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27 January 2016 » Roaming Shangri–La, part 5

As I continued going through Shanri–La, I did a great deal of thinking about the nature of travel photography. That seemed very fitting indeed, as I have been travelling with a camera very extensively: on business, with my family, and purely for photography. I found it fascinating how reasons why we photograph mingle regardless of the main purpose of each individual trip.

It is perfectly understandable why "civilians" photograph while travelling*. We tend to fail grasping the passage of time and perceive longer events as a series of moments, not as continuity. Further, we suffer from duration neglect and do not remember all moments equally: our memories are ruled by peaks and endings. For example, a longer uneventful holiday, no matter how relaxing, would usually be less memorable than a shorter one that involves some excruciating hiking but boasts exciting moments of seeing high altitude mountain lakes. Photography is the perfect means to register and share the peaks of our travels—and lives—thus serving the remembering self admirably. In this instance, its purpose is capturing the peaks to shape our memories and, ultimately, achieve approbation, both internal and external, of our lives.

 
Shangri-La, China
 

Somewhere in Shangri–La #1

Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon T 8/300 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Another key factor in photographing while traveling is intangible appropriation. In our travels we often encounter things and events that we do not see in daily life; they are unusual and exciting, and it is our natural reaction to want to have a piece of them. Nearly always, however, it is impossible: you just cannot take that mountain lake back home. Thus, photographing an object that elicits desire to posses and owning an image of it is a good compromise that brings us the mental satisfaction of intangibly keeping a part of it.

As photographers, however, we usually travel for an entirely different purpose, which is creation of images for the sake of expression; unlike the two motivations above, it is an act directed from inside to outside. While this purpose should dictate when, where to and how we organise our travels, things often get mixed up and the elements of creating memories and intangible appropriation creep in and cannot be completely eliminated.

 
Shangri-La, China
 

Somewhere in Shangri–La #2

Ebony 45SU camera, Schneider Super–Angulon 5.6/90 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

For example, I have travelled to photograph the Yellow Mountain six or seven times. I know the place exceedingly well and no longer need additional memories of being there; all I care about is capturing compelling images that create connections at multiple levels. This mindset is perhaps as close to the pure artistic travel photography as it gets. And yet, the location may be radically transformed if you witness it in unusual, majestic light, which essentially makes a totally new place out of the old, familiar, or even dull one you know. At that moment, the drive to remember and own may kick in. Besides, is it really possible to photograph completely cold–heartedly and with zero passion for the subject? I do not think so. And as long as you see something extraordinary and have passion for it, the desire to have a memory of and symbolically own it will invariably surface. Thus, while perhaps largely diminished, these two elements remain at play**.

Photographic travels such as my latest expedition to Shangri–La, however, clearly start to lack the "photographic purity" described above. Yes, the itinerary is based on several destinations that I specifically travel to for the sake of photography, perhaps for the second or even third time, but there are many locations along the way that I visit for the first time. They are new, they are exciting, and they may make your heart beat faster, so that true motivation of photographing them gets blurred. Further, the pace of such travels is seldom determined by the hour of the day that is best for photography of each individual location; instead, it is largely predetermined by the travel schedule***. All images in this post are of this nature.

So what happens when a serious photographer goes on a non–photographic family vacation? Then it is creation of memories and intangible appropriation at their finest. I, nonetheless, usually find myself operating in two entirely different modes. On the one hand, I do take family pictures to form memories; in this respect, having an in–depth understanding of photography is highly beneficial as it allows creating better images and, consequentially, better memories. On the other hand, however, out of the corner of my eye I always look out for things and moments that may evoke connections and lend themselves to expression of the found connections. When that happens, my mindset changes to that of a serious photographer swiftly and effortlessly, similar to how I switch from English to Chinese.

 
Shangri-La, China
 

Somewhere in Shangri–La #3

Ebony 45SU camera, Fujinon T 8/300 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F film

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the motivations that may compel us to press the shutter release button during our travels; we should not avoid any of them. Rather, we should learn to identify what drives us each time we pick up the camera, and subsequent use of images should be guided by the recognition of our true motivations. When we photograph with the intention of creating art, we should be careful not to confuse it with the impulsive reaction to capture a peak occurrence or intangibly appropriate something we find mesmerising. We need to learn to recognise such impulses for what they are and shift focus from outer occurrences and intangible appropriation to our inner peak experiences and tangible creativity.

*It would be naive, not to mention incorrect, to think that "serious" photographers are never "civilians": while our intentions may be those of serious photographers, our true motivations are often those of "civilians".

**Our mindset, however, is totally different: we act in anticipation rather than in reaction.

***Unless, of course, you have all the time and money in the world.

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