Contemporary Travel Photography - chris hilton

Contemporary Travel Photography


For me, it really started in Iceland. I’d seen so many pictures of the place that I felt I knew it inside out and backwards before I even went. So I decided to go and take photographs of an Iceland that no-one had shown me.

I decided to shoot mainly in Reykjavik and lay off the landscapes, but I did shoot a few ... and this is one.

It led me to start shooting a series of photographs that I called 'Obstructed Views'‘. Photographs where the mess was still in front of me, cheek by jowl with the beauty, just the way we usually see it.

But the thing is, that in thirty years time the ‘beauty’ bit will be largely the same whilst the mess will be completely different. Clothes, haircuts, habits, colours, fonts, street furniture and just about everything else that constitutes the ‘mess’ is in constant flux. We don’t notice it changing because it is incremental but the change is so complete that the 1970’s looked nothing like the 1950’s or the 1990’s.

I’ve heard photographers talk about old assignments, the ones they shot on film. They shot a roll of twenty four and the client wanted number three and number seventeen but because they were stored as negatives, the other twenty two images still exist and the passage of time has made these previously unworthy images all the more interesting.

And it's all because of the 'stuff' ...


It's because of the men in matching coats having a drag of a cigarette, it's because of the gas tower that's no longer there, that bike that the kids have got, the advertising hording showing products that were slaughtered on the alter of globalisation.  The cars, the fashion ... everything ... the minutiae of everyday life, the stuff we just don't notice until its gone. 

And that's the stuff I want in my photographs ... I want to photograph nostalgia before its become nostalgic. But that's not the whole story, you can't expect grape juice to develop into a fine vintage wine, you need something worthy to start with. And that's where things start to get a bit tricky. I don't photograph within a prescribed set of rules, in fact, I'm not very good with rules at all. I consider myself something of a photographic Magpie, collecting the shiny things that catch my eye ... it could be anything, a colour, a shape, a movement. It's very visceral and often shot wide, from the hip. Often the decision about what to leave in the frame and what to leave out isn't made at the time but later, during the crop.

It's about going out of your way not to capture the front page of a holiday brochure but to find something a bit more real. The nitty gritty of a place can be easily overlooked when you're searching for the grand vista. I look for visual juxtapositions, absurdity, things that make me smile. I look for stories, whether in the single image or as part of a series ( the 'Plastic Chairs of South East Asia' is a good example of telling a story through a series of images) ... but above all, its about staying curious ... visually curious ...


I try to take the mundane and give it room to breathe ... easier said than done when you're shooting in chaotic environments ...


Contemporary Travel Photography can be at odds with the 'brief' given for more traditional travel photography where the subjects have to be firmly rooted in their environment. You have to bestow a sense of place but by doing that you are making the images rather obvious. You don't really need to look that hard to work out what is going on and therefore you don't really need to think too much either. And if a photograph doesn't make you look or think then perhaps its really not all that engaging ... just eye candy, enough to engage you for a second as you scroll your Instagram feed then easily forgotten.

Take, for example, the two of the contemporary images directly above this passage. There's actually a lot going on despite all that visual space. The ancient city walls of Meknes are crumbling from the bottom up because that modern pavement and road are trapping moisture against its base. The ancient and the modern struggling to co-exist is certainly a metaphor ... and in the middle of that complicated relationship is the spectre of French Colonialism (they left behind a nice lampost).

Next to it is a scene from Ho Chi Minh City. So named after the re-unification of Vietnam but the old name 'Saigon' still hangs on and the very centre of the city is still referred to by it's old name amongst the locals. And this was taken right in the centre at a street food market so where better to see the name Saigon on a beer bottle top next to the food dropped by a tourist. A Saigon local would have eaten that, head and all ...

The pictures directly below this passage seem to be more in the traditional vein, the clutter that I like is 'wall to wall', perhaps they seem a little more obvious so perhaps you don't feel the need to look quite so hard ... but I took them ... so look again ... cliclk on them and they'll go large ...

At first glance thats just a barbers shop ... but ... its got a tree in it and a moped. Thats because I'm stood in the road taking a picture of the pavement. The mirrors are hung on the wall and the electric comes from an extension lead hanging out of a window.

And it's not just about the kid looking up at Dad on his mobile phone, it's the weird looking face in the front of the scooter that makes it look like its a hybrid with a Cyberman.

And it's not just that someone had the cheek to make 'Mickey Mouse' ice cream ... it's David Bowie in the backgraound saying 'sshhh', don't tell Disney ...



At times I like to show context ... I don't mind that you make it obvious you were speeding past on a bus ... it adds that fleeting voyeuristic feel to an image which is closer to the truth. We are nearly always just passing through ...


Then there's telling a story ... often difficult to do in a single image but not impossible. This is a story I've seen so many times ... the tourist trapped in a carpet shop. Made to take their shoes off so they can't facilitate a quick escape, always worth noting, with a smile, how many of the people that work in the shop still have theirs on.

I love the interplay between words and photography, Do we need words? Well, that's a discussion for another essay ...


I recently went back to Morocco, it had been thirty years since I'd been there and the amount of changes really brought home to me the importance of photographing the mundane. Back then, a large proportion of the populous wore traditional clothing ... these days,  unless you encounter rural poverty, most people in traditional garb will be guides for the tourists.

The ubiquitous Peugeot 504 pick up trucks are gone, the Mercedes Grand Taxis are just hanging on by a thread. The men don't walk around holding hands anymore, the bread sellers and the fountain are gone from the Place Jemaa el Fna ... and that stalwart of the Arab world, the little black plastic bag had gone. Everywhere from Morocco to Jordan, everything always came in a little black plastic bag ... and now plastic bags are gone ... banned ... and I don't have any photos of people coming out of little shops clutching them, and I don't have pictures of the fountain or the bread sellers, or the Taxis or the pick-ups because, back then, I was just chasing the grand vista along with everyone else.

It was a missed opportunity ...

I took this shot on that last trip. It's just ordinary life ... the man is clutching one of the new replacement bags. They come in every colour these days but this black one is obviously a nod to the traditional ... will any of this scene stand the test of time? I don't know, but if it doesn't ... if it all disappears ... then I've got it in the bag ...

The other thing is, I'm pretty prolific with my picture taking when I'm abroad, I often shoot from the hip without even looking through the lens ... the hit rate isn't high there are times when I miss, there are times when I think something is going to happen and I am shooting in anticipation but nothing transpires. There are occasions when I don't have time to adjust the camera settings and the image just isn't recoverable ... but ... when people ask me why I take so many pictures ... it's because sometimes ... just sometimes ... you can catch a chicken waiting at a zebra crossing!


See more of my Contemporary Travel Photography on my Instagram account ...