The Guardian ran a travel photography contest last year (I didn't enter; I didn't even know about it until I saw the results posted here) - they even have a dedicated travel photography page. It is important for papers like The Guardian to stay within the photographic world, promoting journalistic and visual skills in a discipline increasingly dominated by Instagram and selfies. The thing is, a travel photography contest is such an odd concept and has a number of flaws.
I understand the premise that people go on holiday and take photographs; in fact it's probably the time when most of us make the largest percentage of our yearly quota of photographs. I also understand that many of these holidays are themselves taken with specific photographic destinations and subject matter in mind. That's fine too, to an extent, but the genre of travel photography itself is also problematic.
Essentially, travel photography is the only photographic convention that's defined by what the photographer him or herself is doing. In travel photography it's the photographer who is travelling, not the subject. In every other genre of photography it's the subject that takes precedence. One could argue that journalistic photography also applies to what the photographer is doing, but I don't think it does as the photographer is not usually the journalist: they are working with a writer to capture newsworthy images. In fact, the word journalistic is an adjective used to describe the resulting image, whereas travel is a verb or a noun telling us what someone is doing.
Why is it a problem, then, that travel photography stands alone in this way?
When institutions start awarding prizes to amateur travel photographers they are assuming that the images entered will fit the criteria of being taken whilst travelling away from home, or on holiday. Professional travel photographers, who make money from photographing holiday destinations or far flung corners of the world for magazines, don't count here. If you look at the entries in The Guardian's travel photography contest, more than a few of them could have been taken by people who, very simply, were not travelling. They may have been locals who happened to capture a good shot of somewhere close to where they live; they may been on a lunch break from work in the city they travel to every day. Then again, they may have flown 4,000 miles to take a photograph of a specific building. The point is that there's no way of knowing and therefore no way of judging whether or not someone is eligible to enter and win (please note: I'm not accusing any of the entrants of trying to cheat the system; this is purely hypothetical).
And just how far do you have to move for the journey to become a sufficiently worthy distance for it to be considered an act of travelling? The next country? The next city; the next street? Would a street photography image taken on the other side of your own city qualify for entry into a travel photography contest? Are mileages quoted in the rules? These might be important considerations for establishing boundaries to entry, especially when prizes with substantial monetary value are on offer.
If we re-interpret the brief by using the definition of travel to mean either photographing something whilst the photographer is physically moving during a journey, or looking at other people who are travelling (as The Guardian's winning image does appear to be) it becomes too literal to be taken seriously. We should then accept that other layers of meaning could be applied to other genres: portrait photography could be any photograph taken in a strongly portrait orientation, or architectural photography could be images of computer circuitry.
Furthermore, the style of image very often associated with the genre is a romanticized view of the primitive or the poor in developing nations. Whilst this can lead to interesting results under the right circumstances, too much emphasis on this gives the impression of a sort of Colonial voyeurism. Looking closely at human subjects who lack something important that the photographer or viewer does not, no matter how colourful the subject's clothes or how much they seem to smile, reminds us of our place in the world in relation to them. Whilst this is inevitable and applies also to painting, sculpture and other arts throughout history, the word travel in the genre name implies arriving, looking, then leaving. It all seems too clinical, especially when the object of the exercise is to make money or win prizes with these images.
From a purely practical viewpoint, we all need fresh motivation at times and a stint of travel photography might encourage creativity. It might, although I would argue that it's wiser to spend one's time fully exploring local environs before venturing off into the wilderness of neighbouring continents like a food lover on a gastronomic journey of greedy delight. There is so much to be found by looking closely at the place in which you live, maybe at different times of day or year, in diverse weather or with new camera equipment. Of course, you can do both at different times, but learning to see things around you and to pick out the unexpected or serendipitous details within the familiar is very good practice for making sense of the chaos often encountered when travelling to new places.
I'm not against travelling and I'm not against travel photography, per se. What I contest is its place as a photographic genre that rewards individuals with prizes if their work cannot be properly accredited, or if it is part of a system that continues a tradition of collecting exotic artefacts (or images) for prestige and financial gain without any understanding of the original context. It would be better to use terms like street photography or people photography or even social documentary photography instead when setting competitions. Be realistic and accurate about what it is that is being rewarded and why.
(How far did I travel to take the above image? It was actually shot in Virginia Water in Surrey, a few miles from where I live in London. The Roman columns were taken from present day Libya in 1816 by British officer Commander WH Smythe, as a gift for England's Prince Regent. You can read more about them here.)