Travel Photography: The Fuzzy Area Between Iconic and Cliché

So their eyes are growing hazy ‘cos they wanna turn it on, so their minds are soft and lazy.  Well, hey, give ’em what they want.

Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs) in “Candy Everybody Wants”

Have you ever come across a photo in a magazine or on another website and thought: “Hey, that’s my photo!“?

We were poking around BBC Travel the other day and came across an article about a tango festival in Argentina.  

I looked at the lead photo and thought, “Hey, that’s our photo!!”

Tango on the Streets of San Telmo - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tango on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Ha! That’s everyone’s photo.

While our photo is not exactly the same (that’s not the point), it does look awfully familiar. And this got me thinking.

Here’s the deal with this image. Almost every writer and traveler has a camera these days.  A good chunk who visit Buenos Aires go to the San Telmo Sunday market, and when they do, they find this couple dancing tango in the streets. It all looks vaguely spontaneous, the scene quintessentially Argentine — both of which are debatable.

So many of us take the same photo, right down to the theatrical expression on the male tango dancer’s face.  We check the LCD screen after the shutter release and the result delivers a sense of satisfaction: we’ve captured the essence of that place.

Or have we?

We know cliché when we see it.  Our travel and photography experience has helped tune our ability to detect it.  Having said that, we sometimes bank on it. These images are a valuable addition to our collection, particularly if we choose to write about Buenos Aires.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the image. It’s nice, the dancers are dramatic. But is it representative of Buenos Aires or Argentina’s tango scene?  I’m not so sure about that. The tango aficionados we spoke to drew images of dark, smoky tango bars rather than wooden platforms in the middle of Sunday street fairs.  

Perhaps these tango dancers represent the image most of us conjure up of Buenos Aires before visiting.

In any event, I can probably count dozens of other images that strike me as more representative of Buenos Aires than those dancers.  But those — of delis, dog-walkers, cafés, tree-lined streets, and European airs — probably won’t be headlining tour brochures anytime soon.

Cliché or iconic?  Where to draw the line?

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  1. says

    We found ourselves asking the same question about iconic or cliche. Funny thing is that many or friends’ favorite photos of ours are what we would consider, “eh” because of the situations like you describe at San Telmo. We sometimes feel we need to put a disclaimer on some shots, “Warning: situation not as exotic as it appears.” I think our favorite photos are usually the ones that have a stronger personal meaning or story behind them, even if some are technically bad photos. I would say you can’t really draw a line, some photos considered cliche by some may still really be enjoyable for others. Photography, like any art is great that way. As always, thanks for another great article.

  2. says

    It’s an interesting topic. We were having a similar conversation the other day when we were reviewing some photos from last year. Take Machu Picchu for example. At the time of snapping the photos, it felt epic. Like we were so fortunate to have witnessed such beauty. But many of the photos are the “standard” shot. It doesn’t make Machu Picchu any less amazing, or the photos any less spectacular. But when you see the same images all over the place it’s hard to label it as “authentic”

  3. says

    Cliche is cliche for a reason – there is usually some truth to it. Does Paris = the Eiffel Tower? No, but it sure is a big part of the cityscape.

    It’s a tough situation to be in. I think the only thing you can do is try for unusual angles… and, also, go ahead and take the photos of the less iconic moments.

  4. says

    I think this is a very interesting post. As an amateur photographer and a fairly new blogger, the whole issue of what kind of images to post is of great interest to me. How to “capture a place?” How to be artistic, original and creative? How to get the lighting right? so much to learn. I love it.

    You guys do a great job and I enjoy following your post.

  5. says

    To an extent, I’ve always felt that if a shot exists, then whatever you capture is at least in some way a part of the surrounding culture. Sure, it might be a little staged and it might be similar to thousands of other photos before and after it, but the person holding the camera is never the same. And so the connection between that person and whatever they see through their lens is as real as any other photo!

  6. says

    So, let me get this straight. This Argentine dancing couple is the Naked Cowboy (from Times Sq. in NYC) of Bueno Aires?

    We’re you just hanging out in the Fisherman’s Wharf of B.A.? I thought you were more adventurous than that.

  7. says

    @Beau: I love the idea of the disclaimer. Our favorite photos are those with a personal story behind them – we’re asked quite often about how these photos came about. But, we usually try to also take a handful of traditional travel photos from a place – these photos represent “exotic” or “other” to readers and elicits that emotion. As you said, the goal is for people to enjoy the photo and perhaps get interested in that location.

    @Cam: Even though you may feel that you see the same photos everywhere, your own photograph represents what you felt at the time you took the shot. So, that image is authentic as to what you saw. Where the line gets a little blurry is when there are situations that are set up specifically for tourists, but the tourists don’t realize that and think that is “authentic.”

    @Sasha: So true – the reason why cliches became cliches is that there was/is an element of truth to it. Over time though some of that truth gets distorted. And you are right about finding different angles and just taking photos that mean something to you.

    @Stacy: This performance on the street is for tourists and that’s fine. But, when people see it from abroad some believe that people in Buenos Aires are breaking out into tango on the street that’s when the distortion happens. But, it is what it is. We captured the scene.

    @Andi: See, you proved my point!

    @Susan: When we think about how to photograph a place or how to represent it in images, we usually think of what is the story of that place – markets, food, people, architecture, history, transport, etc. – and try to get some representative shots of those. Practice helps a lot in getting a good feel for lighting, mood and technical issues. Good luck!

    @Earl: I agree with everything you wrote and in the end who cares if the photo is cliche if it has a meaning to you. But, as photographers/writers where we think about pitching photos and stories about a place, we end up taking some shots like this because we feel we “ought” to more than because we have a connection with the thing/place. But, if that shot results in more people getting interested in travel and Argentina then the outcome is good.

    @Naomi: Have similar experiences from India or elsewhere?

    @Bulldogmi: Yup, you got it right on both fronts – Naked Cowboy & Fisherman’s Wharf. Sometimes you just have to hit the touristy areas to see what all the hype is about…and then beeline for the nearest wine bar.

  8. says

    For sure! I get a kick out of seeing travel blogs with photos from visits to India … and then when the captions represent the photographers memory and perception, but when the reality of living here is quite different.

    i.e. – seeing someone photograph the poor children who have nowhere to go, nothing to eat, no homes. Sometimes in reality, those are beggars who are employed … eat a full meal before they start “their work day” … take chai and snack breaks in the afternoon … and then all traipse off to their flat where they all live.

    That is a negative example.

    Then there is the wonderful Taj Mahal … where people flock to take the exact same photo … in the exact same spot. Just because everyone takes the duplicative photo, doesn’t undermine the beauty of the structure, or the meaningful memories from stopping in Agra.

    I’m not making much sense, but yes — I totally got this post and understand it now having lived in Delhi!!

  9. Vaniah Elmström says

    What can I say? Hey, that’s my photo!! Yep, we can confirm it, we have been to the same market in San Telmo on Saturday morning and got our own photo of the same couple doing tango… Great post!

  10. says

    @naomi: What you wrote made complete sense to me. One of the reasons I asked the question was that so many photographic examples came to mind when I thought of India and was curious of your thoughts since you know India so much better than I do and know more of the real story. The example of the kids was perfect. Have you written about this (i.e., many kids begging are actually part of a bigger machine)?

    The first image that came to my mind were the done up sadhus in Varanasi who go around selling their photo to tourists. Now, I know sadhus need to eat and find a way to raise money as well, but somehow I don’t think this is exactly what is in mind and I doubt their sadhu authenticity. But, I bet if you do a Google Image search for sadhu in Varanasi you’ll see many familiar faces.

    And yes, even if everyone has the same photo of the Taj Mahal, YOUR photo represents your experience and brings back your memories. It’s still personal.

    Thanks again for following up and contributing.

    @Vaniah: Ha! I wonder how many thousands of photos have been taken of them over their career. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  11. says

    Audrey … I would LOVE to do a piece on the beggar children … but I feel to do it justice, I need to spend more time investigating it myself (instead of just relying on the many stories that float around the expat community, the imagery from Slumdog Millionaire, etc.). Now that my kids are a bit older and have a bit more activities scheduled, I have a freer schedule … maybe this fall I’ll write on that.

    Also difficult because I have quite a few local readers and I always flinch when I ponder writing a post about the inner workings of things like this … need to “gutsy up” don’t I ??

  12. says

    @Naomi: I would find a well written and researched piece on the beggar children of Delhi really useful for many reasons. First of all, to affirm or disaffirm what I have read/heard elsewhere about these begging mafias in India. Another thing that is interesting to me is whether locals know about it and what they think of it – is it something to try and get rid of or is this just part of the system, the way things work in India? And is this something that has been going on for centuries or is it something relatively new to Indian society?

    When we visited Indian friends, we also heard that foreigners like to focus more on the poverty and “exotic” instead of the things that Indians are really (and should be) proud of – technology, history, culture, arts, etc. I completely understand that. But, the fact that these groups of begging kids and the machine behind them seem to function in almost every city is worth looking into.

    I also think a piece like this would be useful for travelers to India to help them better evaluate how, where and to whom to give money that makes a real difference.

    Please let me know if you do write this piece.

  13. says

    Love this discussion. Also reminds me of the old Cuban lady smoking a cigar photo I see all over the place.

    As a photographer myself, it’s okay to take (gasp!) those shots but the challenge is making it a *different* shot. This usually comes with working your angles, subjects, and light.

    This is where the true art and creativity comes into photography besides just pointing and shooting…

  14. says

    @Lola: The old Cuban lady smoking a cigar is another perfect example! I remember her from our visit to Havana moons ago. It would actually be quite fun to put together a list of these type of photos.

    I completely agree that it’s OK to take these types of shots – I think they represent memories and for a photographer, they are a valuable asset (let’s be honest in that some publications want the “traditional” shot). But, the challenge (and fun) is in finding something new in the scene.

  15. says

    Yep. We all have these ideas of the quintessential image from certain places and go looking for it. Dangerous territory as you can miss out on so much else. I guess the trick is to try to be as open as possible. People have to remember that photos are just moments in time, and can’t represent a place. This is the danger of taking those poverty photos…they’re visually impacting but never tell the whole story, but for a lot of places this is the idea that people have of these places, because that’s the majority of photos taken there. This is also why many travelers or soon-to-be travelers have this romantic notion of what a place is…then get disappointed when they get there and see monks walking around talking on cell phones and clean, shiny modern buildings.

  16. says

    @Carlo: Great comment – thank you. Many guidebooks and “top ten” lists are a compilation of iconic photos of a place and often people think that if they’ve seen them all, then they’ve “understood” the place. When, the reality is that many times the real story of the place is what is happening on the streets when going from one photo op to another.

    Your comment about taking photos about the exotic is definitely true. As photographers, we’re drawn to the “different” and that is what gets represented more in our photo collections. So people back home don’t realize that cities like Bangkok or Saigon have very modern areas that are as high tech (if not more) than many cities in the United States because the photos everyone sees are of the Buddhist temples or historical sights.

    I think it was you who passed around a link at one point about a photographer taking photos of people in Africa and one photo was a “poverty photo” while the other was the person in his/her real state, eg., as a young business person with a mobile phone or an active student. It shows the potential manipulative effect of photography and how sometimes you can take photos to fit a stereotype or what people want to see based on their stereotypes.

    We once had a person comment on our microfinance photos that they sometimes seem too “happy” – while many of the people we’ve met on those microfinance projects have led difficult and challenging lives, they are proud of what they have accomplished and have gained self confidence. I think that’s what’s important to show, especially when that spirit and success happens when living in a slum without water.

  17. Mariflor says

    I have this photo. Very similar at least. I remember how I took it and how pleased I felt about it. You are right. How to draw the line? Great article. Thanks.

  18. says

    @Mariflor: I wonder how many images we might collect if we put a call out to all travelers for their photos of this tango couple in Buenos Aires?

    I think you should still be pleased with the photo you took of this couple, regardless of what we wrote here.

    Our intent in publishing thoughts like these is not to make people feel bad about their photography or their travel experiences, but to see, upon reflection, if other people are seeing, experiencing and feeling something similar.


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