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12 September 2012

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?

By Charlotte Simmonds

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.

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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.