“Collect memories not things” has become sort of a catchphrase for travel enthusiasts. It’s a call to live a life filled with enriching experiences, seeking out the emotional and the intangible over the commercial and superficial. Photography storytelling certainly has a role to play in this endeavor, but make sure you use your camera to emphasize what it is you actually value about travel.
There’s a temptation to treat your photo album like a trophy case. There are plenty of grand monuments, natural wonders and towering skylines to photograph. But you only spend a few seconds of your trip standing in front of buildings and staring at the camera. This is especially true for slow travelers like us who spend weeks in one city at a time, trying our best to get a feel for the place before moving on.
So go ahead, get that photo of yourself holding up the leaning tower of Pisa, but don’t forget about the experiences that made your trip special. The ones that only you had in a place that so many have visited before. This is photographic storytelling, and it’s focus is on the memories, not the collection. Here are our tips for crafting photos that will trigger your fondest memories years down the road.
Create a Memory Worth Collecting
The whole idea behind preserving your memories with a photograph is that you have done something you never want to forget. Of course, the best times are often spontaneous, but you can set the stage by planning an activity that you think you will enjoy.
As an example, we’re using a trip to one of Paris’ many street markets. We bought ingredients, then took them home and prepared a meal. It may sound mundane for a city as exciting and romantic as Paris, but it’s the bread and butter of slow travel. We spent a relaxing morning together, interacting with locals and other travelers. It’s also ideal for photographic storytelling since it has a linear progression, multiple easy to recognize stages, and beautiful, vibrant scenery.
Capture key moments of your experience, including some of the smaller details. If something makes you smile, try to get an image that will bring you back to the moment. Ideally, anyone looking at the photos will be able to tell what you and your family are doing without having to read anything.
Create a Sense of Place
Not every street in Paris has a great view of the Eiffel Tower. But this is still travel photography so we wanted to make sure our story had clues for the viewer about location. After all, even though a farmers’ market is fun in any city, more specific sense of place helps to make the memories more real. Look for country specific imagery that will help the viewer.
If there are no iconic sites available, as was the case for us, think about what else you can use. Look for anything that might be unique to the city or country you are in. Here are some options to keep in mind:
- Traditional Clothing
- Text in the local language or dialect
- Local delicacies
- Regional flora and fauna (would be easy in a place like Australia)
- Street signs
- National quirks (cars on the left side of the road, for example)
Some of the clues we used include baguettes, macarons, euros changing hands, and food labels written in French.
Tip: If you are in a farmers’ market, try to only photograph stalls where you are making a purchase. It doesn’t have to be you in the photo, just good karma.
Create Emotional Anchors for Your Memories
This might be the least obvious, but most important part of the process. Others might not appreciate it as much, unless you give them context while they view, when you look at the images down the road, it will help you to see your family not as actors going through motions, but as real people living a multidimensional life. You can bring yourself back, not just to the time and place, but to your own mental state on that day Here are some of the things that were on our minds at the time and how we tried to capture them.
- Five Years Together: This trip to the market took place about a month before our five year anniversary (still a few days away as I write this). We had been talking a lot, not just about how fast the time had gone by, but how our travels had changed our marriage and our relationship to each other and our daughter. At the market we saw peonies for sale and we bought a bouquet. On the day I proposed to Dannie, we planted a peony bush in our yard, so the flowers have special significance to us. We made sure that the flowers were often visible throughout the shoot, either sticking out of Dannie’s basket (which we purchased earlier that month in Beaune on our drive through the French countryside), or in a Vase on the table during mealtime. Also, peonies are very pretty!
- Helping Hands: Lisa’s personality changed dramatically during our stay in France. One thing that’s different is her desire to be involved in everything we do. She learned the word “help,” and she uses it not only when she needs our assistance, but when she wants to give us a hand. She loves to “help” us prepare food, and we sometimes let her do a little mixing when it’s appropriate. We made sure to get some shots of her carrying flowers and bags, and getting hands on with the food preparation. The watch drawn onto her wrist in one shot also reminds us of her obsession with her grandmother’s watch. The clock face drawn in pen was our way of getting the watch back without causing a temper tantrum.
- Sharing Toys: Another toddler milestone Lisa hit was the possessive stage. We were surprised the day before this shoot when she all of a sudden started refusing to share with other children on the playground, clutching her toys and running away whenever others approached. We eventually got her to share her toy monkey with another little boy who (with an equal amount of coaxing from his own parents) agreed to share his toy frog with Lisa. In one of the photos, we put the monkey on the table to remind us of the stage we were at during that time.
- Peter Rabbit: During this stage, Lisa also started insisting on drinking out of cups like a big girl instead of straws or sippy cups. We bought her a plastic cup with a picture of Peter Rabbit, and we made sure it showed up in the photos.
- Potato Pasta Salad: We’ve made this dish a lot during our last six month traveling across Europe, because it is Airbnb easy, inexpensive, delicious, and most importantly – toddler friendly. We put the recipe at the end of the post. It’s also very photogenic, which was helped by the fact that our Airbnb rental was beautifully decorated (read our tips for using Airbnb)
Hopefully that gives you an idea of what we mean by emotional anchors. Try to think about what is going on in your life and how you can visually represent that in your photos.
Give it a Try
So go out and enjoy yourself, but bring your camera along, even if you aren’t going to the most famous sites. With a little practice, you’ll find it’s pretty easy to pick out the details of your day that are making your travel experience special, personal and truly engaging.
As promised, here is our recipe for pasta salad:
This is our favorite potato pasta salad recipe, and it’s so easy to incorporate fresh produce to give it a local flavor. In paris we added leeks instead of onions because I think leeks and potatoes go together really well, and there were so many big tasty looking leeks around the Parisan market.
1. In a large bowl, add chopped raw leeks (or onion), market fresh sun-dried tomatoes, pitted olives, cooked pasta, and boiled baby potatoes.
2. Add in a few handful of fresh in seasonal leafy green of your choice. Fresh baby spinach or mache works well.
3. Drizzle olive oil, add salt and pepper to taste then mix the salad together
4. Voila, Bon Appétit.