One of the coolest aspects of doing this new “Getting Lost” series is that I get to shoot my own photos. Now, I can produce a decent image or two now and then, but I’m not the greatest travel photographer in the world, so frankly it’s a real privilege to be able to do this. I’m always kind of floored whenever my photo editor accepts what I’ve shot and it runs on the cover of the friggin’ Travel section. Amazing.
Shooting a cover story, though, is not exactly the same as writing one. When you’re out reporting a story, you have a ton of random, often unconnected experiences, some of which you take notes on, others of which you forget until, when you finally sit down to put the article together, they suddenly become important events. All of which is to say that, as my friend Tom Bissell has written, travel writing is so artificial, so intricately constructed from anti-chronological fragments, that it resembles fiction writing more than any other nonfiction genre.
But travel photography doesn’t work that way—not exactly. While an unexpected or almost-forgotten experience can be re-created in writing, in photography if you didn’t shoot it at the time, you missed out. You can’t just go back and catch that same moment again (especially if you don’t have the time or budget). Someone whose job is solely to shoot can have his camera out and running constantly, but if, like me, you’re also trying to have those write-aboutable experiences at the same time, that strategy won’t work. The camera gets in the way of the actual experience.
Those are all just technical issues to be overcome. When you’ve got to both write and shoot, you find a way.
What is trickier, however, is figuring out what to shoot. With a conceptual series like “Getting Lost,” the challenge is always to find one great image—the kind of image that belongs on a section front—that communicates lostness. And that is not an easy thing to do.
For the Tangier story, I’d imagined going into the medina at twilight and finding someone standing stock still amid a whirl of moving people in robes. With a slow shutter speed, I could get a great iconic picture that would convey the feeling of being lost in the medina.
The problem was, that never happened. The crowds just didn’t move that way, and people just didn’t stop that way, especially not in the settings that would otherwise communicate the message “You are in a big medina!” Instead, the Tangier medina was often a lonelier place, quiet in parts, with single people often strolling through forgotten corners. I took a lot of such shots, and that’s what my editors eventually chose.
But there was another one I loved that they didn’t use. Or rather, they used another version of it on the spread. It’s the one you see above, of the rooftops of the medina, with a girl sitting in the corner. I love the image, but I also understand why it didn’t work for the cover—it’s the wrong shape. Here you’re seeing it in full (though small), but the cover is an actual, tangible thing: a piece of paper that will be folded in half. And when you fold this image in half, you lose the already small girl entirely. All that’s left are rooftops—the photo’s meaning itself is lost.