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 (though I learned in the Galapagos to use the burst function to better capture wildlife movement).

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. And those unrealistic expectations are producing disappointment among some travelers due to what is now described as travel aesthetic.

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?

2 thoughts on “Authenticity and Travel Photography”

  1. ‪I met a photographer on my recent trip to Iceland. I mentioned at one point that our fellow group members worked well for scale in our photos of the mountains. He said he was just going to Photoshop them out. That doesn’t feel authentic to me.

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