Travel photography has long been a bastion for men in utility vests to go places no one else has been in order to train their cameras on the ethnic or cultural ‘Other’. But as the world shrinks under the awesome power of global communications technologies and low-cost air travel, so to do the margins of the exotic. The modern wayfarer with an eye for the shot is left with a dilemma: how to capture the authentic joy of tramping into the unknown in a way that hasn’t been done countless times before? For a new generation of young photographers, the search for the sublime in an ever-shrinking world has meant not widening their angles, but contracting them and focusing the lens on themselves and their travelling partners in a manner that updates the idea of “innocents abroad” for the twenty-first century.
“A lot of my generation is obsessed with Instagram holidays,” says photographer and professional vagabond Adrian Morris. “People basically just go somewhere so they can put up a bunch of photos showing how great their lives are and hopefully make everyone else jealous. When I travel, whether for work or fun, I never do so with the express purpose of taking photos. Instead, I go looking for experiences, interesting people, or things that inspire me. It’s through this type of exploration I come across things that I want to photograph.”
The subject change from foreigners to friends might be related to a global widening of awareness of other places and cultures, according to the Canadian photographer Alana Paterson, who balances commercial work with travel folios that document adventures with her skateboarder friends. “Years ago people would go to places and take photos of suffering children or any number of horrible things and we would say, ‘Oh god, that’s terrible I had no idea that was happening over there, thank goodness someone took this photo and now I know and can try to do something about it or at least stop taking what I have for granted,’” she says. “But now we all know – we have the internet, we can know all the bad things at a push of a button… I mean, how can you go to some impoverished country and point a camera worth more than the total of some person’s life income and go back to your friends and say, ‘Look at this photo isn’t it great?’”
And so they set off, not searching for a particular story, but with the faith that they’ll know it when they find it. “The shots I love the most evoke certain feelings within me,” says the surf-bum auteur James Bowden. “For instance, I love the shots that evoke wanderlust. The best travel photos are the ones that inspire you to get off your ass and go and do something, or bring back a memory or start making a dream. Any images that start that dreaming process, that catalyse the creative juices, are effective ones for me. Even if it’s a small adventure, it’s always really exciting.”
This article originally appeared in Huck 41: The Documentary Photography Special.