Photograph Where You Live

My wife wants to visit Croatia. She likes to travel and see new places. I too like to experience new things, but I am just as happy to stay and explore near home.

To be fair, my wife is European and I know, living in Canada, she misses the cultural vibrance and diversity across the pond.

My wife has mentioned Croatia several times. The sea, the food, the wine, the people — it all seems very romantic.

Recently when she mentioned going to Croatia for a holiday my response was this: “Croatia is just a place.” No better or worse than any other place, just maybe different. Calgary, Alberta, where we live, is also a place.

My wife scowled.

“I’m sure, in Croatia,” I continued, “there is someone dreaming of one day visiting our Canadian Rockies.”

Photographing The Fog
Photographing The Fog

To me, photography (and art in general) is about exploring ideas and presenting a vision of the world. An artist who creates art in rural Saskatchewan, let us say, is no less an artist than the one who makes it big by moving to New York City. One may have a bigger audience than the other and the potential to make more money, but that is not a direct reflection on the art.

I take photographs when I travel. Every photographer does. It’s nice to see new things and get a new perspective. Travel can be inspiring. However, I do the majority of my photographic work, the stuff that really pushes my boundaries (figuratively speaking), in my own backyard (figuratively speaking). The difference is this: I will never truly know my subject in a foreign place, but at home I know it very well.

Umbrellas, Ulica Florianska, Krakow, Poland
Umbrellas, Ulica Florianska, Krakow, Poland

Many photographers feel they have to travel to take photographs. They don’t photograph where they live, or if they do they think those photographs are somehow inferior (because they think their home is inferior?) A photographer from Ohio might think that their local cities are not as vibrant as Paris, France, or that their landscape is not as spectacular as Patagonia. (For the record, I have never been to Ohio, Paris, or Patagonia.)

I’d rather see someone’s unique take on a locale they know and love than to see them try to recreate some preconceived image of a famous foreign place. (I’ve recently been fascinated by photographic Tumblr blogs featuring images taken in Siberian Soviet-era cities.)

When shooting locally, I avoid shooting the typical scenes that have been recorded thousands of times before. I’ve never photographed Mount Rundle from Vermillion Lakes, and Moraine Lake was on our $20 bill for many years so I don’t think I could improve upon that. Instead, I try to see unique things around me and capture those. I’d rather photograph the hordes of tourists in Johnston Canyon than try to photograph the canyon falls.

In western Canada one thing that we have a lot of and are proud of is geology. From sculpted prairies to the rolling foothills and the towering Rockies, locals and visitors alike are very aware of the local geology. In school we learn about glaciers, rivers, and continental drift—all things that have shaped our land.

Whenever we are in Poland (my wife’s homeland) I inevitably ask my wife some question about the geological history of some place. Sadly (for her and I) she says that she never really learned much about the geology of Poland in school. Anything that was taught about the history of the land was always in the context of the people who lived there or the people that invaded. In Europe, in general, history means the history of people. In southern-western Alberta where we live, the natural history of the place is as important as more recent events concerning local people and invaders.

Polish Cows
Polish Cows

In 2013 my wife and I spent a few days kayaking on the Biebrza and Narew rivers in northeastern Poland. Our guide was Marek, a local kayak outfitter and old friend of my wife’s. Marek is also a photographer and has spent a lifetime documenting the many facets, moods, and seasons of the natural areas and wildlife of the land around his home. His depth of knowledge about the local ecosystem and history is perhaps unrivalled. This knowledge informs his photography of this unique and beautiful place.

But, if you asked the average photographer about the locations on their bucket-list, it is unlikely that the wilderness of northeastern Poland would be on that list. (By the way, I don’t have a bucket-list, but I would love to go back to photograph that area again.)

Bowness Park Poplars In Snow 1
Bowness Park Poplars In Snow

Globally, masses of photographers create masses of photographs everyday. Many of these photos are of famous locations (e.g., the Grand Canyon) or tourist attractions (e.g., Eiffel Tower). The likelihood that you or I can go to one of these places and create an image unlike any other is improbable.

That is why I advocate that photographers focus their efforts on photographing closer to home. Each of us has a unique vision and an intimate understanding of the place where we live.

A National Geographic article from the late 1990s or early 2000s really solidified this idea for me (I can’t recall the date of the issue or the name of the photographer in question at the moment). While National Geographic photographers are renowned for their professional ability to travel the globe and bring home stories about distant and complex places, this one photo essay, by a photographer shooting landscapes near his home somewhere in the mid-western USA, showed a level of intimacy I had never seen before in the magazine. The images were also not like anything I had ever seen from any other location. I believe the photographer’s understanding of his home landscape infused the photographs with light and life.

Silverview 2017-01-07 08:54 Wide
Silverview 2017-01-07 08:54

I have an ongoing project photographing very literally the landscape where I live. As a stay at home dad, and unable to get away from the house regularly, I started photographing the view out my front window. While the subject seems mundane (a suburban street and green-space), the project has helped me better understand the light and moods of where I live. The more I shoot the more skills I have for reading the light, skills I can take with me when I shoot farther afield — by the local river, in the mountains, or on the other side of the globe.