In today’s Why We Travel interview, I speak with Alex Harford, travel photographer and writer.
Describe your first transformative travel experience.
I don’t know why, but I chose to visit Iceland in 2005. Back then, a Google Image search for Iceland just showed pictures of glaciers, and friends and work colleagues joked about me leaving my job to work at Iceland (a frozen food chain in the UK). I joined a tour around the ring road and was blown away each day by the variety of amazing landscapes, which I think everyone with an Internet connection must have seen by now. The locals were friendly, and there was a great bunch of people on the tour; two ended up getting married. I love waterfalls, and there were lots of them. Everything in Iceland was beautiful. Even the horses were the healthiest-looking I’ve seen. When I returned from Iceland, I accidentally had some photos that seemed a level above my usual snapshots. I wanted to take more like that, whatever the location or subject, so photography became a hobby.
Why is travel important to you personally?
I’ve always loved wandering off the beaten path. I love being outdoors, being wowed by nature. I love finding “fantasy in reality” – who needs CGI when the actual earth we live on is so incredible? It doesn’t have to be natural – I love wandering around a medieval town like Sighișoara, for example. I enjoy the wilderness but also enjoy visiting popular places. They’re usually popular for a good reason, and I enjoy attempting to photograph them in unique ways. Sometimes I enjoy the challenge, like a recent 6-day walk along the Isle of Jura’s coast, considered one of the most challenging walks in the UK. I didn’t see another person for 5 days. I enjoy solitude, but that highlighted how great meeting other people can be (whether locals or other travelers). I prefer to experience things rather than own things, and many favorite experiences have come while traveling.
How would you describe your travel “style”?
I’m an independent, lightweight backpacker who generally travels on a budget, camping or staying in hostels. As long as I have somewhere comfortable to sleep, I don’t need luxuries. I’ll happily eat food straight from a tin. The experience of the location and/or people I’m with are the most important thing, and I’ve had many usually busy places to myself by avoiding peak visiting times. Being lightweight is important as it gives me more freedom to explore. Despite photography being a big hobby, even my camera is a compact.
What tips do you have for travelers to make their experiences more meaningful?
Go out of your comfort zone, however small. Whether it’s exploring on your own on the last day of a trip when you’re usually with tour groups, walking ten minutes away from a popular tourist spot (where the view might just be better e.g. Neuschwanstein Castle and Skye’s Old Man of Storr), eating alone in a restaurant, using public transport, walking around a city without knowing where you’re going (keep the address of your accommodation or a landmark with you), saying hello to a stranger, using public transport… Do something you don’t usually do. Do things you’d do at home too e.g. visiting the cinema in Thailand was an interesting experience. Though I still get apprehensive sometimes, things that scared me a few years ago are now second-nature. Learn a few words of the local language. The effort is appreciated, and I’ve had amazing reactions just for saying “thank you” in the local language. I check pronunciation online (YouTube is good for this) and download MP3s for my trip. I also think good travel is about mindset. Don’t expect everything (or even anything) to run smoothly. I was ill for the month-long duration of my worst trip ever. But that worst trip ever was still awesome, and looking back, I forget I was ill apart from a couple of days when even eating or walking was a struggle.
What are your favorite travel-related books, movies, paintings, poems, songs, etc.?
I love Into the Wild. Not travel films as such, but Spirited Away and other Studio Ghibli films include journeys and tap into my spirit of adventure. I enjoy films that provide insight into culture I wouldn’t otherwise know about.
I don’t read many books, tending to stick to short stories. I enjoyed Dervla Murphy’s Eight Feet in the Andes, about her 1300-mile trek through Peru’s mountains with her nine-year-old daughter and a mule. Closer to home, Phoebe Smith’s Wild Nights, where she camped at the UK mainland’s geographical extremes. Aldo Leopold (about Wisconsin’s wilderness) and Kathleen Jamie (about Scotland) have written some beautiful prose.
My favorite short story involving travel is The Sword of Loving Kindness by Chris Willrich. It’s about a thief and poet who as a punishment, have to travel with a sword that affects them in ways they’re not too pleased about.
My favorite travel photographers include Marsel van Oosten and Charlie Waite. I love the simplicity they find in landscapes; Marsel van Oosten for his bold shapes and colors and Charlie Waite for his painterly approach. I’m envious of anyone who can take a good abstract photo. I’m also fascinated by abandoned places and love Obsidian Urbex’s photos from around the world. Painting-wise, Willie Fulton produces amazing atmospheric pictures that include Scotland’s Hebrides.
I’m broader minded thanks to travel. I don’t think there would be as much division in the world if everyone traveled and saw that most people are generally the same. Anyone is a possible friend. Paul Theroux said something on your podcast about true knowledge coming from direct experience. Unfortunately quoted to Chairman Mao, but as Theroux said, I think that’s true. If we stopped mass-consumerism and traveled instead, the world would probably be better off environmentally. That’s without the fact people would see first-hand how climate change is negatively affecting people and natural environments. I’m not quite a minimalist, but traveling with everything I need (including shelter) in a
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