The Life and Photography of Travel Journalist Graeme Green
12 April 2019
‘Writing and photography are both about keeping your eyes, ears and mind open. You can’t really say or show something about people or a place before you understand something about it or feel you have something to say,’ says Graeme Green, who combines photography and writing to tell vivid stories about places, people and wildlife around the world.
Working on assignment for publications including The Sunday Times, The Guardian and National Geographic Traveller, Graeme has mastered the nomadic lifestyle, journeying to often wild and fascinating locations in countries as varied as Nepal, Antarctica, Japan and Venezuela.
Currently working in Bali with assignments across South East Asia, Graeme, who is originally from Northampton, has a working life that many may envy. But forging a career as a travel photographer and journalist has its challenges, requiring dogged determination and a willingness to weather hardship: ‘You’re often working in remote places, without creature comforts, without fancy hotels. I’ve stayed in bamboo huts, in mud houses, and slept on the ground outside.
‘There are often hours of driving on rocky, jarring roads through the middle of nowhere. I’ve trudged across deserts, waded through mud…It’s all worth it when you get a photo you’re proud of, but there are times when it’s hard-going,’ says Graeme.
Over the course of 15 years travelling with his camera, the rise of social media has opened many doors to travel photographers, but it has also made it increasingly difficult to engage with audiences: ‘On social media we’ve all got short attention spans, it’s difficult to get someone to stop scrolling.
‘Bright, bold photos tend to get people’s attention and Likes, so a lot of photographers over process their photos. I’m not against editing or being creative. I just don’t like photos that are lurid and obviously artificial,’ Graeme explains.
Regardless, Graeme has honed a sensitive technique that has been described by iconic photographer Steve McCurry as giving ‘vibrant testimony of the world we live in.’
We caught up with Graeme to find out more about his career and life on the road.
What came first for you: the journalism or the photography?
I was a journalist before I was a photographer. I started out primarily writing, covering music, culture, politics, stories from around the world. I was always interested in people. The job took me to interesting places and situations. I started taking photos purely because I enjoyed it, but it gradually became an equally important part of my job.
How have your skills in one influenced the other?
Photographers aren’t just looking for things that are visually interesting. You need to engage with a subject, just as a writer does. The thinking process that goes into being able to write about a subject means you might photograph something that wouldn’t have been on your radar if you were solely looking around at what was visually stimulating. You have to discuss and understand ideas, learn about people, dig out stories, find interesting details. All that will help for far more interesting, layered and thoughtful photos than if you just photograph anything that looks good.
Going the other way, when you’re photographing something, you’re often looking very closely at details, trying to capture an atmosphere or feeling, and that can all feed back into the writing.
How did you break into the industry?
As with any job you’re serious about, it’s down to making opportunities happen and then making the best of those opportunities.
I was working as a journalist already, after a few years working as a nightclub bouncer. I talked to a travel editor at a newspaper about an idea for a travel piece covering the Up Helly Aa festival up in the Shetland islands in the north of Scotland, and got my first assignment. I worked hard at it, making sure the photos and article were the best I could do, and got repeat assignments after that with that newspaper. I’ve done that at every place I’ve worked, making sure that if an editor gives me an opportunity, I hand in work that’s my best – and I’ve always been asked to do more.
You shoot a variety of subjects. Is there any one that you like the best?
I tend to get really excited by the assignment or the place right in front of me. I recently spent a few weeks photographing wildlife in Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, one of the best wildlife locations I’ve ever been to.
But shortly before that, I was wandering the backstreets of Havana, Cuba, photographing street life, intimate moments, conversations, trying to get a feel for the pulse of the city, and that was just as exciting to me. One of the great things about being a travel photographer is you get to do it all.
What are you trying to capture in your images?
A sense of ‘life’. I want my pictures to be full of life, whether that’s communicating something about the lives of remote tribes far up in the Peruvian Amazon, the behaviour of some of the most remarkable wild animals on the planet, or just something I find exceptional about a city or a country.
A lot of current photography is heavily processed and over-edited so that it looks hyper-real. From 15 years of travelling with my camera, I’ve seen so many extraordinary sights. You want to do the world justice. You really don’t need to fake it with your pictures.
What makes a great image stand out?
It has to be original. With so many photos shared on websites and in magazines and books each day, there needs to be something unique to capture someone’s attention. It should also get a strong response from the person who sees it, whether a thought or an emotion. And a good photo needs intent.
You need to think about what you’re doing, what you’re trying to say, what meaning or story you might want your photo to contain, and what personal take on the world you’re trying to show or communicate. Especially with everyone carrying camera phones, a lot of pictures are just quickly dashed off without any thought or care. A photo with some thought and motivation behind it stands out far more than hurriedly taken snaps.
What project are you most proud of?
A few years ago in El Salvador I met and photographed a man who’d been a child soldier during the Civil War a couple of decades ago. He thanked me afterwards. He told me no one had ever asked him questions about his life or experiences before.
Those kinds of moments you have with people and the times when you feel you’re telling the stories of people who are otherwise forgotten by the world are the most satisfying to me. I’ve covered human trafficking, violence, land rights and threats to indigenous people and wildlife populations, many times these are articles about ignored people and places that don’t get the attention they deserve or need.
What qualities do you think are important to make it in travel photography?
Apart from being an outstanding photographer, you need to be adaptable and pretty tough. The life of a travel photographer often means getting up crazily early in the morning and working long days. If something interesting is happening or you’re in a remarkable place, you don’t stop. You want to keep taking the opportunities that are there.
You need to work hard and be organised. There’s a lot of time spent on email, talking to contacts about stories and speaking with editors about assignments.
How has travel photography enabled you to connect with countries, cultures and people?
Travel photography has been a way for me to explore places that I would never have been able to go. It’s opened up the world to me. It’s not just the places and people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen, but the way I’ve experienced them.
I’m pretty shy generally and I wouldn’t normally go and introduce myself to random strangers. I think if I just travelled as a tourist, I’d only see the surface of the country. But having a camera and wanting to really engage with a place means talking, asking questions, listening, and sharing time with people whose lives are very different from my own. You’re learning all the time.
Graeme Green is a UK journalist and photographer for publications including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Telegraph, Wanderlust and more. For more on his work, see http://www.graeme-green.com/