Once, I traveled to an amazing place with someone who spent nearly the entire two weeks with one eye shut and the other one pressed up against a camera viewfinder.
“Did you notice the velvet underbelly of the albatross?” I would ask.
“No,” she would say. “I was adjusting my shutter speed.”
I am a travel writer who captures part of the story with a camera. Ironically, I do my best work when I put my equipment away and take the time to absorb a country by listening to its natural melodies and watching daily life unfold. Sometimes, I come back home and wonder why didn’t I take more photos of this or that. But then, I will remember how I got sidetracked trading jokes or showing my camera’s images to a group of women praying in a courtyard. Those memories make me cut myself some slack.
It is easy to lose your direction when guided by a zealous desire to capture the perfect picture. A talented photography instructor/friend, Nevada Wier, pointed this out during one of my first trips with her as I sat bemoaning missed shots as I drank beer in a Delhi bar. She reminded everyone to take the time to enjoy the travel as much as the photography.
Still, it’s so hard not to get wrapped up in shooting combat. Snap the picture. Get the shot. Crop him out. Even the language of photography shouts violence. In this digital age, you could easily launch a thousand images with machine-gun velocity without reloading anything, including yourself.
Here is the reality:
There will always be a better picture. Someone with a more photographic eye, better equipment or raw luck is going to outshoot you. What they canʼt crop out or Photoshop in, however, is your perspective.
This is how you see Hawaii. This is how you tell the story of your familyʼs week at the dude ranch. Your view of the world or even your own backyard is shaped by a million memories. It is why some people return from a European vacation with thousands of photographs of old buildings and town statues, and some people return with a few hundred photos of churches and people walking their dogs past crowded cafes.
Travel experiences have taught me this about myself:
I love a photograph backlit by a story.
There is no greater compliment than to have someone look at my photographs and ask, “What happened next?”
When I watched three boys peering into a closed door in a Himalayan village, I took a few quick pictures because I knew I would soon be spending much of my afternoon teaching them a song.
Once, I missed out on an entire afternoon photo shoot because I stumbled upon a woman washing her hair. She looked at my ragged head and handed me a bucket. Back at the camp, I sat drying my hair in the sunshine and scribbling down the experience in a wet notebook.
When I saw two old friends strolling through a mountain festival, I thought it was a tender moment. I nodded but decided not to bother them for they were deep in memories. When I looked back, I smiled again.
Those are the life captions that I get to tell because I took the time to focus on my travel as much as my photographs.
On a trip to Morocco, I experienced what became my favorite travel moment of 2011 as I struggled to photograph in a country where people – especially women – shy from cameras because of modesty and their religious beliefs.
One drizzly afternoon, I was lagging behind in the group and saw an interesting pink staircase and a tree growing over a doorway. As I photographed the scene, I became aware that someone was watching. I turned around and saw the perfect picture. A girl wearing a purple scarf was standing in a yellow doorway. Beautiful face. Excellent composition. Good light.
I could see it as a 24×36 gallery wrap or maybe a full-page magazine profile. When I lifted my camera in the universal sign language of “Can I take your photograph?”, the girl ducked back into the cave dwelling that she called home. I waited until it began to rain, and my friends shouted for me to hustle back to the van.
Disappointed, I fired off a few more uninspiring images of some stupid tree on a door and shoved my camera into my bag. As I walked past her doorway, I heard a soft cough. The girl bolted out of her house, stuck something into my hand and dashed back inside. It was a button made of gold thread.
“A girl gave that to you?” asked our guide as I cradled it in my hand. “You are lucky. It is what the women do here. They make gold buttons. This is a gift of goodwill.”
Odds are great that something would have went wrong with the photograph of the girl in the doorway. Aperture, shutter speed, focus – something had a good chance of going astray. A girl in a purple scarf standing in a yellow doorway would have created a good photograph. A tiny gold button tells a better story. – Sheilah
Meet me: Sheilah Bright, a sucker for a story.
I've been a journalist for 39 years after first publishing at age 14. Do the math. No, don't. My work has appeared in hundreds of newspapers and magazines. I spent 18 years writing advertising for People and TIME magazine.
When I'm not traveling abroad, I bounce along the backroads of Oklahoma searching for some golden story nuggets as a contributing editor for This Land Press and Oklahoma Today.