Battling Expectations
April 13th, 2010

Basilica San Marco - Venice, Italy

Basilica San Marco - Venice, Italy

You know that image that you’re currently envisioning from your next trip? You know, the one you already see hanging on your wall in a beautifully artistic frame? The one you’re going to proudly tell everybody that you shot in Italy, India, Mongolia, Mexico, wherever it may be that you’re going? Well, forget it. Right now! That image isn’t going to happen. If you set out to find and create that image, then you’re destined to experience frustration. Wear a helmet because you’ll be beating your head against walls.

Tomorrow I leave for Liguria. It’s a special place for me. My wife Silvia and I didn’t meet there, but we got to know each other in Liguria. We spent a lot of time roaming the villages and rocky coastline. It’s really easy for me to have expectations about this trip. I can visualize the image now of the weathered fisherman tending to his nets along the pebbly, morning-lit beach with a beautifully battered green rowboat, with its peeling paint, as the backdrop. Man, that’s a killer shot that I see! It’d look great on my wall! But if I set off to Italy intent on finding and shooting that image, well… woe is me. That would be a mistake. If I do that, then I’ll walk right by the beautiful young girl feeding a half dozen kittens from the stone steps of her picturesque villa nestled in an olive grove. Yep, I won’t even see them. I’ll be too busy looking for fishermen, nets and green boats.

This trip to Liguria (and then Venice) is a photo tour/workshop (with my accomplice David duChemin). I think the best way to do a touring workshop would be to not know the destination. If I could, I’d sell participants a week of intrigue. I wouldn’t announce the destination. I’d just tell everyone to get themselves to point A, and that I’d take it from there (getting them to a different point B). Then people could arrive and react to what they see instead of battling their expectations. Unfortunately, visa requirements, control issues and innate curiosity make that an unlikely trip to occur. However, that would be the best way to keep us from being blinded and frustrated by our unrealistic expectations.

Since our expectations will always haunt us, what can we visualize in anticipation of an exciting journey that might not blind our vision? Well, what works for me might not work for you, but I’m thinking about focaccia al formaggio right out of the oven from a specific small, hole-in-the wall shop along the promenade in Camogli. I’m not going to photograph that focaccia; so don’t expect to see that photo here. I’m going to eat it! And then another. And to hell with my waistline, maybe one more (sorry, Silvia). As long as I keep dreaming about that focaccia al formaggio, the trofie al pesto, and, while I’m not a big white wine drinker if I happen across it, a glass of Laura Aschero Pigato I’m not building up photo expectations that will frustrate me once I arrive.

Food works for me as this distraction; it’s another passion of mine. Yes, it too might prove to be an unrealistic expectation, but that’s OK. If that focaccia al formaggio isn’t quite as good as my brain likes to remember, then I’ll be a little bit disappointed. However, I’m not flying to Italy to eat focaccia al formaggio. That’s just a bonus; this is a photo trip. Unrealistic photo expectations are the demons that I have to keep at bay in order to avoid frustration and disappointment; so tonight I’ll be dreaming about focaccia and not the weathered hands of village fishermen with more character than all the actors in Hollywood combined.

What other passion can you use to keep unrealistic expectations at bay?

7 Responses to “Battling Expectations”

  1. Jeffrey, I can definitely appreciate what you are saying about the unrealistic expectations. However, how do you keep the unrealistic expectations at bay, yet also be well “prepared” to engage your destination, i.e. becoming familiar with the geography, being aware of certain cultural do’s/don’ts, knowing what the weather is like, when the sun rises/sets, etc.

    It seems that it is important to know some of those specifics in order to be well prepared, yet those specifics can also contribute to unrealistic expectations. Thoughts?

  2. Mark says:

    Beautiful post. Travel safe.

  3. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    Shun-Luoi, the things you mention are all important for a traveler, but they are not unique to photographers. Being aware of the weather, culture, food, etc. doesn’t have to lead to imaging the photos that you hope to capture. I always want to be prepared for my destination, but I’d prefer to avoid photo expectations.

    I know that a lot of photographers cyber-scout locations in order to predetermine the kinds of photos they hope to capture. I think that’s a recipe for frustration. Seeing the photos of another might spark an initial interest in a location, but I hope to have those photos out of my mind by the time I arrive.

    (Note also that I’m talking about random travel/street photography here. A commercial, even editorial, shoot would obviously be a completely different undertaking. And in that case, showing up without clear ideas and expectations would be a recipe for failure.)

    Mark, thanks.

  4. I think more than NOT having expectations, there’s a bigger principle at work here. Expectations close us off, they blind us to what IS there because we’re too busy looking for what ISN’T. As photographers and travelers it’s important we remain open, present, observant, and anything that stands in the way of that should be forsaken. That might be expectations, it might be rushing through a place instead of stopping a while, and it might be – probably is – too much gear weighing us down.

  5. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    David, hmm, light and slow… like one camera, wine money and a comfy seat with a view? Sign me up!

  6. james dawson says:

    This idea of expectations of forced awareness is somewhat addressed by Gross and Shapiro int heir book “The Tao of Photography – Seeing Beyond Seeing”

    “The practise of mindfulness, especially in the beginning, can be experienced as a conflict between two forces; the will (effort and discipline) to remain consciously aware pitted against the habit of unawareness. To facilitate the practise of mindfulness, one can engage in activities that either reinforce the will to be conscious or reduce the habit of unawareness. Camerawork practise has the potential to do both. It fortifies the photographer’s will to remain alert so that an exceptional moment can be captured on film and it helps to reduce the habit of unawareness because the camera can only capture an image in the here and now: the photographer is compelled, moment by moment, to remain in tune with the present.” page 123 ..

    from “The Tao of Photography – Seeing Beyond Seeing”
    by Philippe L. Gross and S.I. Shapiro with forward by Duane Preble

  7. Rob Knight says:

    Jeffery, I learned the perils of expectations on a trip to Costa Rica several years ago. I was frustrated with the pictures I was making all week. I realized that I was not SEEING as much as I was LOOKING for photographs that I had seen before. I was so hung up trying to make “good” pictures that I was missing the whole experience. It’s tough to make compelling images of your experiences when you’re not paying attention to them! The next time I went to Costa Rica I made fewer photos, but I made more photos that I liked. More important than that, I had an amazing time and made some great friends.

    When I travel somewhere new I like to have some idea of things I want to do and (especially) places I want to eat, but I don’t put much thought into images I might want to make. I like to focus on what’s going on around me and let the pictures happen naturally.

    The best way for a photographer to prepare for a trip is to know your camera gear! If you’re busy trying to figure out how to change your aperture or which lens to use, you won’t have the chance to capture that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    great post… safe travels,


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