A couple years ago while traveling in India, a friend of mine that taught photography workshops in Delhi was reviewing my work and providing some feedback and suggestions. He noted that I took very few pictures of people.
"I don’t feel comfortable taking picture of people on the street that I don’t know."
But that’s the point, he said. It’s important to go outside your comfort zone.
And so, next time I stepped out into the streets of Delhi, took a bus, wandered a market, and interacted with people, I tried. But the barriers in my head wouldn’t let me do it. I couldn’t break that plane of recognition that stood between me and the people of the world. I preferred to be an observer, and instead of taking people picture of people, I used people to frame and prop up the pictures I saw. I used people as props.
To this day, outside of the events that I’m hired to shoot, it’s still how I photograph cityscapes and people, environmental portraits of anonymous people that provide the context to the rest of the frame.
And when I landed in Rome, that’s the frame I brought with me.
One of the most difficult things in taking good pictures on vacation is staying away from taking vacation-style pictures. It’s fine to take pictures as your memories, but in today’s age, it’s all been seen before, and it’s incredibly hard to make a typical tourist shot interesting enough to share outside our closetst family.
That’s why I point the camera in a different direction when I travel. I look for images of people living their lives, whether locals, tourists, or travelers. I look to give a hint of the people and the place. And when everyone is pointing their cameras in one direction, that’s a good sign you should probably be looking somewhere else. *
Couple reflections from Rome:
- We stayed at the Hotel Manfredi. Loved it. Great location next to the Villa Borghese gardens and the Spanish Steps, tucked away on a beautiful small side street, with great service and staff. Enjoyed it. Would stay again.
- Rome is full of tourist sites and tourists overwhelming them, sucking the soul out of the experience of visiting them. You have a couple different ways to respond to it. One is to give in and choose to enjoy being a tourist; another is to opt-out and make the small adjustments needed to escape from the tourists. And the adjustments are small: a couple blocks off the beaten path, a bar or restaurant full of locals but not in the guide books, and you’ll away from the hordes.
- Always find a vantage point to view the city in the first one or two days of visiting a new city. It will provide a level of context that you’ll never get from looking at maps. In Rome, check out the viewpoints from the Villa Borghese gardens.
- Guidebooks are suggestions. In India, I once spent 3 weeks taking buses and trains to cities, showing up in cities and looking for places to stay, finding new people to meet along the way. I feel that’s a very different world today: people have smartphones, and maps, and connectivity. If we bring the world around with us in our pockets, how does that change how we experience the world?
- Don’t worry about finding the restaurant listed in the book. Find areas where there are multiple restaurants close to each other serving similar types of food (competition). Look to see where other Italians - not tourists - are eating (social proof). And eat there. We found great spots throughout the city by following this simple maxim.
- Maps are good references, but look up to truly understand the city. Google Maps works great (except when it doesn’t), but it’s important to blend the Google with your eyes and ears. So much context is embedded in the world of street signs, construction, and the typical markers of the built world. Look up, look at the signs, and make your best guess. I found Rome to be very well marked, and combined with the buses and subway, it’s easy to orient yourself and get around the city.
- It’s impossible to see every museum, art gallery, temporary exhibit, basilica, cultural-moment-of-the-day. Give up on the idea that they are all meant to be experienced, and choose to see less places, less stuff, and spend your time as you want. Want to spend a morning enjoying a coffee in the oldest coffee shops in Italy instead of seeing your 5th museum of the weekend? Do it.
Or want to spend a morning people-watching from your perch at a cafe on the piazza? Even better.
- This works for investing also.