Whenever I travel for photography, there’s a real sense of anticipation for the scenarios I might face, the feeling that the next great moment is just around the corner. As a street and documentary photographer, my intention when traveling is not to see “the sights”, or to eat the foods, or to hear the music — instead, it is specifically to meet the people and see what aspects of myself exist in foreign situations.
I know that this energy of constant anticipation is shared by many of my peers who also travel to practice their street photography; that somehow the scenarios they expect to encounter along their travels will be different (and possibly elevated on another level) compared to their home turf.
I think this is a little odd and perhaps even detrimental to everyday work. I think that I ought to feel in a constant state of this mindset, to be constantly surprised by my surroundings, rather than allowing things to become banal. How can the streets ever be boring when something is always happening? How can I reconcile that to some traveler from anywhere else in the world for whom my city represents that unfamiliar landscape?
Perhaps it’s too far to say that the streets are ever especially boring, but they are definitely over-familiar. Even as someone who focuses on characters rather than locations, I can roughly tell what sorts of people will be around and when, and while there’s always room for spontaneity, even the expectation of the spontaneous can become droll.
The idea of the unknown has such wonderful potential, so harnessing it for use on my home turf seems a very useful practice. Travel today is almost its own genre — it can be done with the intention of landscape, portrait, street, documentary, and food, even selfies! What makes it so difficult to see with these eyes and this attitude, and to turn it inwards to the more familiar?
After considering that the matter could be addressed in terms of a more Soto Zen philosophy, giving direct attention to each moment, I realized that it could be understood in a more basic way: by connecting this problem to another idea I’ve been thinking about for some time.
I’ve often imagined that those who seem to have the most insight in photography — especially street and documentary, but also many other genres, and even most other forms of art, music, painting, etc — are the ones who are outsiders in some form. As an outsider, your perception and understanding of a topic are different from those on the inside, and as such you are able to shape conclusions that are different from the “insiders”.
Whether this means different political views, languages’, even supporting different sports teams, the ability to express a different and potentially unique perspective is immensely valuable. You don’t have to look hard to find examples of some of the greatest and renowned street and social documentary photographers whose unique perspective is informed by their existence on the edge of society in some way. Their capacity for looking in as an outsider makes it no wonder that they were/are able to provide the commentary they produce in their images.
What travel offers is an instant perspective shift — it transforms the traveler into an instant outsider and gifts you that unique perspective.
This means that the solution to producing insightful images could be a process of cultivating a mindset and mentality of outsider-ness, emphasizing where it already exists and discovering new ways it could be adopted.
Gear and approach is a good way to start; figuring out new workflows, using different focal lengths, and analyzing your values and philosophies regarding what you intend to capture is a great way to start. From here I suggest seeking out things you wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in and see if you can approach the topic and subjects with an aesthetic eye rather than analyzing it objectively as something you don’t care about.
Restrictions can also be useful. Limiting aperture or shutter speed is a good exercise to shock your mind into seeking out lighting conditions that fit the camera, rather than using the camera to bend what’s available to your whims.
For me, what helped the most was seeking out hidden communities, events, and situations near me, which gave me a multitude of documentary ideas to be getting on with. Speaking and socializing with new people I wouldn’t have met otherwise offers me new characters to photograph, new stories to tell.
London is reasonably unique in my experience; a city makes it very easy to consistently access fresh situations — I know that this can be more restrictive in rural areas. This is why I emphasize that the physical aspect of travel is not always the most significant; instead cultivating that mental shift can be immensely useful. Seeking out experiences rather than places, situations rather than landmarks: these are what can truly refresh and invigorate an artist trapped in routine.
Travel is the easy answer, but once you understand what it is about travel that is actually making a difference, you should be able to cultivate that mindset yourself!
About the author: Simon King is a London based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work on Instagram. Simon also teaches a short course in Street Photography at UAL, which can be read about here.