I freely admit it. I’m not much of a globetrotter. Sure, we’ve taken the kids to Disney theme parks and went on a Caribbean cruise a few years ago. Over the last ten years or so I’ve taken cross-country road trips to attend auto races, partly to feed my photographic desires, but I had not planned a trip for photography’s sake alone. Some time ago I had smugly proclaimed myself neither a landscape nor travel photographer. So I set myself on changing that (at least the travel part) by taking a nine-day visit to Guanajuato City, Mexico in February 2019.
After my wife went for a BFF vacation with her friend to Costa Rica a few months before, I decided I should make a solo trip to an historic and beautiful city, perhaps like Venice. However, when I looked at my finances, and with the advice of a couple of good friends, I settled on Guanajuato City. Flights and accommodations were reasonably priced and my range would be about the same size as my street territory of downtown Calgary. I researched the trip carefully with Google Maps and Spanish lessons to help ease some of the awkwardness this gringo might have once on the ground there. More on that later. What I was really after, perhaps paradoxically, was a kind of continuation and possibly an expansion of my current street work but in a new place and with a greater emphasis on people. I was hoping the “travel” aspect of this project would come through in my subjects, not in some convolution in style.
Well, let’s just say I was a bit overstimulated on day one! I shot a lot of shallow “touristy” snapshots of the beautiful colonial architecture and the young crowd gathering early in the evening, perhaps as they always have, in their three-hundred-year-old square. I got the obligatory images of the churches and architecture like the one at the top of this post, I suppose in part because I thought others should see them and these structures were certainly more interesting and colourful than the concrete and glass monoliths I walk between daily at home. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against being a tourist or “touristy” images but that’s what anybody could shoot. I would be very sad indeed to fly eight hours away from home only to produce something that I could buy at the corner shop or an internet search could provide for me in a few seconds. I feel strongly that pictures on a project like this should be something only I could create. Even if the resulting work is terrible it should still be unique to me. I suppose that could be a subject for another blog post.
One aspect of things that affected my creativity came from a line of thinking that seemed to set aside who I really am. Before I left, I was cheered on by a fellow member of our local Beers and Cameras group, who lived in Guanajuato City for a year and a half as a young man, suggested I “get right in there and interact” as much as I could as a photographer. Befriend the local people and show how they live and work. That is a great idea, I thought. The reality once I started roaming the streets was very different, however. I certainly could feel comfortable being around other people from my own homeland and city but I have never explored or tried to explore their way of life and daily existence. In fact, I don’t really do that with my own family. How could I have thought I could operate that way in another country?
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The public face of your average Guanajuatense is very beautiful indeed. Everyone seems to react and emote far beyond the range of the more shoulders-up head-down people I see walking the streets of downtown Calgary. Let me put it this way: If you think people in Calgary are all trying to get somewhere, in Guanajuato City they already have arrived.
It became clear this place was beautiful, engaging and interesting enough that I would surely come back. I was not visiting another planet. I could trust my own unique photographic impulses. Once I did that, I could see the quality of my work go up during my twice-daily uploads and I could relax during my walks. I think there’s a point during every project where you move from shooting simply what you see to shooting what you feel and eventually what you really want to say about your subject.
After I came home and started deeper editing of the pictures accumulated, I could also more clearly see my familiar visual themes and tropes. My spirits were further boosted by our fellow collective member Mark who noted via text after reviewing a collection I had put together a few weeks after I got back:
“The [images] (without knowing the place) seem to be shot with a familiarity of the local. You seem to have successfully, if indeed was your intent, shot like this was home“. – @arkusm
That was, indeed, my intent and I couldn’t have imagined a higher compliment on my first crack at this kind of work. That observation also further eased my mind about my choice to have a less “vigorous” interaction with the people I originally planned, and it cleared my perspective somewhat for the editing I’m doing now.
Even though I don’t seem to value my colourful and cliché travel-style images as much as my “serious” and perhaps less accessible black and white street work, I am glad that I have them. I can show those pictures to my friends who just want to see my colour “holiday snaps”. After all, who goes on a Mexican vacation to take black and white pictures anyway?!
As I said above, I will be going back, at least once, possibly leading to a recurring annual visit – to explore this beautiful place and the beauty of the people – with the intention of producing some kind of a collection, folio or book. That also means I’m sorry to say I won’t be sharing too many of those pictures on social media before then.
If I could give any advice, there’s not much I could say about technique since my shooting work doesn’t require a lot of technical prowess. Instead, I’ll just share some practical considerations in a short list. Here’s what I’ve taken away from this experience along with a couple of points I have come to appreciate over the last few years:
- Learn Spanish. A three-month interaction with an iPhone app just doesn’t cut it! Being able to say “Those women are not my teachers” is not generally practical when you’re trying to buy ibuprofen tablets.
- Proper walking shoes are a good thing.
- Siestas are a good thing.
- Travel can be affordable. The cost of this nine-day trip all-in from Calgary was still $1000 less than that new camera body I have my eye on! I could have had this adventure years ago! Spend some time researching. You may be surprised about where you can go with a smaller budget.
- It bears repeating: Do your best to learn the local language!
- Find a peer or mentor who understands you and your work who can provide general feedback and encouragement.
- If the point of your trip is photography, trust your plans and follow through. If you have a very specific plan for a project, stick with it until the end or you’re absolutely sure it won’t work. Make a mid-course correction only if you find you’re truly not “feeling it” as you shoot.
- Book return trip as soon as possible to continue the adventure.
Now that I can look back, I did what I came to do. With this being my first trip of this kind and getting a bit side-tracked, I did eventually find I could trust my own point of view. In the end, I confirmed my vision worked the same way on vacation as it does at home. Now I have a collection of travel images that have a style that reflects that vision. And that makes me happy.