Travel Portraiture: Toward a Deeper Understanding of Place


Travel portraiture can be one of the most difficult forms of photography, but it is also one of the most rewarding. As photographers, we begin daydreaming of the perfect image even before we pack our bags. Imagining a craggy face set against the soaring cliffs of Amalfi, or a robed woman gliding through the brilliant, winding streets of the Chefchaouen medina, we can easily see ourselves there, capturing the essence of the place. Upon arrival, though, the location is often overwhelming, the travel exhausting, and the language barriers daunting. We end up coming home with “tourist” photos that look just like everyone else’s and don’t reflect our unique experience or get to the heart of the people who live there.

Some photographers will talk about equipment until they’re blue in the face. I believe that you need the proper camera equipment to execute your vision, but I also believe that developing an understanding and passion for the people and places that you’re photographing is just as important. My personal practice as a photographer is driven by the overwhelming desire to understand and document the lives of others. The honor of being allowed a glimpse into the lives of others shouldn’t be taken lightly and it is our responsibility as photographers to make powerful and thought-provoking images of all that we see. How to ensure that we’re doing that?


Before I even buy a plane ticket or start packing, I research. I ask myself about my own motivations. What interests me most about a place I hope to visit?  The answer to that question serves as a springboard for me, into the location. Once I’ve figured out the why, I delve deeper. I start by reading the guidebooks and travel blogs; I look at maps, and at other people’s photographs. Then, using the increasingly available tools (like Google translate for websites) I read articles about the culture and food and neighborhoods that have been written by people who actually live there. Researching the culture, no matter how close it may seem to your own, will give you another layer of understanding, and the best travel photographs are made by those who truly understand a place.

To save myself from too much embarrassment, and to avoid offending anyone, I always make a conscious effort to learn at least a little bit of the official language of wherever I’ll be photographing. I’m admittedly not great with learning new languages but, at the very least, I will commit to memory common phrases like “thank you,” “please," “hello,” and importantly, “I’m sorry I don’t speak (insert language) very well.” Over the years I’ve found that although more and more people speak English around the world, approaching them by speaking or at least attempting to speak their language shows respect and humility. Even if you butcher what you’re saying, you’ll have something to laugh about, and laughing at yourself is always a great ice-breaker.

Being There

After researching the location and practicing my phrases, I’m ready to hit the ground running. This is where the fun starts. Unique, thought-provoking images are much harder to achieve in heavily touristed areas. Often, people living and working in these areas are frustrated by the constant bombardment of photographers taking their picture. Moving off of the beaten path into neighborhoods and lesser-known areas will provide a much deeper and genuine understanding of the area. I almost always carry my camera with me but often times, upon arriving at a new location, I’ll refrain from shooting during my first outing.

The goal of this first outing is to meet locals, have conversations, and get a feel for the lay of the land. I typically reserve this time for the middle of the day when I’d rather not be shooting in that high sunlight, anyway. This is where a genuine interest in what people do and how they live comes into play. Sitting in a coffee shop or a public place for extended periods of time, just chatting, is one of the best tools you have. In the end, the worst-case scenario: you’ve gained more knowledge of the area; best-case scenario: you’ve met someone who you can photograph, or who is willing to show off their hometown through their own eyes. Everyone has a story to tell and simply listening to people’s stories will forge a trust and bond between you and your subjects.

Making portraits of strangers can be nerve-wracking, but it’s a critical part of telling the story of a place. When I’m ready to make a portrait, I prefer to make the transition from observer to recorder as natural as possible. When everyone is feeling comfortable I tell the subject that I’m hoping to make their portrait. If they agree, typically I’ll return the conversation to whatever topic we’ve been discussing, allowing the chat to progress as I work. If I’m looking for a more natural image I’ll ask the subject to go about their business and try to forget about me. At first this might seem awkward but, eventually, everyone will settle into what they are doing and forget about the camera. It’s an exciting time when your subject has forgotten about you and you can work the scene freely. Remember to move around and attempt different angles and styles and try not to leave until you’ve gotten the shot you want—despite all good intentions, you may never have the moment back.

An important part of good travel portraiture is to follow your instincts. Often, going off schedule (both in time and location) will lead to amazing situations and images. Some of my absolute favorite images that I’ve ever made have come from following the advice of a local rather than doing something I had initially planned, or from following up on an invitation to do something that might seem mundane. Trust, open-heartedness, and a solid understanding of the bigger picture of a culture or place will lead you to the best travel photographs you’ve ever made, and you’ll have better stories too!

Here are a few favorite travel portraits I’ve made, along with the stories behind them.

Get People to Feel Comfortable

While exploring a village square during a festival in Honduras, I spotted this plantain vendor in front of a church. What originally caught my eye was the color contrast between the bright fruit and her blouse. Business looked slow, so I went up to her and discussed what it was like being a vendor. At the time I was working on a project called “The Geography of Youth,” where I was traveling around the world documenting the lives of the Millennial Generation. She shared a little bit about her job and how far she travels every day to sell her product, I asked if she’d like to take part in my project. She agreed. Not wanting to disrupt her work, I stepped aside to let some customers buy from her, and as soon as they walked away and the background cleared I made this photograph. I had asked her to go about her business, ignoring me and the camera and, by waiting for the customers to buy and then leave, I allowed her to relax. She went back to the same quiet, somewhat bored stance she had before I originally spoke to her. She stared at my lens for a second and I was able to capture the expression.


Following a Hunch

 Heading south from Lima, Peru in 2011, I had heard tales of a small town with healing waters. One legend said that aliens had created these springs and filled them with the healing waters. When I arrived at the small, sleepy town, I could smell the sulfur in the air and soon saw the brilliant green of the springs dominating the center of the town. I spoke with some locals who swore that the waters healed them of sicknesses, helped with fertility, and kept them young. The place was quiet, but there were a couple of tourists there, and the locals assured me that many tourists visited. The colors against the desert background were too good to resist, and so instead of swimming myself, I waited and photographed my fellow travelers when they finally entered the pools.  


Patience Pays Off

While traveling through Louisiana, I became interested in crawfishing. At the time, it was peak fishing season in the flooded rice fields that are used to grow and harvest crawfish for markets around the country. Often, the fisherman would be deep in the flooded fields, so communicating with them was difficult. After spending two days in crawfish country, waiting for an opportunity, I finally spotted a fisherman close to the road. I waved him down and we started discussing how the process works. Within minutes, he had invited me and fellow photographer Morrigan McCarthy into his boat to experience this process firsthand. We ended up spending a couple of hours riding in his boat, fishing, and talking before we moved on.




I was awarded the Everglades National Park Residency to document birders in southern Florida. During the research phase of the project, one ornithologist in particular, Sonny Bass, kept popping up. I decided to contact him to see if it would be possible to tag along as he worked with an amazing bird species that he had spent the majority of his career studying. After many back-and-forth e-mails, he allowed me to accompany him and his team to Dry Tortugas National Park, an island 70 miles off the coast of Florida, to observe his research on this species, the sooty tern. I took a lot of photographs and portraits that day but this one is particularly interesting to me because it demonstrates what the birders wear to protect themselves from the elements and, despite the covered face, I think the viewer can feel the respect, admiration, and love that Sonny has for this species. He and the bird were completely relaxed and in their element.


Alan Winslow is a photographer and educator based in Brooklyn, New York. Winslow has spent the past six years alternating between freelance work and long-term, grant-funded projects with Restless Collective, a small multimedia collective whose goal is to produce large-scale public art photography projects. His work has taken him halfway around the world by bicycle, and all the way around the United States, twice.



Awesome article. I was moved by the authors love and respect for people and their cultures.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and work Alan.