at home and abroad


we have talked about so many things that go into our psyche for getting ourselves "set up" to make photographs….few photographers  just "jump up out of the chair" and take an interesting photograph….seemingly , a whole set of parameters must be in place…..

we must be in the right mood…..the right place…..the right light……the right subject…..why do so many things have to be "right" before our creative energy can kick in??…..given a certain skill level, why can we not take a good picture anytime, anywhere??  or can we ???

one of the pre-requisites for many of my students for even taking the camera out of the bag is,  yes, you guessed it…travel….many give me "travel" and/or "adventure" as their primary motivation for working at all…well, wait a minute, not only students, most of my professional colleagues as well!!..

bruce davidson and sally mann made their reputations by not traveling at all..they work in their own "back yard" ..however, most photographers prefer to leave home and travel "abroad"  or go to a "far away place"  before inspiration kicks in…

first of all, is this true for you??  and , if it is, why do you think you must "escape" where you are in order to "create" where you are going??  after all, wherever you are going is someone else’s back yard….


34 Responses to “at home and abroad”

  • I find sometimes i’m more creative when photographing overseas. It’s easier to get into “the zone”

    But I do work hard to be able to take as good a photo at home as overseas.

    When you’re away you can concentrate solely on the work at hand. I might have a pile of bills up to my ears at home, but when away I can’t do anything about it, so put it out of your mind. If I have worries etc. when working at home it can sometimes affect my work too.

    Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson has a technique where he throws a hoop out into the backyard and tells his students to photograph within its circle. This destroys any preconceptions etc.

    I often use a variation of this technique and ask a friend or family member to tell me to go somewhere & take photos, just to see what I can do.

    The most important thing is to just go out there with your camera and opportunities develop naturally. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “there’s nothing to photograph at home”.

    The more I go out and look for photos, the more sucess I have. This sucess fosters confidence & I go out even more. It’s a type of exponential growth I think.

    With your camera in your hand the worlds your oyster!!

  • i think when we travel, the change of the environment, the sighting of the unseens are the kicks that we get…in last few years i have traveled very..very little…
    but for my friends i have observed this to be valid. some of the people even travel only to photograph…

    …the roads here is not that happening…and in the cities people are either reluctant or too enthusiastic to be shot…that creates the problem when you are out photographing…
    but for people like you who have such active roads(the ones i see in your and many other photographs)may be it could have been a different case…

  • Its not quite true for me, I find myself shooting out of my flat window and dragging cameras to the pub.

    However my tastes in pictures run towards the dramatic rather than the subtle so I find it easier to “see” when the drums are beating, people are dancing and something interesting is happening. Fortunately in Edinburgh this happens regularly.

    When travelling everything is different and new which makes everything interesting. Perhaps such stimulation kick starts my eye, the juices start flowing and I can see pictures more readily. It also helps that I’m having an adventure so there is at least one story to tell!

    Stories have the same effect in making me see anew. Take a wedding in my home town, I’ve seen the people, the buildings and the landscape before. However now there is a story whose novelty lets me see them all over again.

  • I recognize that frig!

    When I took a workshop in Tuscany it seemed easier for the “stranieri” to shoot a story than for the locals simply because the townspeople were mostly very accomodating to foreigners. Curiosity and unfamiliarity from both sides can be a winner.

    But–depsite the difficulties of shooting at home in NYC, where a camera is often looked upon as an assault weapon, combined with the overload of photographers–I’d much rather sink my teeth in deeper here and try to make a mark as a New Yorker with a New York story. It’s seems to reflect who I am and why I live here.

  • david, it’s very true for me…i get more “inspired” when i’m in a new place. whenever i’m back in malaysia i find it difficult to motivate myself to take pictures…these are things and scenes i’ve seen all my life.

    when i first arrived in switzerland i was out every weekend taking pictures all the time…now i’ve been here 5 years i find it more difficult to get motivated.

    sometimes i think, well i can take a picture of that next week, or the week after, etc. when i’m in a new place, usually for a week or two, i know it’s possible that i might not visit that place again for some time, so i’m motivated to go out to shoot.

  • I find this a fascinating post, because it’s true what David says about everywhere being someone else’s backyard. Nick’s post makes this point perfectly. There must be a bunch of us here thinking “if only I could go to Malaysia” while Nick is there thinking just the opposite.

    I’ve lived outside my country of origin for many years, and I can tell you that it is a sad day when what was once visually charming becomes ordinary. Images are like apples on an apple tree. You’re free to pick as many as you like. But sometimes when traveling, I purposely leave a few on the tree for next time. I purposely leave a few paths and alleyways unexplored. I try to be a good steward of the images, all in attempt to conserve the mystic and allure and charm. Because these little places are sacred to me, and I need to protect them from ordinary. It’s like falling in love. That beautiful point of suspension that exists before you completely know each other is so graceful and addicting that it is worth drawing out for as long as is possible.

    But all this that I written is really just psychological. I mean, the apple tree never becomes barren, does it? Beauty surrounds us and we simply become numb to it. It’s a dangerous thing in my opinion because really the essence of being an artist is the ability to perceive beauty where the masses suppose it absent. It’s about exploring beyond the superficial. It’s about seeing, and when a place loses it’s visual stimulation we have become blind again. So I think that in conclusion I would say that this is something worth fighting against. There are infinite perspectives with which to view something and if we consider ourselves surrounded by ordinary then we need to rebel against that.

  • For me – it is always about the light. If the light is different, I see with fresh eyes. I am excited about the possibilities – new faces, situations and possibilities.

    For my landscape (aerial) work – I can go anywhere and find images – my own backyard (the Chesapeake) or anywhere. With the aerials, it is always a fresh perspective and always different light – combine the two and the creative desire amps up.

    With travel, my hope and prayer is to always see/shoot something, that hopefully, has never been photographed in the same way – that feels right – that feels that I am supposed to be there that very moment to shoot what is in front of me.

  • For me, there are just too many practical obstacles to creativity and photography when on my home turf (Paris): work, friends, bills, meetings, shopping, cleaning, scanning, processing, captioning, and of course preparing for my next trip.

    The need to escape from it all is just too strong. When away, I can finally focus on photography, and creativity comes right back with it. Going beyond the familiarity of my everyday life makes me more relaxed, more alert, more observant, more open to my new surroundings.

    I do see great images all the time while walking around Paris, but I’m always on my way somewhere, not carrying a camera, not in the mood, in a hurry… But these could-have-been-great images linger in my mind and I can’t wait to go on that next trip to catch similar moments.

  • “is this true for you??”: It used to be true for me, because I just simply did not “see” what was around me. I took my environment for granted. But wherever I went, there I was. I couldn’t get away from my point of view.

    As I’ve gotten older, and especially since I’ve had kids, I look at my own little corner of the world with an appreciation and at times a sense of awe. My older photographs no longer hold any interest for me. I was searching for something that I was not ready to see.

    You mention how some photographers find inspiration “in their own ‘back yard’ “. I was intrigued by your post on Sally Mann’s work at the Festival of the Photograph, particularly her latest work on her life, and husband’s illness.

    More recently I’ve been compelled to photograph what matters to me, resulting in the beginnings of a new project that I’ve entitled “Portraits of Suburbia”, and a new website. It sounds totally “uncool” and boring, and just the mention of it probably induces eye-rolling in some of the more adventurous photographers who seek out exotic locales. But I’ve come to appreciate how valuable this peaceful utopia is, and how much subtle beauty there is just in the day-to-day events of my family, neighbors and neighborhood. As a subtext, I am also trying to capture how my autistic son interacts with his younger sister and the other kids in the neighborhood, but I’m finding that to be a much harder challenge. So there’s plenty of inspiration in my backyard, literally…

    Then again, it’s still nice to shake things up and go on a road trip when the creative juices are constipated. But now I think wherever I go I look for the simple, underappreciated beauty in the lives of others, and I see very little difference in what matters to people from place to place, or between cultures. It was always there, but now I can see it.

  • David: in my case travel is kind of limiting, so i have concentrate in local projects. I think the aproach of Bruce Davidson, Thomas Roma or even Freedlander is valid and of course is very challenging, mostly because they have to deal with local subjects that would rather look boring compared with exotic countries, where is somehow easier to photograph, because you can always impress people with the special light, costumes, local rits, etc.

    But the most important of all said, is that you must get to know very well your subject. This is a religeous rule for me. If you can´t travel as many times as necesary to know and mature well your project, is better then to make a project localy. At least it works for me.


  • Hi David!

    i’ve been following your thread for quite some time now…anyway, this will be my first time to comment.

    I think it has to do with seeing things for the first time that inspires me. new things pique my curiosity.

    …curiosity drives me to explore and all..

    the challenge for me i guess is to see the familiar in a new light.

    warm regards!

  • i believe in first place in stories, in powerful stories that i can access and make possible to me to shoot and tell. and this could be here in my back yard, in my country, or in the rest of the world. with this i don’t have the departure feeling all the times like an urgency. if i can’t catch a plain, a boat or a bus, that’s ok: i will walk the importante is in fact the stories and get ass up of the sofa to see where there are. ok, here in my home get’s more dificult because of the “comfort sindrome” :)

  • i believe in first place in stories, in powerful stories that i can access and make possible to me to shoot and tell. and this could be here in my back yard, in my country, or in the rest of the world. with this i don’t have the departure feeling all the times like an urgency. if i can’t catch a plain, a boat or a bus, that’s ok: i will walk the importante is in fact the stories and get ass up of the sofa to see where there are. ok, here in my home get’s more dificult because of the “comfort sindrome” :)

  • i believe in first place in stories, in powerful stories that i can access and make possible to me to shoot and tell. and this could be here in my back yard, in my country, or in the rest of the world. with this i don’t have the departure feeling all the times like an urgency. if i can’t catch a plain, a boat or a bus, that’s ok: i will walk the importante is in fact the stories and get ass up of the sofa to see where there are. ok, here in my home get’s more dificult because of the “comfort sindrome” :)

  • i believe in first place in stories, in powerful stories that i can access and make possible to me to shoot and tell. and this could be here in my back yard, in my country, or in the rest of the world. with this i don’t have the departure feeling all the times like an urgency. if i can’t catch a plain, a boat or a bus, that’s ok: i will walk the importante is in fact the stories and get ass up of the sofa to see where there are. ok, here in my home get’s more dificult because of the “comfort sindrome” :)

  • Hello, David.
    I believe i know why do most of us feel more comfortable abroad than home. There’s a traditional spanish proverb (as well as a similar brazilian one, think english must have his own) which says: “No one is a prophet at home”. Brazilians say: “Local saints make no miracles”.
    Well, i guess that (too) many photographers feel almost “embarrassed” by working near their neighborhood, some kind of disguised shyness… It’s like: (Says the old lady downstairs) “What in the hell is this boy doing with that f*** camera pointing at me?”. Or something like: (Tells the baker just around the corner) “Don’t you come over here to bother me, ok?” Sometimes they just look at you, but you can hear what they’re saying.
    Go buy some bread later…
    And, when you are far from home, bingo! No one knows you, so you can be yourself. A photographer.
    In the other hand, it may also happen when you know people very very very well, and they’re used to see with the camera rolling along since the 80’s. Or when you live somewhere people are strangers to you, no matter how close you’re from your apartment. In Brazil, i lived on a 9-floor building and i just knew the concièrges. So you can point and shoot, and that’s ok.
    Maybe i’m being a fool, but i believe traveling helps us on wearing our “photographer skin”.
    But if one day we grow up and we learn how to do things right, maybe this day we can work comfortably at our own back yard. That’s just a bet, but i believe it’s a good one.
    Hasta luego!

  • When I travel everything is new to my eyes and I just go where I think I’ll get the best images. Here where I live a lot of things gets in the middle. I’m more aware of the danger of getting into some places.

    Recently, I’ve shooting with some toy cameras (Holga and Diana mostly) looking for a refreshing way to look at the same things I look everyday. Remember that I’m not a professional photographer so I don’t travel a lot, I do my own self assignments for the fun of it.

    Sometimes I feel really tired of shooting in the same place I live…motivation is not so easy after a while….so now I’m trying to create things, projects with friends…to focus on something instead of going out to see what happens.

    When I travel my pictures are not “travel pictures” they are more documentary images…I’m not afraid to talk to people, to ask. to search for stories…I don’t know why I can’t do the same here…is very easy to do it outside and very hard for me to do it in my own country…

    I’ve seen that in some places people are more willing to cooperate (I love Uruguay and Argentina) in other places is hard to get closed to peopleand you can “feel” certain level of danger.

    I admire very much the work of all of you outhere…everytime I see a picture that stops me, I think a lot about the photographer and his circunstances in the moment of that picture…not an easy job.

    Carlos Rubin

  • Seeing the post from Renaud and his involvement in life precluding shooting in his beautiful city of Paris (a city I can’t wait to visit myself) fits exactly what I find here in Maui. I’ve lived here 17 years. Photographs of fabulous scenes are presented to me every day–this morning in fact I witnessed an extraordinary sunrise. However, these kinds of shots have become almost cliche in that you can walk down the street of Lahaina and see scores of prints of these scenes, or go into a Whalers General Store and buy a calendar for $5 with the identical scene that just took my breath away this morning.

    My inspiration comes with projects like the 20 windmills installed on the West Maui Mountains, the Ladies on the Ridge. I seek projects like this because for one they intrigue me and two, most people don’t have an opportunity to go up on the site as I did (3 photoshoots on site–one under a full moon, and one from a helicopter) and thus the photos are unique on Maui. That is hard to do, produce a photo of Maui that is unique. Another farm is being planned and due to my involvement with the Ladies I have this incredible opportunity to photograph this one from the beginning of construction to capturing them turning surrounded by the beauty of East Maui.

    Edward’s comments about his neighbor’s response to his camera happens here too. Another reason why I don’t find myself out on the street looking for a photo. However, I spent this past weekend with the Sufis at a retreat here in Maui and find the more familiar they become with me (I’ve worked with them for 5 years now) and my camera the more opportunities I have to get an incredibly telling photograph. That is because I become just another person in the room; they are so absorbed in the training and so conditioned to my presence that I become invisible and shots are possible that would be impossible with strangers.

    With travel I find that I don’t like taking shots of famous places even though I love visiting them. The Grand Canyon is one example. After seeing Nick’s photos of the GC in the NG my photographs of the canyon from my road trip last fall are merely reminders of my travels and are just for me. If I want to be awed by a GC photo I just pull out that NG.

    However, the bridge in Astoria, Oregon totally captivated me and some of my favorite travel photos are of that bridge and I was totally inspired with shooting those scenes.

    David’s question about do we need to see the other guy’s backyard to be inspired to shoot is yes and no for me. Though I don’t shoot much in Maui per se, I find that an inspiration like I had last night that kept me shooting one small area of my home until midnight extremely rewarding. I have one photograph that sums up what is going on in my life to a T. It is just a simple space with simple content yet there are elements of it that keep me staring at it over and over. It all started with wanting to do a self-portrait to send to my husband who is away. The result was a self-portrait without my physical self in it at all–just my bed and surrounding elements with a photo I had just taken of myself on the bed and a photo I had taken of him some time back in the bed, taped to the headboard.

    So inspiration is a strange bedfellow. Life bogs us down and we walk around with our errands and our thoughts on the details of life, then suddenly inspiration finds us in the most unusual of places and times. Some times I have my camera and sometimes I don’t. I find that even though I may not always have my big camera with me in these day to day occurrences, my little point and shoot is usually in my bag to catch that unexpected moment. Maybe.

    I’m just thankful that I have the ability to capture what I do manage to capture and capture it in a way that takes people’s breath away.

  • Years ago I remember reading some of the journal of Edward Weston. He was a troubled photographer, like so many. At one point he took a train down to Mexico for the first time and when he got out he looked straight up and took a photo of a cloud. He knew it was the same sky as it was in America but it just looked different. And that was all he needed to push himself to that next level.

    I had never been out of the country until last November when I got so fed up with my newspaper job that I just decided to go to Vietnam and the Philippines for two weeks. When I landed in Vietnam I knew exactly what Weston was feeling. It was everything I knew it would be and I had never shot better in my life.

    Now the trick is to harness that mojo that I had overseas and bring it to my work back home. I realized that it wasn’t any magical land or the more interesting culture. It was me letting go completely because I knew nothing of this foreign land.

    All too often newspaper photographers get trapped in proverbial box, whether put there by their editors or themselves. The successful ones understand the importance of making pictures for themselves, the other ones, well, I’ve seen many jaded journalists in our field and it scares me.

    So I will continue shooting for myself, all the while keeping Vietnam in my heart, as it was there that I discovered what kind of photographer I was.

  • Maybe travelling to a new place is easier at least at first, because everything is new for your eyes. Is more difficult to get inspired to photograph scenes that you see around you every day. This must be true for travelling photography for example.
    I think that in the measure in which you go for deeper documentary, that you dig looking for stories that doesn’t show at the first sight, to photograph in your backyard makes more sense. That is what I see in works like Bruce Davidson’s and others.

  • What everyone’s said so far makes sense to me; travel, if nothing else, gives you new things to photograph; but I would still argue the opposite view. I don’t do a lot of traveling, but when I do, I am always conscious that other photographers have been to this place before me and have, in all likelihood, gotten better pictures than I ever could. I went to Gettysburg on my vacation this year and I knew, even before I got there, that there was no way that I was going to get the kind of great pictures that Sam Abell took for The Blue & The Gray, even with a boatload of Kodachrome 64 in my suitcase and what had to be the last five rolls of Velvia 50 in a forty mile radius in my pockets.

    But here in my town, I don’t have to think about what other photographers have done or what they might do; I know this place, I know it from the mountain to the river and I think my work shows that. Travel, if it helps someone like me at all, helps in the way T.S. Eliot speaks of in Little Gidding:

    “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.”

  • I’m sorry, now that I look at what I just wrote in black and white, it sounds very pretentious. I wrote it pretty quickly and I should have dumped most of it. My apologies to everyone for the bloviating.

  • I don’t think people feel more comfortable when they are traveling, and that’s why inspiration flows more freely when not at home. What could be more comfortable than home? On the contrary, I believe it is that we have moved out of our comfort zone and into situations that force us to be hyper-sensitive to everything that’s around us. This heightened awareness stimulates our creativity and inspires us to see more clearly and critically.

  • Travel sparks inspiration simply because of the new, the unknown, the adventure.

    But giving yourself a project close to home can do wonders. My own Canal project has made a world of difference in how I shoot, why I shoot, when I shoot, what I shoot…and on and on.

    So I guess I’m lucky to be in both camps.

  • There is an “Oooo!” factor that happens when you go someplace different than home and that does effect your perspective. It is hard to be inspired by the familiar and to me that is a delightful challenge. I work primarily within an hours drive from my house and I push myself to always find new things in even common areas/subjects. I call it “finding that which is hidden in plain sight”.

    Just as there is no “bad light” only light that you would rather not use. If you go out looking for your perfect light you will miss thousands of great photographs that happen to be lit differently than you prefer. It’s like the saying “if you go looking for something you will find only what you are looking for”.

  • Im going to be a bit different and say that I always feel best closest to home. Im not sure why, but if I can understand the place, the way the people are, the way a place feels, I have more success. Plus what I like about Seoul is that over the years I have found my own places that are not visited by photographers. I dont know how I would feel in places that are popular with other photogs.

  • I’m with you, Rafel. I enjoy my home sweet home, and feel the most comfortable here. I have my own special locations….sort of carved my own special niche over the years. I rarely work more than a 40 or 50 mile radius from home, and seldom see other photographers as I work.

    I do however enjoy an occasional trip to a new place, seeing things completely fresh and new to me. That’s perhaps only 5% of my work.

  • Creatively, I feel that everyone occasionally needs to step out of their everyday scenario to gain fresh perspective (think about when you discover a new, great photographer or artist…..especially if it something you wouldn’t normally go and see….it spurns you on to create better work).” But I also feel that “needing” to be “somewhere else” to take photo’s can sometimes lead to shooting without a purpose (i am very aware of myself doing this and it can often feel that what i am shooting is “empty”????). Sometimes i think it is beneficial to step out of a creative comfort zone “(staying home or escaping), to struggle with what you are doing, and maybe create something that is truly your own???

  • I take a certain kind of picture when I’m near home. I take the same kind of pictures when I’m away. I have to remind myself before embarking to not try to subvert this. It probably helps that I live in Los Angeles, although some would say that peeling paint and cracked sidewalks can be found anywhere.

    I suppose it all depends on what it is that you think you are taking pictures of. I don’t mean “of” literally.

  • Of course, some places are more conducive to inspiration than others; anyone not inspired by hot Bahiana babes in skimpy costumes might want to call 911-their inspiration needs immediate life support!

  • I am inspired by how people act and react. So, it can be close to home or abroad. People are everywhere.

  • david alan harvey

    hello all….

    i have been inspired both ways….at home and abroad….my early work, of course, was all at home…hand made family books, “tell it like it is” (see story under “work in progress”)…

    my first three National Geographic stories were done at home!!! this surprises everyone…

    as a matter of fact, i do think that if you cannot work in your own backyard , you probably cannot work in someone else’s…

    so, while travel and exotic adventures beckon to all of us, this in and of itself will not produce great work…

    great work comes from “looking in the mirror” no matter where you are….so you must get inside yourself first and this is most honestly done at home…once you have this solid foundation, then you may take it with you anywhere….

    exotic subject matter does lend itself to a certain kind of “good picture”, but for myself, if i throw out all the “exotic pictures” and just come down to the little humanistic moments that could have been taken anywhere, then this is my real work….the work that reflects some little part of my personality or spirit….

    anybody can take a “good picture” of bahian dancers during carnival….and i love to take those pictures too…but,when i judge my own work and when i look at someone else’s portfolio, i immediately discount those overly exotic pictures for what they are..simply exotic subject matter…

    what i want to see in a photographers work, including my own, is something reflective and personal….whether you take this at home or abroad does not matter…just do not count on the “abroad” part to make it for you….

  • David.. it looks like story about block where you are living in NY is just perfekt! :-)

    I agree with you.. that going to “exotic” places to take pictures is only “exotic”.. the best pictures you can do in your own environment…
    I am happy about my pictures from “exotoic” Turkey but i think, i can do better pictures in my own city, where i can speak with people same language and i can spend with them more time…

    but sometimes is good to go abroad and come back with head full of ideas and fresh view
    … maybe exotic assignents are good because of it… you came back to your daily life with “fresh eye”

  • Hi,

    I love the responses here from everyone. There is so much said here that I myself feel. It feels redundant to add any more.

    I live in suburban New Jersey. Not what you would call exciting or exotic. I am constantly looking for inspiration in the things that I see everyday. New stories. New ways of showing the life around me. I agree with David. When I see the portfolios of others who have really colorful “exotic” shots from India or South America or something like that I am not necessarily that impressed. It’s like someone trying to impress me with a newly bought Mercedez. You had the money, you bought the car. Congratulations. Now rebuild or restore an antique with your own hands. That’s impressive.

    So right now I am trying to see around me. To train my eyes to develop a story in this boring, suburban town(s). And to be honest, the prospect of actually pulling something interesting out of that excites me more than taking tourist photos in Paris (not that I don’t love Paris – I do!) It growths the artist in me.

    This blog is a beautiful space.


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