Interview with Travel Photographer Annapurna Mellor

How does one break into the travel photography industry? Our Travel Photography Scholarship Judge, Annapurna Mellor shares highlights of her journey to becoming a full-time travel photographer and her life on the road.

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You write a lot of travel narratives. Which came first, the writing or the photography side of things?

Writing came first, although it wasn’t long before photography took over. After I graduated I booked a one way ticket to Kathmandu and travelled around Asia for a year. I started a blog to document my trip and the photos were at first simply an accompaniment to the words. Quickly I realised how much I loved taking photos, and I got really positive feedback on them from family and friends. I learnt how to use my camera and started putting more effort into the photography side of things. During that year, I went from someone who had no idea how to use manual camera settings, to selling my first photos to brands like Lonely Planet. It was a year of learning so much, and one which led me to the career I have today.

When my photography work took off, I left writing behind for a bit, but recently I’ve realised how much one compliments the other, and how stories can be the most powerful thing. I think my biggest passion is storytelling, and I feel the combination of words and photographs allows me to do that most effortlessly.

How do you think that your skills as a writer have helped further your photography career?

Travel photography is an incredibly hard industry to break into today. There are so many photographers on Instagram, so many travel bloggers. It’s very easy to get lost in the crowded space of things. I think writing has helped me stand out in many ways, and it has also made me more appealing to brands because I can use both skills, as well as social media, when on a job with them. It definitely helps to be a jack of all trades in this industry, and to diversify your income streams. Some months I may have no photography assignments, but I can do writing for brands and websites to keep my income up.

I also think writing has helped me become a better photographer as its allowed me to see photographs through a storytelling lens from the beginning. When I visit a place now, I’m not looking for that one perfect image which might do really well on Instagram or sell as a great stock image, I’m looking for a collection of images which say something about a place or community. I’ve learnt how to approach people and take portraits, how to capture landscapes, and how to communicate the chaos of a city- because often in order to tell the whole story of a place, you have to capture all of those things. I think now when I’m approaching brands to work with, that quality is appealing, because I have a portfolio which crosses many boundaries of travel photography.

How did you break into the travel photography industry? What tips do you have for others who want to do the same?

I think passion has to come first, and I can trace my travel photography career back to when I was writing and telling photo stories on blogs and websites around the internet. I wasn’t getting paid for any of it, but I did it because I loved tell stories from my trips and sharing these wonderful places with people.

I spent a year travelling around Asia and at the end of the year, I was approached by Getty Images who had seen some of my images on a blog post, and they offered me a stock contract. I saw sales happening quickly and it was the first time I had realised that I could travel and take photographs and perhaps making a living from this. I continued travelling as often as I could, and worked some pretty horrible jobs in between to make ends meet. Meanwhile, I was building a portfolio of images from around the world and promoting myself on the internet as much as I could. I’m not going to pretend it was a smooth ride, it’s a hard industry to break into, and you really need a lot of passion and determination to keep going at it.

Stock allowed me to build up a list of companies and publications who had bought my photographs, and it meant I had been published numerous times even before I got my first official assignment. When I did get my first well paid assignment, it allowed me to quit my bar job and focus on photography full time, I spent the next few months sending what felt like thousands of emails to brands and magazines until the next assignment came, and then the next one. Then at some point I realised, hey, I’m doing my dream job full time.

In the beginning I did a lot of work for free, meanwhile, I was working in a bar to pay my rent and expenses. It’s not ideal, but it did help me to build up a portfolio to what it is today. I know some photographers will tell others to never work for free, but unfortunately in the current climate I just don’t think that’s feasible. I think you have to make sure that the work you are doing unpaid is benefitting you in other ways, whether that be substantial exposure or the opportunity to build a strong portfolio of images. It’s also important to be aware of when you should stop working for free, and when your work has more value to the company or publication than it does to you.

I think the best advice I can give for anyone wanting to get into travel photography is just to create photography work which is authentic to you and to keep on going, even when you feel like there’s not a penny insight. Hard work, determination and truly great work does pay off in this industry, and if you keep at it, you’ll eventually be noticed.

What makes a great image stand out from the good ones?

It’s hard to pick a particular quality, it can be a mixture of great light, interesting movement or a wonderful expression. But I think in the end it comes down to a feeling. The best images for me are the ones which make me feel something, whether that be a sense of a place or an emotion. I love images which take my breath away, and really that’s what I am looking for in this competition, a set of images which tells a strong story, stirs some sort of emotion within me, and which makes me feel like this photographer is doing something unique, which may not have been done before.

What qualities do you think are important to make it full-time in this industry today?

You do need to be a great photographer, your work has to stand out amongst everything else that is happening. Although all these other qualities are important, in the end it always comes down to the images, and they really do need to be undeniably good.

Secondly, you need to have a business head. Being a full-time freelance photographer doesn’t only involve taking photos, it involves branding and promoting yourself. You have to be a social media wizz, a writer, a storyteller, you will need to manage money well, and do all the boring things like invoices and sending endless emails all day trying to find work.

You also need to be a really good traveller, someone who is independent and can travel and navigate often difficult situations while alone on the road. Lots of people look at my job as a travel photographer, and think, wow that must be great, you just get to travel all the time and take photos. But really there’s a lot more that goes into it than that - I probably spend more time sitting in front of my computer editing, emailing and writing than I do out in the field.

And as I mentioned before, you need to absolutely love this so much, and put every ounce of determination into it to make it happen for you.

How has travel photography enabled you to connect with locals and their cultures on your travels?

One of my favourite things about being a travel photographer is connecting with locals and learning about local culture when I travel. I’m naturally a very introverted person, and I often use my camera as a way to break down barriers between myself and local people. Asking to photograph a person has led me to some wonderful situations - being invited to Indian weddings, or back to villages where I have been cooked feasts on wooden fires as children circle and smile at me endlessly. It has also took me to places that a regular traveller might not think to go to. Recently, while on assignment in Casablanca, while most tourists head straight to the Hassan II Mosque, I wandered around the local medina seeking portraits, market scenes and capturing the vibrant lilac walls of the place. It’s a place I would have never come across if I didn’t have my ‘where will I get a great photograph’ head on!

How do you think Instagram has changed the face of travel photography? How has it impacted your career?

Instagram is a wonderful tool for photographers to gain exposure, but there’s also many negatives that have come with the rise of the app. The image world is now completely oversaturated with travel images from all around the world, and I see many brands reposting images from Instagram rather than paying for professional photographers to go shoot for them. I’m very much a child of the Instagram game, and I’ve never known the travel photography industry before the app existed, but I imagine it was quite different.

Instagram has also brought rise to a certain type of image. Certain types of images do much better than others, although I don’t necessarily think it’s the best images that get the most likes, often it’s just the images which follow a particular formula. This has meant that thousands of accounts have popped up who all post mostly the same thing. You see the same locations again and again, and the same type of image getting thousands of likes. Although there is nothing wrong with this type of image, I think it’s important to point out that getting thousands of likes doesn’t necessary mean it’s a great travel photograph or one which is going to get you work as a travel photographer.

While there are a lot of negatives, I still think Instagram is a very important tool for travel photographers. For me, it’s been an amazing way to get my photography out to a larger audience, and a way to get brands and publications to recognise my work. I’ve gotten jobs through brands who have found my work on Instagram, and I’ve also made lots of friends and contacts with other photographs using the app. If you are trying to make it as a travel photographer nowadays, I think it’s completely essential to be using Instagram to its full potential, while also understanding that it’s not the only thing you should be doing - you should also have a updated portfolio website and have stories published on different blogs or magazines around the internet. Instagram should just be how you share your work, it shouldn’t be why you create work in the first place.

How do you balance your time on the road between work and travel? Has it blended into one for you? How do you keep that spark of travel alive?

Usually when I’m on the road it’s either for a specific assignment, where I’ll be working with a brand or shooting a story for a magazine or it’s a personal trip. In the first case, work takes over and I’ll often be shooting for 15 hours a day, then doing edits in the evening and sometimes social media to depending on the needs of the client. This kind of work can be exhausting but I honestly still enjoy every minute of it.

When it’s a personal trip, I’ll often split the time between shooting and relaxing a little more - perhaps focusing on one story during a trip, and choosing another place to just relax and enjoy. I’ve never felt like the spark of travel has gone. Every time I go on assignment I still get butterflies in my stomach for a new place, new people, new photographs to capture. I think when your job is your passion, that spark never really goes out.

What is your dream assignment?

There are so many places around the world I’d love to go to, and so many cultures I’d love to capture. But I always come back to South Asia, as it’s the culture I feel the most connected to. I’d love to spend more time in the Himalayas, capturing local culture for a long term personal project on the region.

In the future I’d also like to work with charities, as while I love working with travel companies, I’d also love to use my photography for some greater good in the world.

Do you have what it takes to become a professional travel photographer?

Apply for our 2017 Travel Photography Scholarship and you could be the emerging photographer we're looking for to capture Myanmar's Thingyan water festival, ancient temples, and traditional tribes.

1 Comment

  • Sarah M. said

    Awesome interview! I am an aspiring travel photographer, based in Guatemala. Passionate about writing and photography, trying to go on as many adventures as possible while simultaneously raising my 8 year old daughter. I'm super determined to keep doing what I do, thanks for publishing this article, I loved the insight!

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