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Authenticity and Travel Photography

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
– Ansel Adams

I love to take photos when I travel. Even when I’m in my hometown, I enjoy taking pictures to share. It’s something I’ve enjoyed since I was a child with my first camera that my parents weren’t even sure I could handle–they were surprised by the quality of my first shots back then. But sometimes I have to wonder if my photos tell the story I want to tell, whether those photos I share portray the moment.

saigon traffic

Daily life in Saigon

There’s a level of authenticity in travel photography, just as there is in travel writing. There’s a trust between the writer and reader–the writer must convince the reader that he/she is a reliable source or at least a capable storyteller.

I came across a Vice article published a couple years ago titled “Why Most Photos You See of Feudal Japan Are Deceptive,” and it explains the lack of authenticity in those historic photos. The photos were taken and sold as souvenirs–they exoticized Japan and life at the time. Of course, at the time the photos had to be staged because of the time it took to produce a single photograph.


Street leading to Tachiaigawa Station in Tokyo, Japan

Today, the art of photography has changed in ways that were unimaginable in the 19th century. Digital photography allows travelers like myself to take hundreds of pictures at a time and later sift through the slush pile for the best ones. Unlike some photographers, I don’t take dozens of photos of the same place with almost identical angles and settings–I might change the settings a couple times to see what I like at that time, but I don’t see a reason for continuously shooting the same thing.

It’s within those multiple images of the same subject that we come to the vetting process for publication. What is it that our readers want to see? What is the story we want to show our readers?

street food yogyakarta

Nightlife in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

When we read travel stories in magazines and newspapers, we read all the positives about a destination–those publications don’t want readers to see the negative in any travel destination. In many cases, the same goes for travel blogs. Plenty of travel bloggers just want to give readers the basics of going to a destination rather than the story of the experience. Of course, there are some exceptions–some of the better travel bloggers will write about negative experiences to serve as warnings for travelers.

But again, even showing the negative side of destinations isn’t showing the greater picture. It isn’t portraying life.

croquet in seoul

A game of croquet in the park in Seoul. I forgot about this until I perused my photos

I’m guilty of not showing the lives I encounter while traveling. Part of it is that I’m more interested in the sights–the buildings, the artwork, the nature that surrounds. I rarely take pictures of people and often crop out crowds before sharing.

Even with photos of landscapes and cities, there’s a trend of over-editing in post processing. With programs that make editing photos so much easier, people have pushed the limits on processing colors–it has gotten to the point that the colors are unnatural. The photos are supposed to inspire people to visit a destination, but it ends up creating unrealistic expectations.

kuang si

Those colors were real. No, really

But is there a solution? Can travelers and travel writers/photographers portray the authentic experience and will readers accept it?

The final part of that question is what matters most. Writers and photographers desire to be seen and read–there’s a level of marketing involved in the process. And the marketing strategy depends on the reader. If the market demand for authenticity in travel stories and photos is great enough, then the creators of those stories and images would more likely cater to the demand.

Taipei balcony

These colors are not natural, but they look cool

But readers of travel stories are generally more interested in escape.

We want to be taken away on a virtual vacation. For those stuck in a cubicle all week, the travel stories provide a vicarious adventure. For some, it’s a dream–a plan for a future that gets pushed back as life gets in the way. For others, it’s a more immediate plan that gets added to a bucket list (and sometimes I hope for that term to disappear).

to-ji kyoto

Distorted sunset outside Tō-Ji in Kyoto

If I were to write about everything I see when I travel, would my readers (all five of them) respond? I have seen extreme poverty when traveling, and I’ve attempted to convey my thoughts, but I didn’t take any photos of what I saw. Part of me refused to take pictures of people living in such conditions. I may not have photographic reminders, but I have memories that I carry with me. I don’t need to look at a picture to recall what I saw on those streets.

The advantage I have over a photographer is the ability to tell a story that isn’t included in my pictures. While I can share the beauty I see when I travel, I can also share the stories of the people and places. The stories may be honest, but there is still a level of trust between writer and reader, and there is no control over whether the reader sees the story as reliable.

cooking bagan

A woman prepares curry in Bagan. I was invited to try.

The search for authenticity in travel photography is not only up to the photographer as the viewer must also share responsibility. And even if travel photographers share what they perceive as authentic photos, the viewers must still accept them as such.

Is there a balance between beauty and authenticity in travel photography? How can we achieve it?

Mekong Sunsets in Laos

Even with all the natural scenery, temples, culture, and food, what I’ll probably remember most about my short trip through Laos is the sunset. Or maybe I should say sunsets, as I watched many from various spots. And all of those were Mekong sunsets because the Mekong River snakes its way south from Luang Prabang to the capital Vientiane before heading into Cambodia and Vietnam.Mekong Sunset

This means that every sunset I watched in Laos was a Mekong sunset.

Unfortunately, the sunsets in Vientiane were not nearly as beautiful as those in Luang Prabang. There wasn’t a great spot from which to watch. The best I found within the city was from a bar called Bor Pen Nyang, which is open air on the fourth floor overlooking the Mekong River and night market. Like most bars in Laos, it’s for foreigners. I’d prefer a cheaper beer with my view, but this place was at least worth stopping in early just to watch the sunset.

Vientiane Night Market

The Vientiane night market from Bor Pen Nyang

I found it even more interesting to watch the night market vendors set up and the people to flow into the park along the riverside. Although on one day I saw a few people paragliding over the river with huge fans strapped to their backs, which certainly made the sunset more interesting.Vientiane sunset

In Luang Prabang, the difficulty is in finding a spot with the right angle for the sun along the Mekong River. Google Maps has a couple places marked for sunsets, one of which is along Khem Kong (the street that runs alongside the river). The other spot is across a bamboo bridge over the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers at the peninsula; unfortunately, there’s a 10,000 kip toll for crossing the bamboo bridge.

bamboo bridge luang prabang

I didn’t want to pay the toll

There are also more than a dozen restaurants along the riverside that are more popular for the sunset. However, many of them have obstructed views. As I wasn’t hungry that early, I skipped eating at those restaurants and wandered in search of a better location for photos.Mekong river sunset

I managed to find a spot leading to a makeshift pier that was almost deserted at sunset (there was a German couple talking to a guide). While the best spots would be higher up from the river, they were obscured by trees. But closer to the river’s edge provided me with less obstructed views. The boats along the Mekong River gave my photos a little more life. I tried to get a photo of the Laotian flag fluttering in the wind, but the setting sun made it too dark from this angle.

Mekong sunset

This is my favorite of the sunset photos

One other option that I didn’t attempt for sunset views is a hike to the peak of Mt. Phou Si. The trees at the top of this small hill also don’t allow for a completely clear view. Hiking up for sunset would also require a flashlight. Plus, after being out in the sun all day and waking up early each morning, I didn’t have much energy for even a short hike. Instead, I took my hike up Mt. Phou Si in mid-morning, which provided me with some hazy views of the region.Mekong Sunset boat

It didn’t matter where I got to see the sunset because it was still beautiful. Too often I’ve visited cities only to see hazy sunsets and sunrises, usually due to pollution. In Bagan, my sunrise photos weren’t all that clear because the crowds kicked up so much sand along the roads that it blocked the sky. Laos hasn’t reached the point of pollution or even just sand affecting the scenery. Of course, similar to at Borobudur, the sunrises (and early mornings) appear hazy because of the humid mist that hangs around the mountains–it’s beautiful to watch the clouds clear throughout the morning though.

Where is your favorite destination to watch the sunset?

A Crowded View in Taipei

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”
John Muir, Our National Parks

On New Year’s Day, I headed to Xiangshan–Elephant Mountain–in southeastern Taipei. I’ve hiked this “mountain” before in much warmer weather. This time around it was a national holiday, and throngs of locals and tourists heading for the hills to catch a better view of the city.xiangshan-panorama

This time around I only wanted to hike, so I didn’t bother bringing my fancy camera. Fortunately, my new phone takes panoramic photos, unlike my fancy camera that lacks some features I didn’t take note of before purchasing it. The clouds broke above Taipei 101 just in time for a better picture. I managed to squeeze in among the crowd to get my photos.

Vietnam Almost Deported Me for a Photo

Alright, I may be exaggerating a little, but it was still a tense moment during my first week in Saigon.

I was walking around the city to find something more interesting than my quiet neighborhood. I ended up walking along Le Thanh Ton on my way back home and came across the ritzy part of the city–the hotels here are well out of my price range, as are most of the restaurants. That’s when I came across the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee building. There were guards all around and the lights made this colonial-era building look great. I was standing just in front and decided to take a picture of the lights and the flag atop the building.

I was almost arrested for this photo, so you should appreciate it

I was almost arrested for this photo, so you should appreciate it

That’s when one of the guards ran up to me shouting, “No, no, no!” I was confused. I didn’t know what the building was at the time. I quickly turned off my camera and said, “Sorry,” as I walked away in hurried steps.

Same building, different angle, different day. No problem

Same building, different angle, different day. No problem

There is nothing wrong with taking photos of this building–I took plenty more from across the street on subsequent days. I sure the problem was that I was directly in front of the government building, taking a photo during an event just before Tet. Maybe I could’ve captured a photo of a Vietnamese official whom I wouldn’t be able to identify.

The lesson here is: ask if photos are ok when you’re surrounded by guards with guns.

Angkor Wat in Black & White

A few months ago I was reading an article on photography that discussed black & white photos. Of course it referenced Ansel Adams and his classic work, but it also included what to look for when taking photos in black & white–the subjects and compositions that make such photos successful.

I set out to consciously take more black & white photos when I arrived in Vietnam. That idea followed me into Cambodia as I toured around Angkor Wat.angkor wat

Less than a quarter of my photos from Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples were in black & white, and some didn’t come out so well.

At first I didn’t realize that my camera has two different settings for monochrome–one of those settings makes for clearer photos. There was also the problem of intense sunlight in Cambodia–even in other photos, I had problems getting clear shots with the sunlight, but I managed to find my backlit photo setting to fix some of that problem as well.

angkor wat

Trying to find a balance in contrast through the window

While I’d say about half of my black & white photos were worthy of sharing, I was happy with the overall results. Angkor Wat isn’t a colorful subject, which makes it easier to find appropriate angles for lighting contrast without taking away from the beauty of the structure.angkor wat

Somehow, these photos also eliminated the vast crowds of Angkor Wat (but that was more because of the camera angle). But there really is no way of avoiding crowds in such a popular tourist destination during the high season. Sometimes you have imagine that they don’t exist.

On Cameras and Equipment

Iceland offers a lot of photo opportunities. And in winter, most of those photo opportunities require a camera that performs well in low light–there’s about four hours of full daylight and an extended dawn and dusk period. Traveling to such a destination is reminder of the capabilities of one’s camera.

My camera with the GorillaPod.

My camera with the GorillaPod.

For quite some time I’ve wanted a DSLR or similar high-end digital camera (I’ve been looking at the mirrorless cameras lately). In the run up to Christmas I began looking at the ads for a new camera, hoping that one that I’d want would be on sale. It never happened. Fortunately, I’ve taken some good photos with lesser cameras over the years–the basic models provided enough options for what I wanted to accomplish (though I must admit, I’d really like to use some of those filters and lenses that the high-end models have).

Without a new camera, I prepared for my Icelandic adventure with my Panasonic Lumix. I read some reviews that claimed it does well in low light (or at least a similar Lumix model). I also researched how to take better pictures in low light, specifically for the aurora borealis. I knew I needed to hold the camera steady, which meant purchasing a GorillaPod and setting the timer so I wouldn’t disturb the stability of the camera.

I found my GorillaPod (or a reasonable knock-off) on eBay for a little over $4, and it fit my camera perfectly (I met a fellow tourist with a larger version to support his behemoth camera). I thought I’d use it a lot more than I did, but it’s still a cool accessory to have for future travels. I probably would’ve used it more if I wanted to take pictures of myself, but that almost never happens.

My disappointment in my camera came to a head when I went out for the northern lights on the second night in Iceland. I was told to book early because you’re never guaranteed to see anything. I was fortunate to see the one of the best displays of the aurora borealis–tour guides were still talking about it by the time I left Iceland. Unfortunately, it seemed that my camera was missing at least one setting that would’ve helped to take photos of the northern lights.

You can sort of make out the green haze. I swear it was much brighter.

You can sort of make out the green haze. I swear it was much brighter.

There was a chance that fiddling with other settings might have helped, but it’s not easy to find the settings on a camera when it’s that dark. I wasn’t the only one having problems taking photos, but there were some people capturing some amazing images. I definitely began to regret not spending nearly $600 on a new camera.

While back on the bus returning to Reykjavik, I met Jess Hockey and Paul Lester from Bristol, UK. They were kind enough to email me a few shots that they got of the northern lights. They didn’t have a professional camera, but managed to get some nice pictures from the night. I certainly appreciate having some photos of that night.

This is what my photos should've looked like. Credit: Jess Hockey, Paul Lester (thanks)

This is what my photos should’ve looked like. Credit: Jess Hockey, Paul Lester (thanks)

Thank you, Jess and Paul. I owe you a drink when our travels cross paths again.

Seeking the Sky

Every now and then I get depressed viewing other people’s photos of China. It’s not because I miss living there, but rather because they always seem to have beautiful skies surrounding tourist destinations. It makes me think that the photographer waited in the same place for weeks on end to capture that perfect shot. Usually these photos have high clouds framing the shot, which just adds to the beauty.

The grey sky in Xi'an was indicative of my travels in China

The grey sky in Xi’an was indicative of my travels in China

It’s not that I didn’t have the patience to capture those moments of beauty; I just didn’t have the time or cosmic fortune. I mostly saw grey skies wherever I went. Of course, I lived in China in the years leading up to the Beijing Olympics, which meant that there was a rush to develop as quickly as possible before environmental restrictions set in. I’ve heard stories that there are significantly more blue sky days in Shenzhen and Beijing today than when I was there.

Heavenly Lake, Xinjiang

Heavenly Lake, Xinjiang

The first instance of what I would consider beautiful weather was on my trip to Xinjiang Province. The weather was to be expected in a less developed area of China–being a desert also helped. I managed to get a few photos of the mountains around Heavenly Lake (天池) engulfed by the bright blue sky. After spending almost a year in Shenzhen, the sun was a welcome sight–I grew accustomed to seeing grey skies because of the rain or pollution.

Other than those few days, I had one great day on my second trip to Beijing–a sunny day spent at the Temple of Heaven (天坛). But even that day didn’t have the picture-perfect sky of the photos so many people seem to take. I did manage to get a few nice shots with the clouds passing overhead though.templeHeaven7

Fortunately, on my travels outside of China I encountered much more picturesque weather to enhance my photos.

Does anyone else get jealous of other travelers for having better pictures of the same destinations?

In Ancient Capitals

The best vacation day trip I’ve ever taken was to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand that was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. Today, most of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with tourists heading to the ruins of the temples and the Khmer-style architecture that remains.

ayutthayaIt was a short train ride from Bangkok with unreserved seats, which meant that anyone traveling further along the line could force me stand (at least I had a seat on the way back). Ayutthaya would have been more enjoyable had I rented a bike or elephant. It also would have been worthwhile to spend the night in the quiet city.

The Thought Police, They Live Inside of My Head

With apologies to Cheap Trick (FYI, the best version of “Dream Police” was sung by Apu Nahasapeemapetilon).

Finding parking on city streets sucks. And New York City is probably the worst for this (which is why I have never driven there despite living in New Jersey for most of my life).parking

Where’s the ACLU when the government decides to strip our freedom to think about parking spaces?

In an Octopus’ Garden

We’ve had a few dreary days here. Fortunately, I started replanting my garden when we had those beautiful summer-like days. I still need to figure out what to plant in a few other pots, but I’m pretty well set so far. There’s not a lot of space here, but it’s enough for herbs and such (I’m quite the urban farmer).

With the clouds blocking the sun and the temperatures plummeting, I’ve resorted to staring at sunny garden pictures from my travels–some days they can be quite uplifting (like the one from Bali in the previous post).

Gardens at Muzium Budaya in Malacca, Malaysia

Gardens at Muzium Budaya in Malacca, Malaysia

Many of these photos in my albums remind me of quiet walks in cities. For some reason, these are the least traveled tourist destinations–or maybe I just have the pleasure of visiting when no one else is around.

Of course, exotic gardens are much more exciting than my peppers and basil. There are numerous occasions that I’ve come across plants that I can’t identify, and sometimes those plants are edible (although I still don’t know what those flowers in Fujian province are).

Not quite a garden, more of a farm in Fujian province.

Not quite a garden, more of a farm in Fujian province.

And nothing beats visiting a royal garden like the one at Doi Suthep outside Chiang Mai. I may not be all that interested in flowers, but it’s still amazing to see the variety of roses on the grounds that are almost the size of my head. It also doesn’t hurt that the walk through the garden was quiet after a motorbike ride up the mountain toward Wat Prathat Doi Suthep.


Taking Time to Look Up

Since movie back to the New York-New Jersey area, I’ve rediscovered the joys of being a tourist of sorts in the city. I took New York City for granted when I was growing up in the suburbs. Now, I’ve begun to see it in a new light. Of course, sometimes I see the city with the help of friends who actually want to see the tourist attractions.

There is great beauty in New York’s architecture. I enjoy staring at the buildings, both new and old–viewing the contrast of time periods all at once.EmpireStateBuilding

Today, as I left an interview near Penn Station, I looked up and saw the Empire State Building hiding behind others. Fortunately, I had the camera on my phone to capture this shot (and little editing in Instagram).

Photo for Jersey

Tonight is game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Devils. At the end of the second period, they’re winning 3-2 (I really hope this continues). I used to work two blocks from the new arena–though it wasn’t there when I worked in Newark because of legal battles with the city.

In honor of the Devils’ return to the playoffs, I’ll post the closest photo I have to Newark (I probably should’ve taken a picture of the Prudential Center as I walked past it earlier today). This is a view of Jersey City from a raised walkway downtown.jerseycity

For the record, I took this photo to test the camera in my new cell phone.

Appreciating Spiders and Such

motmotOn my second day in Sierra Llorona another guest arrived at the lodge, bringing the total to two. Even with the distraction of another guest, I found the time to sit in a hammock and watch the wildlife, which mostly consisted of birds–toucans, falcons, hummingbirds, vultures, and motmots.

Sergio was an Italian photographer whose only other language was Spanish, which made it difficult to communicate. However, he was friendly and patient, so we conversed using a combination of hand gestures and my rudimentary Spanish. Occasionally, Ida was around to translate between us.

Even though we couldn’t communicate clearly, Sergio taught me a few things in that rainforest. His purpose in Sierra Llorona was to photograph the smallest creatures he could find. He mostly hunted down spiders because they tended to stay in place longer than the native insects.

Spider2I was fascinated by Sergio’s camera–the power of the lenses to capture the most minute details was amazing. He zoomed in after taking the pictures to reveal what we couldn’t see without the assistance of a magnifying glass. There was beauty in the details of the spiders that I wouldn’t have ever noticed nor cared to notice.leaf-footed bug

The patience Sergio showed in his art was impressive as well. He could spend a half hour carefully moving branches and leaves to set up his shots. He had a few wires and clamps to help move things around as he waited for the light breezes to settle his subjects. He would occasionally pick up an insect on a leaf or in a specimen box and move it to a brighter area for a better picture. He even scooped up the tail-less whip scorpion from my bathroom to photograph later.

This little insect is simply called a leaf-footed bug (at least that’s what the biologists in Gamboa told me). There were two varieties that covered one plant outside the lodge.Spider

While most of the wildlife Sergio found was quite small, he did find this rather large spider carrying its eggs. While attempting to coax it out of its nest, the spider tried to fight off Sergio’s hands.

Spring Break Travel

It’s spring break in New Jersey–for some reason, my college’s break begins on a Friday, so anyone who has class on Fridays will have to return next Friday, thus losing out on the extra weekend that usually accompanies spring break. Fortunately, my schedule is Monday through Thursday. Nonetheless, I have to work all week in the writing center rather than take a trip away from New Jersey.

Stupas outside Shuzheng Village in Jiuzhaigou

Stupas outside Shuzheng Village in Jiuzhaigou

Back in China, spring break didn’t arrive until the first week of May. Of course, the semester also didn’t begin until the end of February. During my first May holiday, I took a trip to Sichuan province–the goal was to head north into the Tibetan region of Huanglong Valley and Jiuzhaigou National Park.

I learned an important lesson that year: never travel during a national holiday. All the popular destinations are packed with tourists because the whole country has the week off. Despite the overwhelming crowds, Jiuzhaigou was beautiful.

Hiking Season

Spring is almost here and the temperatures, though inconsistent, are rising. We had a couple 70-degree days this week, followed by a 20-degree drop. It’s all fairly typical for March in New Jersey.Delaware_Water_Gap

The weather is reaching a point that will soon see me drive out to my favorite home-state destination: The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. As part of the National Parks system, it offers a great escape from the city–a quiet river, peaceful hiking trails, and few people. It’s not the most popular of national parks, but it’s still worth visiting.

Every time I go to the Delaware Water Gap, I take along someone different. I don’t think I’ve been there with the same person twice, and this year probably won’t be any different.