Misadventures in Travel Photography: The Art of the Self-Portrait

By Jackie DesForges

One activity I’ve attempted to master on several occasions – in both traveling and life in general –is the act of taking a picture of myself without feeling or looking like the most awkward person in the room. To say that I am not photogenic would be putting it lightly; I only have a handful of pictures that I think are legitimately attractive, and these pictures were either taken when I was a toddler, when I was slightly turned away from the camera, or when I had absolutely no idea my picture was being taken (this is rare; I can usually sense when someone is about to take my picture because I suddenly feel terrified and cold).

As my traveling strategies have evolved, so too have my picture-taking strategies. In the beginning, I had very little shame and wasn’t really afraid to ask anyone to take my picture. It’s what I saw everyone else doing, and I wanted to fit in. But with this act comes the risk that you’ll get someone who doesn’t really know what they are doing:

This sparked a new realization that a love affair with The X-Files would later confirm – others cannot be trusted. If I wanted to get a good picture of myself, it would be up to me, and me alone, to make that picture happen.

Appropriately, my next trip was a solo venture. I was planning my own route, handling my own backpack, managing my own money, and getting myself lost, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get accustomed to taking my own pictures. I had only one problem – even if I’d had any room in my suitcase to lug a tripod around, the thought of using one in a crowded city when others could watch and judge me wasn’t the most appealing option. Instead, I fell back on a strategy I’d mastered during several outings with female friends, usually at bars or baseball games (particularly during our preteen years):

Taking a picture of yourself at arm’s length, while convenient, probably isn’t the best way to capture a place or monument that you’d like to remember forever – if you’re like me, no matter how many times you try to take the picture, some part of your face will either be cut off or blocking the thing you’re trying to photograph (or, usually, both). Some people can pull these pictures off, and for this I admire and envy them, but as I was born with a very large face and no ability to aim I am not the most ideal candidate for this method.

However, if your story sounds similar to mine, know this: we are not alone. There are plenty of us who can’t take a good arm’s length picture or work a tripod or trust a random stranger with our cameras – and so, inevitably, sometimes we’ll run into each other during our travels, and we’ll agree to trade a picture for a picture. The “picture trade” is a more dependable system than simply stopping a random passerby because generally the person with whom you swap is a fellow traveler who has been taking pictures all day and is therefore in the picture-taking zone. They’re ready. The picture they’ll take will be good. During a “picture trade,” we empathize with each other; we take each other’s picture the way we’d want our picture to be taken. For those of you who swapped pictures with me in France, Ireland, Spain, and beyond – your pictures of me are probably the best ones I have from my trips abroad.

Naturally, just when this “picture trade” system started to get me more comfortable with the idea that I might sometimes look at least passably decent in a photograph, I came across an unforeseen flaw: the off-season. When traveling in the off-season, or even just a really secluded place, you won’t always be able to find someone to swap pictures with. In a recent visit to the Cold Green House in Lisbon, I found myself back at square one – I briefly considered resorting back to my old arm-length-picture-taking ways, but that didn’t seem so appealing anymore. I wanted a new challenge. Maybe it was the fact that I was wearing a cute outfit that day and had been reading a lot of fashion blogs before my trip, or maybe there was some potent substance radiating from the plants that was making me light-headed, but for whatever reason I decided to use the plants and rocks as tripods and pose for pictures by myself.

No one else was around, barely even any employees, so I didn’t feel embarrassed at all. In fact, I had an absolutely fabulous time running around, setting up my camera, and striking various (mostly awkward) poses with all of the different plants. I had never staged a photo shoot for myself before, but I’d also never been in such a secluded environment during any of my travels, either. It seemed like a poetic (if somewhat contrived) climax for my solo-picture-taking saga – only when I was truly alone was I able to let loose and enjoy sharing the camera with the place I was exploring. Maybe sometimes you just need to run around a giant green house full of plants.

Since I have now clearly mastered taking pictures of myself and am ready to get started on my own travel/fashion blog, I’ve staged some meager attempts to master video-taking when I’m traveling, as well. So far, the start of my video career closely resembles the start of my photography career: I have only been using the arm’s-length-video-taking method. We’ll see how this goes.


About the Author

Jackie DesForges is a writer from Los Angeles currently living in Chicago. To date she has served as a student ambassador in England and France, a volunteer in Mexico, an art student on the Riviera, and a fledgling travel writer in Edinburgh. Currently she spends her time blogging about travels past and present at www.jackietravels.com and saving her pennies for her next great adventure overseas.

Author: WillPeach

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Misadventures in Travel Photography: The Art of the Self-Portrait