Is Travel Photography Still a Valid Genre?


Travel photography is one of photography’s most enduring genres. It has been around almost as long as photography itself. But does it still have a place in 2024? Is travel photography still a thing? I am not sure, so this article is likely to be a rambling wander through my thoughts on a genre that I have been practicing for over 30 years.

However, before we talk about its relevance today, perhaps we should define what it is.

What Is Travel Photography?

The Wikipedia page on travel photography defines it as “is a genre of photography that may involve the documentation of an area's landscape, people, cultures, customs, and history”. Whilst I don’t like defaulting to Wiki, this is actually a pretty good definition.

Any definition of a genre will be subjective. My own definition and one that has been my mantra, is simply to “capture the essence of a location and convey it to someone afar” In other words, to give the viewer a feeling for a place without them actually being there.

My travel photography has nearly always concentrated on the landscape, urban or rural, the history, and the customs. As an introvert, I find shooting people tricky, but that said when I have plucked up the courage to photograph locals, I have been very pleased with the results.

Beautiful Indian woman living on the streets of Chennai
Smiling Indian woman in Chennai, India. By Jason Row Photography

Travel photography can be different things to different people but I think most of it does fall neatly inside the Wiki definition. One thing is for sure though, many more of us are practicing it.

A fisherman in the Yemeni port of Al Mukalla
Yemeni Fisherman in Al Mukala, Yemen. By Jason Row Photography

The Advent Of Budget Travel

Budget airlines were just starting when I began my travels in the early 90s. Those days there were a few, very popular destinations such as Paris and Barcelona. Traveling beyond these required scheduled airlines, trains, buses, ferries or taxis. All of them required a basic knowledge of the local language and, more importantly, direct contact with local people.

That contact with the people and their culture gave you, the photographer, a shoo-in to understand what and how to shoot the location. That’s something that I think budget travel, apps, and the Internet have, potentially, taken away from us. Let me explain.

If I were so inclined, and many are, I could book a flight online. I would arrive at the airport and order a car share. In the app, I can ask the driver not to speak to me. It will take me directly to my hotel or even Airbnb where I will have no contact with locals.

I can then go out and shoot the local sights using ride shares and walking, again without any contact. When I have finished I can get fast food or even have food delivered to my hotel room. I could capture some amazing, scenic photos but have I captured the essence of the location? Am I giving my viewers a pretty scene or a glimpse into local culture?

Not everyone shoots like this, but I still see plenty of photographers on my travels who are willing to drop off the tourist treadmill and shoot images with a deeper meaning. But sadly there are also plenty that don’t. Amongst those are the “Influencers”

Instagram Influencers and Travel Photography

A few years ago, I was shooting a stock video in Paris with my wife. We did some of the touristy locations including Place Du Trocadero. If you have not been, it's an iconic viewpoint of the Eiffel Tower and River Seine.

There were plenty of people taking pictures of the amazing view, but equally as many people taking pictures of themselves in that view. Now we all do selfies, they are a great aide memoire to a wonderful trip.

Smartphone and the Eiifel Tower in PAris
Hitler had a photo taken here. By Illias Chebbi

However, I wager that most of you do not take dedicated lighting rigs and smartphone tripods to shoot your selfies. I also wager that you don’t make stereotypical “Insta” poses in such locations. Dozens if not hundreds of Influencers were all taking exactly the same “unique” photos with no regard to actually enjoying the location or its history.

They would rock up, take the shots then leave to the next “iconic” viewpoint to take images in the same poses. There was an irony to this, one that a photographer who understood even just a little of the history of the place would smile at. It was also where Hitler had a now infamous Paris photo taken in 1940.

Instagram “influencers” often try to call this travel photography. Call me a grumpy old man, but this is not, it is, perhaps what might still be called lifestyle photography. As far as I am concerned it’s not a travel photo if, one, you are in the shot, two you have no concept of the history or culture of the location.

Old red Lada in a courtyard in Lviv, Ukraine
Quintessentially Ukraine – Lada in Lviv By Jason Row Photography

Global – Local

There is an awful term, Glocal, a contraction of global and local. It does however suit today’s article. Travel photography before the Internet was either commissioned or self-funded. A self-funded photographer would take lots of images of a location and then either submit them to stock agencies or sell them directly to publishers.

Most locations photographers would travel to would, of course, have their own photographers. However, it was not easy for them to submit their images to a stock agency halfway around the world. Beyond the sheer cost of sending images, there were language difficulties. It was even more difficult to persuade a publishing house to buy images.

That has changed beyond recognition. Photographers from all over the globe can submit their images to stock agencies. They can send watermarked proofs to publishing companies anywhere in the world. The need for dedicated travel photographers or photography has gone. Or has it?

The Need For A Different Perspective

A couple of years ago I wrote an article about a photography project called Glimpses of London. London is my birth city and the place I lived until my early 20s. Then I left, rarely returning in 30 years. The Glimpses of London project was designed to give an alternative look at that amazing city, one that included the iconic sights but without making them the main subject.

London bus, London Eye and the hHouses of PArliament in one shot
A Glimpse of London. By Jason Row Photography

I could shoot this because I had not really spent much time there in decades, I had fresh eyes. This is why I still think travel photography has relevance today. As “outsiders” we can bring our fresh eyes and create images that local photographers may simply skip over. Our desire to learn and understand the culture we are visiting drives us to seek out images that are unique to that location.

There is another reason why I think travel photography has importance today. Photography has always been about freezing a moment in time. As travel photographers, we are archiving history. Our unique view of a place and its culture will provide future generations a window into the world that we capture. That gives us travel photographers quite the responsibility to carry on what we do best.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *