I jostled for a view of Kyoto’s one of most renowned sites: Kinkakju, the golden pavilion. The place is so obviously photogenic it, seems positively futile to take a picture of it at all. Surely, thousands of photographers have taken shots in the most perfect light and with the very best lenses and conditions. What, the self-reflecting photographer must ask, am I bringing to the table here? This question didn’t stop me, or the hundreds and hundreds of fellow tourists, from giving it a try. Armed with high-end digital SLR cameras or arms stretched out grasping a cellphone, each of them was determined to record this memory, and maybe bring something home that might convey the beauty of the distinctive architecture and setting, even though thousands of such photos are available, many without copyright on flickr.com.
The flag bearer for travel photography might very well be the National Geographic Society. The Society began in 1888 and they have been sending happy photographers filled with wanderlust to every corner of the earth ever since. The amazing pictures and stories that they brought back have become an inspiration to millions of travelers and camera owners since but, no matter how great your pictures are, don’t expect to become one of those lucky devils paid to go to darkest recesses of the planet!
The reality is that professional travel photography, where professional means making a living, is all but dead. It’s been swamped by technology and one of the National Geographic Society’s missions: the shrinking world. It’s statistics. If a million monkeys stand in front of Yosemite’s half dome taking a million cellphone pictures a day then naturally, every once in a while, one of them is going to snap something rivals Ansel Adams.
It’s bad news for the aspiring travel photographer, but even the the original goals of the Society make at least a little less sense today. The founders wanted to organize “a society for the increase and diffusion of geographical knowledge.” The magazine was essentially the first to use photographs to tell their stories, but there is clearly something inadvertently ethnocentric about pictures of sadhus in India being more interesting to their readers than ministers in Minnesota. Which of those is a travel photograph?
Some time ago I posted several street photos I snapped during a walk in Chennai, India. A couple of my contacts on flickr.com where I posted these are also from India. When they walk around snapping nearly the same pictures as I did, are their pictures also travel photography? How about pictures I take in Boulder, Colorado near where I live?
The sheer numbers of high quality cameras available today has changed photography for everyone. Oh, I know, it’s not the camera that takes the pictures, but the photographer, but I remind you of the million monkeys and their cellphone cameras. Everybody gets lucky if they take enough pictures (this has been my strategy for years!) This is especially true for so-called travel photography as flickr will show you but it’s also true, to a lesser extent perhaps, for most every other type of photography a budding professional might pursue. (Search on any famous place and you’ll find dozens or hundreds of excellent photos. Try the same for some not so famous places and you’ll still be amazed.)
No travel photography for you then? Considering portrait photography? Your market is has shrunk thanks to the occasionally great snaps that people make at home. Sure, you could do better in a half hour, but they were around at just the right time to catch that perfect smile–after all, they were around for thousands of worthless snapshots as well. Except, perhaps, for spec photography, where the photographer is asked to go out and take a very specific shot, on time, and within a budget, there is little sacred left for the professional photographer. Even those spec shots have seen considerable competition from cheap stock photography websites filled with snapshots of everything under the sun by another million monkeys.
I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with those monkeys. Hand me a banana, as I am clearly one of them. I’ve cut into the professional photography market myself with a few paid photos and few paid gigs, which doesn’t mean I am professional, of course, but rather illustrates the point that market for whatever it is professionals believe they’re offering is barely enough to support all them all.
Photography has exploded as a result of a trend to document and share every moment of our lives (often, no matter how trivial) but all those extra pictures have diminished the need for professional photography. Worse, it makes me wonder why I was standing there in front of Kinkakuju with a tripod, waiting and waiting for the cellphone grasping arms to get out of my shot. At the end of the trip, I simply could have asked some one flickr if I could hang their shot in my home instead. The light wasn’t that good when I was there anyway.