For a long time, I had genuine problems shooting pictures containing clichés. You know; the old woman with a huge cigar in Havana, the loving couple at the river in Paris or the yellow Taxi cars in New York. I'm talking about those photos that could easily end up on a post card in a tourist information office.
I mean, who want to take the same old photos that have already been shot? You should find the original motifs, that no one (or at least not too many) have seen, right? Yes, you definitely should! Your job - or your calling, for Christ sake - is to find what we others haven’t and show that. But skipping the tourist motifs, the twice-told ones, might sometimes ruin your chances of telling the really interesting story.
How To Totally Block Yourself
For many years I didn’t even snap the photo if there was an unoriginal motif in it - even if I was using a digital camera and it would have costed me nothing to snap an extra frame. I was very wary of it, almost feeling disgust about motifs that was “touristy” and seen before. I just didn’t want to sink as low as shooting moth-eaten, post-card motifs.
But in the end, the only thing my stubbornness did was block me and my photography. It made me think so much that I missed tonnes of really good photos. Thinking is one of the biggest mistakes you can do while photographing. As the Swedish photographer Anders Petersen said, " shoot with your heart, not your head!" Don’t have any filter between your eye and your trigger finger. You shouldn’t count anything out, listen to the signal from your heart - or gut - and just snap. Even though it might feel like a tired cliché.
Don’t have any filter between your eye and your trigger finger.
There’s no reason not to take the picture. You’ll have all the possibility to choose not to include the shot when you are editing the harvest in your computer later - when it’s time to use your head. Keep all doors open by by capturing everything without further thought.
So, I stopped shooting cliché motifs because I was too proud to do it. I know, it sounds really stupid. You won’t become a post card photographer just because you took a picture of the Eiffel tower! I started to shoot clichés again for another reason, though. Let me tell you why I think you should start too.
It's All about getting past the Gatekeepers
If you shoot for magazines or newspapers, there’s going to be two main audiences that will look at your photos. There are the readers of the magazine - the end audience. They are the ones who buy the final product to find a place to travel to, be inspired or just have an hour of leisure reading. But before them there’s another audience, for you a much more important one - the art directors and editors!
During my years of work, I have realized that there is a big difference between how I experience a destination while I’m there and how the editors and art directors preconceived it - how they imagine a place to be like when they send you off to document it. Even if my photos have my personal style and they are sending me in particular because they think I would do a great job, they’ve already - more or less unconsciously - painted a picture of what they expect my photos to include.
It is very easy to have preconceptions of a place, and it does not at all mean that the editor is any less great at her job. We all have preconceptions about things that we don’t yet know enough about. It’s programmed into our DNA since way back - it helps us decide whether something is dangerous for us or not even if we don’t know anything about it. It could, though, become somewhat of a barrier that the entire batch of your photos look like a job not very well done, just because it does not correspond with what she expected to see. Your shots won't even get a fair chance! There’s a good way to solve this and still create the photos you want though.
Give them what they expect and then something even better
In the book ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be’, the hotshot creative director Paul Arden talks about how creatives should pitch their ideas to a client. If you were to come to the meeting with three ideas that are great, I mean awesomely amazing and totally brilliant this-will-win-awards great, but do not fit with what the client was expecting - you could risk that he instantly dismiss it as a failure from you. You didn’t at all understand what he wanted and he knew it!
But if you would first present a (according to you) mediocre idea but one that is based on what the client thought would be the best way to tackle the problem, he would be able to relax. He knows that you understood what he was after, and the worries he had during the last week after your briefing are all gone. Now, he is open for everything else that you have to present.
In the same way, an editor will wait for you to deliver the first batch of pictures and open it up waiting to see at least one shot of the Eiffel tower, a yellow cab, or a cigar-smoking granny. Include these and you'll make the art director lower her guard and if the rest of the photos are good enough, they won't even include the clichés.
The Art Director Is Not The Only One You Need To Please
In the defense of the editor, there is a very good reason to actually use motifs that are well connected to a specific destination. When the end reader opens up the first spreads of your article, he too has an expectation of what to find. He know that Havana is filled with old American cars and a reportage without a single one would throw them off track - this is not what Havana looks like!
Don't let your pride make you a less good photographer. Taking pictures of clichés won't make you a postcard photographer; it will make you a photographer that knows what its client wants.
Don't let your pride make you a less good photographer. Taking pictures of clichés won't make you a postcard photographer; it will make you a photographer that knows what its client wants. The only thing that you, as a travel photographer, can do, is to provide as much and as diverse material as possible - then trust the art directors and editors to do their jobs!
- Shoot without any filter between your gut and finger, filter while editing.
- Well-known motifs can place the reader right into the destination.
- Be creative, and take new angles on old subjects.
- Give the editors and art directors even the less unique motifs and trust them to know their jobs better than you.
Here are a few other posts about being a professional photographer.