Even before I took up my writing career again – to be able to both shoot and write for the articles I’m doing – I’ve been carrying a black, pocket-sized notebook. This journal is what I turn to when I sit down to start writing my articles. It is filled with words, sentences and letters, most of them written in a barely decryptable handwriting. I use it to write down the addresses and names of the restaurants and hotels I’m visiting. And the time schedules for trains or names of traditional meals, straight forward stuff. But all of those facts are available online, for you and everyone else.
The most important words to jot down are the details you can’t Google. How it feels like to visit that particular restaurant, what the main course smelled like or how the waiter ended up with that scar on his upper lip. The goal is to collect something that not everyone (actually only the people that visited the exact same spot as you) knows.
Why should you, as a photographer, go through the effort to take notes? The most obvious reason is that it could earn you money when you’re back home. How? The thing is, it’s usually a lot easier to sell your photos if you’re able to package it together with a text. But don’t think for a second that it’s just about writing a few paragraphs and believe that it will sell your photos. There are as many writers wanting to become travel journalists as there are photographers dreaming about making a living from shooting travel photos. You need to be good at writing too! It doesn’t have to be thousands and thousands of words though, but good writing. Flip through any travel magazine and you’ll realize that the lengths varies.
Even if you don’t plan on taking up journalism when you get back home, the act of note-taking will give you a much greater travel experience! Picking up your notebook and spending a few minutes now and then, jotting down what is happening around you, will make you more aware. Suddenly, you realize what the surroundings offer vastly more than you first thought.
You start to notice the colors of the walls and the sounds from the kitchen. You start to smell the food in front of you before taking the first bite, just to be able to figure out a way to describe it in words. The details of the people around you, even the colors of their eyes, will become targets for your interest.
You just can’t take too many notes. In the beginning I remember thinking that “I’ll remember that” or “I’ll look through the photos to find out what it looked like”. But two weeks later, after countless of new meetings (and as many glasses of wine), details will become blurry and forgotten. And even if you know beforehand that you will write an article about one specific topic and are collecting snippets of facts for that, what if you later get the opportunity to write another piece about that topic and you lack the information and notes?
What you see is the most obvious and usually the easiest. But don’t just take note of the big picture, make sure to go into extreme details: The pieces of paint falling from the wall, the tiny bug hiking over the table cloth or the police man’s crow’s feet. These are the details that will blow life in a travel essay and make the reader feel like she is there with you.
When you’ve written down everything you see, spend a short while identifying what kind of smells you find around you. Don’t just note “grilled chicken”, that is too vague. Don’t write WHAT you smell, write HOW it smells. Maybe “the oily smell from the chicken mixed with the dense fumes from the cars and the smoke from the coal – from time to time the fruity cologne of the chef manage to break through the heavy smells”. Be THAT specific.
Then do the same for what you can taste. What you can touch. What you can hear. Go through all the senses, one after another. How would you describe a sight for someone that has never seen? A taste or smell for someone that has never tasted that particular dish before?
A crappy travel article is missing the same thing as crappy travel photos: Intimate meetings with people. Make sure you jot down loads of quotes from different people and get background information about the humans you talk to. This will not only help you remember what someone said for later, it will also make you extremely present WHEN talking, something that is very rare these days.
When you have written down what they have said, it is important to also write down how they said it. Was he shaking his head? Was his eye twitching? What kind of accent did he have? High or low pitch? Was he speaking quicker when he got excited during certain parts of the conversation? How did he move his arms and hands?
Remember – you’ll be able to find hard facts about a place online when you are back home so focus on capturing everything about the people you meet instead.
If you are going on a press-trip, the company arranging your trip usually wants you to see as much as possible in as few days as possible. It could get pretty hectic. So, it is extremely important to take note of where you are and what route you take.
But even if you are traveling at a slower pace, make it a reflex to write down where you are and take a photo of that spread in your notebook whenever you arrive at a new place. That way you will know exactly where each photo was taken.
For me, stopping for a while to write keywords and descriptions is almost meditative. I helps me to resist the urge to rush off to the next town or museum (that’s a bad example, I get really bored in museums). I will be able to travel fully at my current destination. To dig deeper and appreciate even the tiny fragments that everyone else misses.
Note-taking is not just for journalists but for anyone that wants to experience a destination with more than just one sense.
Jens Lennartsson calls himself a storyteller (rather than a photographer or writer). He tells stories of his travels through pictures on Instagram, short snippets from his life on Twitter. He also writes stories about travelling more mindfully on Medium. And, if you would send him an email, he will most certainly write you something back!