We’re all going on a summer holiday

As the travel photography competition season draws to a close, what can the winning images teach us about escapism?

Summer is the season of frivolity in the art world. It’s a season for crazy golf atop Selfridges and story time on the Thames. It’s a time when any discerning curator will rebrand their latest “exhibition” (how dreary) with the ever more titillating title of “festival”.

In among all this hoopla is an event that never fails to perk up pleasure seekers: the annual travel photography contest, an almost obligatory undertaking for any publication considering itself photographically savvy.

The godfather of the tradition is National Geographic, whose 24-year-old competition garners worthy prestige, with over 12,000 photographs submitted this year alone and winners announced in late summer. Another 2012 favourite was The Travel Photographer of the Year, an independent contest set up by photographers Chris and Karen Coe in 2003, whose winning entries are currently exhibiting at the Royal Geographic Society. The Guardian, the Times, the Independent and the Telegraph each host their own respective versions throughout the summer months. 

So, what trends can be drawn from this year’s crop? Aside from technical prowess, it’s safe to say that pandering to a few tried-and-tested, peculiarly British escapist fantasies is sure to earn you a few points as well:

I’ll (try my very best not to) be your mirror

Skyscrapers and subways are ubiquitous. So try travelling further! Mongolia, Madagascar and northern Norway are all good choices. Preferably, portray the sort of lifestyle assumed to have gone bust with the invention of the internet: reindeer herding, sewing your own clothes, riding trains and stopping to talk with your neighbors are all considered especially quaint.

Wetter is better

Taking into account that the last great natural wonder many of us saw could be summed up by the equation “rain x month x 2 = drought “, there’s nothing like a grand old geyser to remind us that water can do so much more than spoil picnics and soak pageants. Don’t forget! Water is also the reason we have things like monumental glaciers, thousand-meter waterfalls and forests in South America where no one seems to mind that it rains all the time. Oh, and they also make beaches, too. Remember beaches? In some parts of the world they’re used for sunbathing.

Animals are beautiful people

Britain is rich in many things (jam, manners, hedges, euphemisms), but awe-inspiring wildlife is not one of them. The child-like delirium which gripped the nation upon reports that this was a lion suggests a country with a serious case of exotic-animal-fixation (aggravated by scarcity). Hence the fascination with belugas, tree snakes and Tibetan wild donkeys, an everyday reality in some parts of the world.

On the road

Photographs involving all variations on the theme of “open road + means of mobility” have proved popular once again. Be it “bicycle + Kansas motorway”, “sledge + snowy slope” or even “over packed black taxi + rugged Himalayan mountain trail”, the conclusion’s all the same: picturing a journey is often as good as portraying a destination. The appeal of the expedition is eternal - it’s a narrative of adversity, of rewards made sweeter by the pains of struggle. It’s the same narrative that makes us weepy when we watch marathons or around-the-world sailing competitions. If you can catch it on camera, so much the better.

Bagan Bliss: Peter DeMarco's photo of a livestock farmer in Burma was a National Geographic merit winner (PHOTO: Peter DeMarco)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge