“Think new. Make photos we haven’t seen before. Of things we haven’t seen before in this way. Maybe walk on all fours in a forest, that might be a place to start.” …Reidar Finsrud, Norwegian artist, sculptor, and inventor.
While many travel photographers may disagree and feel like you have to firmly plant yourself in front of something extraordinarily beautiful for you to capture it and try to relate its beauty to those who don’t have the same access, I operate differently.
I put myself in what may be seen as mundane situations and strive to capture beauty in their simplicity. That’s why I focus more on everyday lifestyles, the people behind them, and their environmental portraits.
While those types of photos are not the ones social media consumes in a frenzy of “likes” and “shares“, those are the photos I want to make. The important stories I want to tell.
Oftentimes the photos viewers emotionally connect to aren’t always the very same one the photographer themself reacts to. That’s why the phrase “kill your darlings” is extremely crucial in the photography world when editing and curating images.
And that’s why I’ve put this post together. To share my own personal favourites.
I traveled quite a bit in 2015 across four continents – from Africa to Asia, North America to Europe and several countries in between. And 2016 is already looking to bring a ton more. So I quickly browsed through my current 2015 collection and it wasn’t hard for me to pick some personal favourites because they centered around specific moments.
Here are some of my favourite photos of 2015 and a few anecdotes about them
Earlier in the year, I took on a last minute cover story assignment to Odense, Denmark, to cover this fairytale-infused town for Malaysian Airlines. I was writing about Denmark’s famous literary son, Hans Christian Andersen who was born and raised in Odense and whose past is etched all over the town’s cityscape and soul, really.
This photo was taken at The Tinderbox, a cultural center for children dedicated to his fairytales, and for that split moment when the model/actor came prancing onto the empty oversized stage dressed as a rat, I was instantly transported and soaked it all up like a child.
Plus its shadow looks like a frog too which I found pretty cool.
View more photos from Odense, Denmark, in my image bank.
While in Germany as part of the #JoinGermanTradition campaign, I headed out to the waterfront community of Blankenese; barely twenty minutes from Hamburg’s city center on the S1 bahn towards Wedel. It was while strolling its narrow alleyways that I looked up to the most beautiful magnolias and blossoms I’ve seen.
As you can see, the flowers are just beginning to open up, ready to take on spring and welcome its warmth. Spring is my absolute favourite season. You can check out my full photo essay on Blankenese.
This picture of a late night reveler biting into a fischbrotchen (fish sandwich) in the early hours of the morning at Hamburg’s historic Fischmarkt (fish market) in Germany remains one of my favourites from this year’s collection. It’s a very simple image but you feel transported right into the scene because of the instant eye connection with this stranger.
After a late night of partying, they tumble down from the hedonistic St. Pauli district to the harbourfront in search of fast food and other edible grub.
Also from the early morning Hamburg Fish Market, Aale-Dieter or “Eels” Dieter Bruhn has been in the business for over 50 years. I call him the “Godfather of Fish”. As you round a turn in the market, you catch him from the corner of your eye. Right there. All knowing. All seeing. Red suspenders, white turtleneck, navy blue-and-white striped shirt with sleeked back hair.
You can view my full report plus tons of photos from the Hamburg Fish Market here.
Upon meeting Valentina at the Gelato University in Bologna, Italy, the passion she exuded around the subject of gelato was instantly contagious. From the tiny details on her person like gelato-shaped earrings, necklace, and smartphone cover to a candy pink blouse and an infectious smile that said “I have the best job in the world!”.
Valentina, in person, exemplified what it really was to be passionate about what you do till it courses through your veins and daily life. You can learn more about the Gelato University and my search for the best gelato in Bologna.
I spent some time in a tiny Italian fishing community called Cesenatico and while I took several photos I’m satisfied with, this simple imagery is my favourite. Mostly because of the feeling I get whenever I look at it with seagulls flapping in the background and the fisherman in action loading crates while warding off the seagulls.
Cesenatico’s fishermen had just brought in the morning catch. Thousands of varying fish and shellfish. Beneath tarps shielding them from the scorching summer sun, they sorted and cleaned crates upon crates of seafood.
Learn more about Cesenatico in my full photo essay.
Also from Cesenatico, I met fishmonger Jessica (right) at the 2pm auction where she was buying fresh fish to stock her pescheria before she re-opened at 4pm that afternoon. So it was great to swing by later when she are selling the very same fish to her customers in a full circle moment.
Particularly this shot of one of her regular customers closely inspecting the seafood and Jessica’s disposition which says she’s used to that particular customer doing this every time she comes in.
Being inside the 4 Madonie Caseifico dell’Emilia warehouse amidst thousands of wheels of Parmesan Cheese was an out of body experience. Beyond the overbearing scale of witnessing so many wheels of cheese, what I really like about this photo was that the lady in the shot (her name escapes me right now, but I want to say Francesca?) actually works at the factory and was giving me a guided tour of the facility.
I took several photos of the storage without people in it but I felt something was missing. Not only adding a person for scale but rather, having the person in a reverent position, almost paying homage to true Italian Parmesan.
You can learn more about Modena’s local food producers including Balsamic Vinegar and Parma Ham in this photo essay. I also have a multi-page photo spread on Emilia Romagna in the January/February 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller.
Whenever I see this photo of Rosella and Maurizio, the word “LOVE” always pops up and I smile. The joy that emanates from their home is evident in this shot and I feel honored to have captured it while visiting them in the fairly remote hills of Montetiffi, Italy.
Rosella and Maurizio Camilletti-Reali are the only artisans keeping the tradition of terracotta piadina clay pans called “Teglie” alive within this region. Piadina is an Italian flat bread made with wheat flour, lard or olive oil, salt, water, and a pinch of bicarbonate or yeast. Beyond living off their craft of making terracotta pans for sale, Maurizio and Rosella also live off the land in a sustainable and rustic way.
Which meant at their invitation to join them for dinner, Maurizio went out to pick black cherries and fresh strawberries as well as green leafy vegetables for a salad from his farm. They get cheese and dried meats from neighbors several kilometers down the road who run their own small rustic farms as well.
I love this portrait of Maurizio taken in front of his kiln (furnace). Besides the rugged and rustic quality to it, I really like the light and composition and the way natural light bounces off his honey colored eyes.
Within minutes, Maurizio shapes a perfectly smooth flat clay pan and dries it under the shade in the evening sun. The semi-dry clay pans are then transferred into a storage room where they sit to set for 7-8 weeks with regular rotations before baking them in a wood-burning kiln at 600-700 degrees. Learn more about his work in this photo essay.
I love how people, especially those who produce and make food, interact with it. There’s a lot you can tell and read from those types of photographs through very simple interactions. The love with which a fishmonger holds a prized fish even while having to gut it out. The tenderness with which a cheesemaker holds and strokes a slab of well aged cheese.
That’s why this shot taken inside MUSA – The Charcuterie Museum – is a favourite of mine. Beyond the tricky light situation which I enjoyed while composing this shot, I love the gentleness with which she touches a large chunk of ham that is being aged with tender care. The place plays homage to cured meats in all their glory. It is run by the oldest family-run Italian charcuterie company Villani (1886).
This photo above wraps up tourism in a single visual statement. The 5th-7th century UNESCO protected mosaics of Ravenna in the background and the busy ticket counter in the foreground plastered with fee notices, social media handles, and other tourist information.
Ravenna, Italy, is full of character with its cobblestones and colorful architecture around every corner, But what makes it utterly fascinating is just how old its relics are and how many UNESCO-protected World Heritage sites are within walking distance within its compact city center. An impressive eight(8) monuments and cathedrals adorned with intricate mosaics dating back to the 5th-7th centuries of the Western Roman and Byzantine Empires.
I put together an extensive photo essay covering UNESCO world heritage site Ravenna worth checking out.
Also shot in Ravenna, this photo from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia looks like the tourist is “stepping into the light” as it were. Crossing over, the curtains drawn, the light patterns making a white arrow on the ground guiding her towards the light of the afterlife.
I will never forget this Catholic priest I ran into in Modena. He was about to get on his motorcyle when I was drawn to him and asked him if I could take his photo. We didn’t speak a common language but somehow communicated.
He then held my hand, reached for his old worn out rosary beads and placed them in the palm of my hand. A gift. A blessing. I couldn’t find the right words to thank him besides placing it towards my chest and saying “grazie mille” over and over again.
Autumn is arguably the most photogenic season to photograph and this shot taken in Stockholm is a representation of society today. We’re all often head down engrossed in the digital world through our smartphones, oftentimes oblivious to the physical beauty surrounding us.
I thought the image was striking because of the fiery colors and the fact that she’s also right in the middle of the frame which breaks a cardinal rule of photography composition.
I went on a wonderful culinary tour of West Sweden this autumn and came back with a wealth of photos I’m thoroughly satisfied with. In this shot taken in the waters off the coast of Smögen, professional fisherman Martin Olofsson casually tosses fishing traps for crawfish and langoustines into the ocean with flicks of his fingers, making the job look easier than it really is.
Also from West Sweden onboard a fishing boat, it had been awhile since I’ve felt the cool chill of ocean spray splash across my face in this fashion, drenching me with saltwater. Arms raised and splayed out sideways, facing the wind, Smögen, a part of West Sweden’s Bohuslän coastline and archipelago, in the distance. Plus it feels like you’re actually riding along with us and feeling those ocean sprays yourself.
I had some of the best freshly cooked mussels of my life at the iconic Musselbaren restaurant in Ljungskile, West Sweden. While the quinessential overhead food shot has been done to death (browse Instagram) and I advocate more environmental portraits of food, I really like this one.
I’ve photographed a lot of professional kitchens and chefs at work but this photo has stuck with me. Various sous chefs in the open kitchen at fine dining restaurant Restaurang Atelier located inside the posh boutique Hotel Pigalle in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Beyond the overall ambiance it emanates, you get the sense that you’ve stepped into a very private world where the artist is head down working feverishly at an oil painting and then you tap his shoulder, interuppting his flow. Definitely one of my favourites from 2015.
While in Bangkok presenting at TBEX, there was a special speakers reception with live performances from various traditional Thai folk dancers. Why I really love this shot is because of the vibrant colors and the tricky light situation. The dancer seems to be having a ton of fun from her disposition and smile, and there’s a warmth about the whole scene.
A ferry passenger on another boat and I connect as our boats sail past each other in Bangkok, Thailand. I stayed on the boat and soaked up the gentle afternoon breeze as the ferry cut through thick beds of water lilies, zigzagging across Chao Phraya to drop off passengers here and there. A much needed respite from the maddening yet organized chaos that rules Bangkok’s streets.
You can view the full photo essay cruising down the Chao Phraya River.
I recently shared 25 Everyday Photos from Bangkok, Thailand. Photos of the lowkey, everyday hum and hustle of Bangkok beneath the regal and concerted celebration of Thai culture and the well-trodden tourist trail. Everyday people going about their business and simple moments of living. Even stolen moments with those introducing us to Thai culture on its surface.
This photo above is my absolute favourite. These women let me, a complete stranger, get as close as possible into the midst of their private conversation without flinching in irritation or annoyance.
I took a lot of portraits this year, many of which I love but these two of Akbar (left) and Ahmed (right) from Afghanistan may very well be my favourites of 2015. They are part of my personal portrait project, Solbacka, which is a special edition of my ongoing Intimacy Project portraits.
I spent some time at Solbacka Integrationscenter in Sweden – a safe haven for newly arrived refugees to escape from their past, learn Swedish, and integrate into their new home as they await their immigration status from Migrationsverket.
And I will be spending more time with them over the coming months so definitely watch this space in 2016.
This is one of those candid moments I really enjoyed. I was out and about exploring Stockholm with my good friend Germaine Thomas who feels like an older sister to me. We were probably sharing some random laughs and this photo exudes her inner beauty, light, and joy. I can almost hear her laugh through the shot.
In a colorful photo essay titled Öland – Why Swedes don’t leave Sweden during summer, I shared several photos from our family time there with dear friends. But this shot above of my daughter and her best friend is one of those memorable ones where they’ll look back on decades from now. I really hope they remain best friends even into adulthood because they’re currently making some wonderful childhood memories together.
And I still haven’t even finished editing all the photos from Nigeria, Spain, Italy, San Marino, and more!
Yes, I’ve photographed glorious landscapes,shimmering northern lights, sweeping outdoor scenes, and even recently won a major award for one such image. Yes, I regularly travel to and explore many countries (I’ve consciously stopped counting) and still revel in exploring my own backyard.
But for me, that’s not the point.
Besides making sure you’re not disrespectful to the people, their culture, and their lands, there is no right or wrong way to be a travel photographer as some might have you to believe.
And it’s a wonderful gift to be able to find your visual voice as a photographer and stick with it through all the social media chatter looking for quick consumption. That’s why artist Reidar Finsrud’s quote above resonated with me. As we all go into 2016 looking for new ways to keep elevating and doing important work, this is something I’ll always have on the back of my mind.
Think new… Make photos we haven’t seen before. Especially making new photos from our mundane everyday lives.
A creative challenge I always welcome every year… And if you’re a photographer who needs to be standing in front of extraordinary beauty to make photos, challenge yourself as well in 2016.