What does a travel photography assignment involve? How do you plan for a successful reportage away from home? I’m not a full-time travel photographer, but am often commissioned to illustrate magazine features about a place, either close to my home in the South of France, in nearby Italy and Switzerland, or as far afield as Svalbard or Morocco. Recently, Aramco World magazine sent me to Montpellier, for an article about its medieval beginnings, pioneering role in medical education and tradition for tolerance. So I headed towards Provence for a couple of days – and thought I’d explain what goes into this kind of travel photography assignment.
The first time I hear about a travel story commission will generally be weeks, if not months, after the magazine’s writer has filed the text. A travel feature is not hard news, and a photographer won’t usually be assigned until the editorial team have decided to run the story in the next issue. This may not be optimal for the photographer. It is difficult, during stark, leafless January, for example, to capture the beautiful trees and flowers that the writer esteems make a certain park one of a region’s top attractions; or to photograph the mouthwatering, fresh strawberry pavlova that is the signature dish in a village’s go-to-restaurant (but which is not, of course, on the winter season menu). However, the final delivery deadline is already set, so my next step is to choose dates and make my travel arrangements. The photographer is almost always expected to do this her/himself (within the modest budget that most magazines expect – and one that last-minute bookings can make challenging to stick to), and any preparation time is included within the standard fee.
This particular assignment involved making a few portraits, so my first priority was to contact the subjects. I would need at least 3 key interviewees to be available while I was in Montpellier, which was not as easy as it sounds. Making initial contact was a challenge in itself: one subject’s email was a work address and he was away on holiday; another’s email address was incorrect and to-ing and fro-ing with the picture editor and writer was fruitless – Twitter eventually saved the day. Then there was some shuffling to find 2 consecutive days that suited everyone. I also needed to take into consideration opening hours of the public buildings I hoped to photograph (in France Mondays, Sundays and even Wednesdays can be days of closure) – and any public holiday dates. Last but not least, I checked the long range weather forecast: the South of France isn’t impervious to harsh January weather. One of the days I’d picked looked rainy, so I planned my indoor appointments then – and packed my thermals in view of the expected plunging temperatures. There’s a special kind of brain freeze that sets in when you’re waiting for the right shot to come together out on the street in arctic conditions, and it’s not especially conducive to patience and great shots.
I try to secure photography authorisation in advance for any property that I want to include, be it a restaurant, museum or even a park. Photographer permissions may not be as strict in France as they are for photographers in Monaco, but life in France tends to be oiled by a considerable amount of paperwork, and the chances are that if I turn up with a camera and ask for authorisation to photograph on site, I’ll be told to go away, send an email to the boss and come back when I have proper (written) permission. Even approaching the Botanical Gardens of Montpellier a week before the shoot was not enough – they explained that any photography requests must be made at least a month beforehand. Montpellier’s lovely tourist information press officer Valerie did her best to pull strings and speed up the process, but I still spent a chunk of time in the gardens’ offices, listening to instructions, reading through and signing various contracts, before I was let loose among the herbs to take some pictures (which didn’t even make the magazine’s final cut).
Magazines vary in the degree of precision in the brief they send to a photographer, but for a travel assignment, the full article, or a summary of its contents, will generally form the basis of my shoot plan. While my photographic style is important, essentially my role is to illustrate the text. The oldest medical school in Europe, trams designed by Christian Lacroix: both are described in the article, but I know the reader will want to see them. Once I have the key shots I need, and a few from the separate list of nice-to-haves, there will then hopefully be a little space for my own ideas. Some magazines already know the space that will be allocated to the story, but often not, as this decision depends in part on the quality and selection of the photographs themselves. There is one exception: if there is a possibility that the article might run as a cover story, I tend to be told beforehand – so that I can remember to shoot any images that have cover potential upright instead of horizontal.
By the time I arrived in Montpellier, armed with a map annotated with sunrise-sunset-weather times and notes as to which locations should be shot when, I was pretty much planned up to the eyeballs. But, as all assignment photographers know, things rarely go exactly as expected – and being prepared for the unexpected – both adapting to problems and seeing new opportunities – can be valuable. I know Aramco World well (see posts about my shoots for them in Morocco and Marseille). An educational magazine for the discerning armchair traveller, they like to bring history to life – favouring, among other techniques, photographs of details and artefacts. One of the key central figures in Montpellier’s early success as a trading post was Jacques Coeur. I wasn’t going to be able to take a portrait (or even photograph a painting) of his 10th century likeness to help a curious reader put a face to his name, but reckoned that although I hadn’t been able track one down online, there must be a historical statue of him in town somewhere. When I met historian Valdo Pellegrin for his portrait, I threw my question out there. After a little head-scratching, he came up with an answer and set me off on my way soon afterwards, with extra tram numbers and scribbles on my map. Sure enough, Mr Coeur’s flamboyant figure ended up as the closing picture of the article.
One picture that deserve special mention -and special planning- is the establishing shot. A common requirement for most magazine stories, it opens the feature, sometimes as a double-page spread (with the title pasted across or beside it), and this one photo should ideally communicate all the main story elements.
In this case, the photo editor and I discussed it and decided a general view of the city would be ideal, preferably one that clearly showed old buildings, an indication of the city’s religious life and a hint of its setting in the rugged terrain of the South of France (Montpellier’s medieval wealth was due in part to a particular insect that lived on a local species of evergreen oak – you’ll have to read the feature to find out why…). However, I knew that the land around Montpellier is flat and gaining the height for a city view would be challenging. Cue new-best-friend Valerie again, who did a sterling job of suggesting locations and arranging access to a couple of tall buildings – humouring my request for appointments to be scheduled at specific times given the sun’s relative angle (deduced from the map I pored over). In the end, shooting from the top of a new multi-storey carpark shortly after dawn nailed it.
My photographer’s bag got heavier as I went along. One of the important jobs after a shoot, apart from the edit and file prep, is writing an accurate, helpful caption for each photograph. A magazine will check its facts, but providing accurate information is important for my credibility as a photojournalist. So, as I go along, I collect leaflets, cards and snapshots of information displays. I also tend to have business cards squeezed into my hand everywhere I go, by people who don’t necessarily stop to realise they are not the only ones to ask “Can you please send me a picture afterwards?” Apart from any exclusivity clause in my contract with the commissioning magazine, if I was to prepare and send everyone a picture after the shoot (of them / their market stall / their passing by on a bicycle), it could easily double my assignment production time.
However, I believe it is important to be patient, even when that might involve, say, taking a tour of the Botanical Gardens that you know you don’t need but that the 85-year old director honours you by conducting – at an 85-year-old speed. I might need to solicit that person’s patience in return later if I need to check a specific name or date I’ve missed for a caption. Yet, more than that, I consider myself privileged, with each person who takes the time and care to introduce me to their world. Indeed, the people I meet and what I learn from them about subjects well outside my sphere of knowledge is one of the things I love most about being a photographer. I spent far longer than necessary at the Archeological Society of Montpellier, for example, with its delightful president Laurent Deguera. I exclaimed over many astonishing artefacts in its private collection (including an enormous, extraordinary, 17th century celestial globe – which delighted my inner map geek -) and came away with one of the books Deguera wrote, a tome dedicated to another celebrated Montpellier Jacques, 13th century Jacques the Conqueror.
All in all, I photographed over 15 locations, took 10 trams, climbed to the top of 2 extremely tall buildings, went out before dawn twice, shot 6 portrait set-ups (3 of them with lighting), drank 7 hot cups of coffee and drove for 8 hours …. for the 13 pictures published in a 6 double-page spread. Not bad for a 2 day assignment.