Travel Photography: It’s The Destination, Stupid!

As a photographer, chances are you’ve thought about doing some traveling if you haven’t done so already. The journey might start as a simple weekend getaway after a few rough days at the office. It might be an extended road trip through several states and time zones, car packed with camera and lenses, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, nothing but freedom and the open road stretching out to the horizon. Over time, these journeys might involve airplanes, travel agents, passports, guides, and epic expeditions to the other side of the planet. Photographers are particularly vulnerable to the lure of the exotic.

You might live within eyesight of a premier national park with hundreds of square miles of mountain wilderness, waterfalls, charismatic wildlife, pristine beaches, wildflowers in the spring, blazing foliage in the fall – hey, this is the cosmic photo destination we’re talking about after all – and you would still feel as if you were missing out on something else somewhere else. It would be far too easy to dismiss this urge as a naive grass-is-always-greener impulse since the grass might really be greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. Maybe the grass over there isn’t even green at all, but a different hue you’ve never seen or even considered. Or perhaps it’s wild and untamed, unlike the neatly manicured turf in your tidy neighborhood with which you’re accustomed. Then again – sticking with the working metaphor here – maybe it’s not really about the grass at all but the journey in getting there.

You know. It’s the journey, not the destination?

Or perhaps not. You see, I personally consider that sentiment as just another feel-good, pop-culture pseudo-profundity that’s too quickly taken at face value. For the weary traveler, the journey – despite the cheery saccharin-laced romanticism it conjures – actually sucks. If I could close my eyes, snap my fingers, and magically teleport myself to the destination while skipping the whole journey thing, I’d be as happy as a sot in a river of gin. I’m guessing whoever penned this particular piece of bumper sticker philosophy never had their precious little journey take them through a major 21st-century airport on a hot Friday afternoon. And yes, I do realize the phrase is a derivative of Emerson’s and a well-intentioned metaphor for how to experience life. Okay, fine. But all too often, it’s used literally as marketing propaganda by slick travel agencies and meretricious cruise operators. I, for one, am tired of the so-called virtues of the journey. There, I said it.

I do find it ironic that the most blissful photogenic destinations in the world require traveling through Hell on Earth to get there: over-crowded airports, canceled and delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage, checked bag fees, lines at the check-in counter, security, passport control and customs, surly customer service representatives, invasive TSA agents, full-body x-rays and pat-downs, no liquids or gelsremove your shoes, cramped airplanes seats with little legroom, and truly tasteless airline cuisine are just some of the indignities to be endured to get to where we’re going. And I’ve not even mentioned the repulsive edifices themselves. The English writer and humorist Douglas Adams mused that no language has ever produced the phrase pretty as an airport.

But the agony and pulverizing boredom of travel soon fade from memory once the journey is over and the destination is reached. So why do we bother to make the journey anyway? I suppose everyone has their reasons: capturing and seeing something new, exploration, adventure, enlightenment, exotic cultures and food, and running from the law – just to name a few. And while all the preceding could apply to me too – aside from the running from the law part – I ought to mention that it also happens to be my job. I haven’t quite mastered the delicate art of keeping a straight face while explaining to friends and loved ones that I’m “going to work” as I pack my bags for some far-flung, exotic photography excursion. I should get some credit, however, for at least not employing the smug “but somebody’s gotta do it” rejoinder or something to that effect.

And while I understand “getting away from it all” is one justification for travel, it’s one that’s never quite resonated with me. I just don’t see my life or work as anything from which I need, or want, to escape. But travel does take me away from everything easy and familiar while razing the personal comfort zone to which I – and all of us – try to cling desperately. I like that. I sometimes absolutely need that. Travel writer Freyda Stark observed, “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world,” and I could not agree more. When applied to photography, these strange new places and experiences act as powerful catalysts to help get my creative juices going and force me to see things differently. After all, if I’ve never seen something before, what other choice do I have?

Then there are the places and experiences that are simply too beautiful for words, which is fortunate enough since we photographers are paid to create photos where mere words alone are inadequate. The first time I laid eyes on the southern Andes of Patagonia or the aurora borealis over the night skies of Greenland, or a herd of mammoth elephants marching ceremoniously across the African plains, my sympathetic nervous system pulsed into overdrive and delivered a dose of chill bumps over my arms and upper torso, making the hair stand up straight on the back of my neck. The very best part of this feeling was that in each instance, I never saw it coming. Each and every time was like a thunderbolt from the blue. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I travel.

And If I don’t screw things up too badly, I might even create something beautiful or meaningful that allows my audience to participate in this new experience with me. Or I could forget to remove the lens cap, and everyone will just have to take my word for it. At any rate, if I don’t make the journey, it will have never happened for any of us. So, the journey is indeed necessary after all, if not a necessary evil. But with the right attitude – and a good set of noise-canceling headphones – the journey itself might not be so intolerable after all. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s not about the destination.