A strange thing happened recently when the social media site LinkedIn introduced its new skill endorsement function. Among other skills, some well-meaning connections endorsed me for Travel Photography – a skill I have often claimed not to have, for reasons I explain here.
As I mentioned to editor Brooks Jensen in a recent interview for LensWork Magazine, my work requires an intimate familiarity with my subject matter – the kind of familiarity that can only be accomplished over prolonged periods of time. By the nature of their work, travel photographers make short visits to a variety of places and portray their momentary impressions, always from the perspective of an outsider. In contrast, I never feel confident in telling the story of a place unless I, myself, am a part of the story.
In other words, the kind of work that most appeals to me favors depth over breadth; first-person narratives over third-person observations; and an intimate insider perspective over impressions of visual veneers.
This is not meant as criticism of either practice, nor to make a value judgment of one approach over the other, but rather to highlight a difference in approach, which I believe also translates into a difference in aesthetics and in the way the resulting work is perceived.
Considered more honestly, it is as much a reflection of our limitations as artists. We have to strike a balance between breadth and depth. We cannot do it all. The choice also offers insight into the artist’s own sensibilities and the way they engage with their subjects. I am not a travel photographer, not because I have any aversion to travel or to interesting images of foreign places, but because I am limited in my abilities to do it all well.
Much as I would love to see exotic and scenic places, and witness various cultures and practices, I cannot photograph them with the same sense of familiarity and reverence as I do the American deserts. For more than a decade I’ve made repeated trips to these places only to realize that to photograph them as I want, I need to do more than visit. I have to live here. I have to become part of their story, as much as they are a part of mine. I found that by limiting my impressions to just the visual qualities of a place, I also limited the depth of meaning I could express in my work.
Considered from the other direction, I am grateful that other creative artists strike a different balance than mine. They tell me stories I likely will never arrive at on my own. Through their eyes, I see a world as I could not see it by myself, and I hope to repay in kind by sharing some of my observations that they may miss on a random visit.
What better way to appreciate a world both broad and deep than through the eyes of artists? May each of us find our own balance.