason for being wherever you are. Perhaps, there should be some other motivation?
finding a brief
Browsing through some of my older holiday photo albums, I realised I had, subconsciously, developed a brief for my holiday snaps and this was evident in the more successful photos. There was a common thread, which was especially apparent in photos of more distant locations.
I found my holiday photo brief was a mixture of documentary and social commentary. Naturally, I photograph the local landscape and I’ve taken plenty of photos of sunsets, mountain ranges, azure seas, crystal lakes, temples, churches, street markets, an entire family riding on a moped etc, but the interesting photos in my albums were rarely these touristy images. The better photos were of scenes that at first sight looked familiar – sights you might see at home, but, on closer inspection, you would see subtle differences. For example, a bridge over a dual carriageway lined with planters containing orchids (instead of crisp packets and scrubby growth), gleaming office blocks surrounded by old timber houses, familiar brands in exotic (sometimes ironic) locations. These photos had a little bit extra – and that’s been missing from many of my more recent travel photos.
getting back on brief
It’s true, I’ve not been on holiday very much in the last few years and, perhaps, that’s the reason I’d fallen out of the habit of looking at scenes in the way I used to. Maybe, because I do so much more photography nowadays, when I’m on holiday I just switch off completely and mindlessly press the shutter button, simply to record the occasion.
Whatever the reasons (or excuses), I need to get back to my holiday brief, so that next time I’m away on a break the results will be much more satisfying.
UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up item to this topic: http://gordonbutler.me/more-holiday-snaps/.