#582. Un-destination photography in Aigues-Mortes, France

#582. Un-destination photography in Aigues-Mortes, France

We recently argued that lesser-known locations provide as much, if not more, opportunity for great photography than the iconic places of beauty many photographers rush to in the hope of creating masterpieces. This is our first attempts at proving out point. Philippe and I recently joined up for a 2 and a half day work (during the day) / photo (morning and evening) meetup in the lovely little city of Aigues-Mortes located on the western side of Camargue, in the South of France.

 

Near Tour Carbonniere, Aigues-Mortes

Looking the other way, same spot

 

Philippe’s take

Aigues-Mortes is a port city in a part of France, the Camargue, an area more or less bordered by Nîmes, Arles, Montpellier and the Mediterranean, full of old traces of civilisation. While it is definitely busy in the summer, it is nowhere close to the mobbed seaside resorts. And, off-season, it is quiet. We were there during the Easter school holidays, and there were precious few people around, to the extent that our best choices of restaurants were more often than not closed (though we did manage to eat well, thanks for asking).

 

 

Aigues-Mortes felt like a good choice because it is not only interesting, but very close to many other points of interest. It took a 45-minute drive from Nîmes (an interesting city in its own right, easily accessible from Paris by plane of TGV train) to reach it. From there, we never drove more than 30 minutes, and found at least 5 groups of spots worth shooting, though we couldn’t know for sure how rich the opportunities they would offer.

 

 

As destinations for photography in France go, Aigues-Mortes would definitely not make a top-30 list, maybe not even a top-50. But I have to say, the pictures tell another story. It offers beautiful possibilities, and very diverse to boot. Marshland, fortified walls, wildlife, seaside port, Provençale city, horses, bulls… In short, a fine destination for un-destination photography.

 

 

First shot, the marshlands. Literally 10 mn from our B&B deluxe. Sunset deluxe, too. Opportunities galore, though the spot itself is small, maybe a 10 mn walk. Once more, Pascal and I have quite a different take, which testifies to the possibilities.

 

 

Second shoot, sunrise over the fortress walls. Something I am really not good at, and it shows.

 

 

Mid-day shoot at the Grau-du-Roi, on the seaside.

 

Again, not a huge site, but opportunities to keep Pascal and I going for well over 90 minutes. Evening shoot in the rain in another town, les Saintes-Maries de la Mer. Questionable place if you think tip-top world-quality, but the pictures are again different and rewarding.

 

 

Last shoot, next morning, another crack at the fortress walls yielded more marsh shots, and a lonely cabin.

 

 

Then a shoot inside the city, not an exercise for wimps. So Pascal shines, and I wilt.

 

Aigues-Mortes fortifications

By then, both he and I were quite tired, our work (yes, it was a work meet) was well advanced, and it was time to go back to our separate homes.

 

Pascal adds

As a cheap and antisocial so&so, I’ve always been drawn more towards this …

 

Lonely beach cafe in Saintes-Maries de la mer

 

… than to lining up in front of a famous cliff or castle, at the other end of the world, with 12 other togs, even knowing the social impact of my production would be far less spectacular. So my natural instincts take me to small villages close to home rather than to world-renowned waterfalls or tropical beaches. Plus, the idea of busting my whatsit in an attempt to recreate a photograph that’s been done a thousand times, and probably not as well as the others before me, doesn’t appeal much. So the concept of un-destinations really works for me.

 

Sunrise on the Aigues-Mortes fortifications

Salt pans in Aigues-Mortes, just looking the opposite way from above

 

To paraphrase Philippe’s article on the subject, here are the rules of undestination photography :

  • Close to home. Why fly to the other side of the world when others are flying to the other side of their world to visit places close to where you live?
  • Cheap. This goes hand in hand with the previous point. A half-decent workshop in the Kimberleys will set you back 5-10 grand. A couple of nights in the hotel of the next-door village feels like pocket-money in comparison. How much more often can you afford that?
  • Non iconic. If it appears on a google search for the “top 50 places for photography” it’s a destination, not an un-destination.
  • Photographs have convey a sense of place. An abstract of your foot on tarmac could be done in any location. Un-destination photography is about the area.

 

Typical Camargue landscape, near Aigues-Mortes

Inside Aigues-Mortes

 

This not to say that famous, remote locations such as the Grand Canyon, Uluru, Torres del Paine, Sossusvlei … should be avoided. Take a look at Wild Places, Boris Buschardt’s fantastic gallery, and you’ll see just how magical those areas can be and what stunning photographs can reward your efforts. But there’s the catch … Boris is :

  1. Super talented. Everyone can work on that, not everyone goes that far up the ladder.
  2. Super dedicated. And can’t stress this enough. Just read his comment on the introductory article on un-destination and you’ll see just to what lengths someone really dedicated will go to create optimal conditions.
  3. Super committed. He’ll scout for hours before any trip and go back to a promising location over and over again just to check whether the odds aren’t better than during the previous visits. I’ve never had the pleasure of shooting with Boris (yet 🙂 ) but Philippe has, and his admiration is boundless. Watching someone fight 60mph sub-zero gales for extended periods in order to secure that 1 long-exposure picture, does that to people.

Shiprock Storm, one of my favourite landscape photographs of the past years, tells a similar story about its author, Mitch Dobrower :

 

Shiprock Storm (c) Mitch Dobrowner – click to access original gallery

 

In an interview by George Barr, he explains his 100 miles daily return journey, through rock, snow, mud and sand at 4.30 AM for 8 consecutive days just to scout the photograph !!!!

My point is that, unless you are prepared to approach iconic landscapes with a similar mindset, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. There’s a reason pros have 50 photographs in their galleries and 100 000 on their hard drives (most of which, most people would consider fantastic in their own right but don’t make the grade for their author).

All the inspiring pics of these famous places are really not representative of what even a good photographer will achieve without that sort of approach. Visiting one after these masters of the craft is like dating a porn-star’s ex …

Un-destinations do not set the bar at any height and you’re happy to return with a good photograph, even if it doesn’t match the sublime light someone else managed to get after 11 visits.

 

Marshes in Aigues-Mortes

 

A second point in favour of un-destinations is the joy of discovery. Turn to Google’s images result for Aigues-Mortes and you’ll see that, except for a salt-marsh that turns red-pink in the summer, there’s not a lot to feel amazed at. In a way, that’s a double-edged sword. The joy of shooting “uncharted territory” is mitigated by the very distinct possibility that you’ll waste some time on uninteresting tosh.

That happened a couple of times during our stay but not one of our 5 shooting sessions was a complete waste of time. We were always able to walk about and salvage something like the wisteria above or the horse and the derelict cabin below, all of which are really representative of the area.

 

Horse outside Aigues-Mortes fortifications

 

None of those is going to win a landscape photography competition, but all 3 are good photographs in their own right.

 

Cabin outside Aigues-Mortes fortifications

 

Shooting as a duo opens up endless possibilities for fun, too. And, although that’s a topic for another article, I do feel that being in a low-expectation location favours the fun-factor by lowering stress and obligation to deliver. Had we been on a schedule to produce the goods, I’d have probably left Philippe do die, eaten by this rataconda, a local 24 foot monster that terrorizes tourists during the summer months.

 

Philippe and the rataconda (by the above definition, this is not un-destination photography)

 

Add the cheaper costs (we set ourselves a 400€ budget, travel included and were roughly on the mark) easier planning, greater contact with local culture and you have yourself a winner.

 

Happy photographer, Aigues-Mortes

 

Downsides ?

Well, as Boris explains in his comment to the previous article in this series, he’d rather create one masterpiece of a world-class location than 1000 merely photographs of a less spectacular one. This is not what Aigues Mortes, or the concept of un-destination, have to offer.

And, apart from the previously mentioned possibility of wasting your time here and there because few people have scouted for you, there’s one other that really comes to mind.

 

Saintes-Marie de la mer at night

Inside a fisherman’s restaurant in Saintes-Maries de la mer

Shipyard in Grau-du-Roi, (15 minute drive from Aigues-Mortes)

 

Mentally, it can be quite tiring. Unlike facing the Eiffel Tower from the Pont de Bir-Hakeim or the Houses of Parliament from the London Eye, you have to look hard for your photographs. After 90-120 minutes of that, I was  usually completely out of mental steam and in need of food and rest.

 

Creepy Saintes-Maries de la mer (30 minute drive from Aigues Mortes)

 

Besides, off-season often goes hand in hand with this off-the-beaten-track school of thought. So, sometimes, it doesn’t feel worth the effort. But it always is ! We hesitated several times about leaving our comfy room for a stormy and uncertain shoot but, in the end, were always happy that we had.

 

Creepy Saintes-Maries de la mer (30 minute drive from Aigues Mortes)

 

One final thought : photography websites are partly responsible for creating the problem of over-crowding in many beautiful areas of the globe. So it might not be considered very logical / fair / responsible to complain about the phenomenon and contribute to it by writing articles such as this one. Hypocrits, us ?

My reasoning is the exact opposite.

There are maybe 100 really iconic spots on the Earth and maybe a 100 times more promising un-destinations. So, by encouraging you to visit the latter, we’re probably unclogging the former ever so slightly. Therefore, we shall soon create a small photo guide of the area, and of each of our next un-destination trips !

So, if you’ll excuse us, we need to collect our Peace Nobel Prize lolly for that exemplary deed, now 😉

 

Saintes-Maries de la mer, after the rain

What, no dog? Saintes-Maries de la mer

17th century Saintes-Maries de la mer

Sunny harbour, Aigues-Mortes

In-flight shags (mile-high club) over Aigues-Mortes

Z-shags over Aigues-Mortes

Taking off, no egrets. Aigues-Mortes

Inside Aigues-Mortes

Crouching cypress, hidden cabin. Aigues Mortes

I am a rock, I am an island. Aigues Mortes

 

OK, how did we do ? Are we close to convincing you to focus your photography trips on the less-frequented areas or are we just off our rocker ? 😉

 


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10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Adam Bonn April 13, 2017

    Nice one guys, sincerely! Strong images and a strong message.

    I’m forever recommending Nimes as a very late summer/early autumn destination for people that want a bit of a Rome vibe, but without what seems like four tenths of the Earth’s population milling about in the shot.

    I’d love to go back again (and I’ve been more than once) so perhaps I should stop mentioning it, in case I break it!

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy April 13, 2017

      Thanks Adam. Nimes is a wonderful place. And a little known gem, so tourists are everywhere missing it 😉 It’s remarkably free of hords for a place that can rival with any famous city in the South of France. Plus it has a character of its own. If ever you’re in the area again (1) let me know 😉 (2) give Narbonne a try. Also a below-the-radar place of great interest.

      • Avatar
        Adam Bonn April 14, 2017

        (1) absolutely and (2) thanks for the heads up!

        I wish I could say the same about Porto, but off the beaten track it most certainly isn’t!

        It’s still well worth a visit though!

  2. Avatar
    Sean April 13, 2017

    Hi,
    I like this article, and it is convincing regarding the benefits of photographing in less-frequented areas. It is also relevant because these less-frequented areas, or un-destinations, are a real joy of discovery – as alluded to, above.

    I’m sure I’ve experienced this, these, discoveries associated with un-destinations of the less-frequented. What I have also sensed, or discovered, is that you can go into a state of hyper vigilance, or awareness, and really have no trouble picking up those pearls worth crafting into a meaningful image.

    Lastly, Henry David Thoreau had said “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” to craft images that emerge from those creative moments whilst visiting those less-frequented, un-destination, areas.

    Regards
    Sean

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy April 13, 2017

      Thanks Sean 🙂 I think it was also Thoreau who wrote “I have traveled widely in Concord” (his home town), to explain how much more important the mindset is, compared to the location, when traveling. Maybe he’d have had a thing or two to say about photographing close to home too … Kind regards, Pascal

  3. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron April 13, 2017

    In my mind, travel means returning to the land of my ancestors – which costs a bundle, because of the distance involved, so it cannot happen every week. In the meantime, I fill in. I practice. I take pet photos for friends. I do macro photography. I make studies of particular subjects. I train my eye, to seek out photo opportunities. And clearly, all of this is going to take place within my local area.

    When I do travel, I photograph whatever I want to photograph. I don’t care tuppence whether or not someone else has photographed the same scene/object/whatever. I’m hardly likely to fill a cupboard with pictures of the Eiffel Tower and I see no reason why I shouldn’t photograph it if I see a suitable opportunity, because it’s not an everyday thing in my life and it does fall into the “happy memories” box. That said, I don’t – of course – pursue the most mundane, conventional & boring view of any icons that catch my eye. It IS possible to be creative, regardless of tourist numbers. Anyway, while I am in France I am a tourist myself, and it would be hypocrisy to shy away from touristy scenes.

    Is the issue “tourists”? Or is it “tourists in our backyard”? When we leave our home and travel to some other place, does that make it into an un-destination?

    Thoreau’s comments can be applied equally well to ANY subject for a photo.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy April 16, 2017

      Indeed. But the point, I think, is that it’s just as rewarding to photograph a chateau in Burgundy as it is to photograph the Eiffel Tower. Social Media and workshop organizers wuold have us believe the opposite.

      • Avatar
        jean pierre (pete) guaron April 18, 2017

        Agreed – in fact, perhaps more satisfying. I do feel that we complain too much, and everyone is guilty of it at times – when I penned those comments I was thinking “but cities ARE full of people – that’s what differentiates them from anywhere else”, and thinking also that tourists are merely part of the passing throng. Sometimes (frequently?) more annoying and less well behaved than the locals, perhaps, but still part of whatever it is we are photographing, if we choose to photograph in cities.

        That said – the last time I made Paris my “destination” was when I went there to marry my wife, and that was 23 years ago. Apart from trips to London, on business, practically all my trips to Europe have been HEAVILY weighted in favour of less obvious places – touristy, perhaps, many of them – many of them also NON-touristy, and none the less interesting for that !!! Example – in Carcassonne, I must have been the only “tourist” who took a portrait shot of one of the horses that draws a horse-drawn carriage around the castle city – everyone else was photographing the castle walls or each other. Another – wandering around Toulouse, I can’t recall seeing anyone else taking night shots, but I took loads of them – street photography by night is one of my passions !!! Etc etc.

        In the end, it all boils down to our imaginations and our creativity.

        Unless or course we’re simply engaging in a kind of photo journalism, a photo diary, of where we are and what we see. And even that can be creative – it depends on how it’s handled, rather than on the subject matter. Adrian’s recent posting of his photos in Singapore and Malaysia are a perfect example of what I mean by saying that – from any angle, they are great photos – they tell a story – they are full of creativity and imagination – and top marks to him, for all of them !!! And no, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if a stampede of tourists blazed away at the same subject matter – I wouldn’t expect for one moment that they would be capable of producing photos of the same quality as Adrian’s, in any case.

  4. Avatar
    Mark Muse April 15, 2017

    Photograph what you live / where you live. I have been doing this all of my photographic life and it works for me.

    Some very nice images in this article by the way.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy April 16, 2017

      Thanks Mark. Close to home is less often spectacular, but very rewarding on a deeper level, I think. No popularity contests de win here but a greater satisfaction in the end.

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