Past and present

Oulatta, Mauritania 2014 | Fuji X100S f/2.0, ISO 2000, 1/100s

Background story

Often, when we get to faraway, exotic places, we automatically begin to look for particular sorts of images. We search for something that is entirely foreign to us, perhaps some sort of purity from our over-developed worlds, a purity which these days exists mostly only in our minds. I’ve spent much of own my photographic journey searching for this kind of imagery. It’s beautiful, but beyond that I guess I could refer to it as exotic imagery that’s idealised. 

The Oulatta Desert Festival in the Mauritanian Sahara already exudes exoticism just because of the name. I initially wanted to capture something that would match that exoticism, and I did. I have plenty of images of men in traditional costumes on camels, with nothing but desert around them. These images are one kind of reality, but, in some sense, they’re a predictable, stereotyped reality. Sometimes it’s more interesting to show the less expected. 

The main reasons it works for me

I feel that the scene in this photograph belongs to the the less expected category. We don’t necessarily imagine black smoke from a Toyota pickup when we think of a desert festival in the Sahara. Yet, it is another reality. 

I saw two realities. The idyllic past - a man in a traditional costume on his camel and the rude, smoke-belching present - a Toyota with men piling atop to catch a ride. It’s not a beautiful image, but, it works because it tells a story and it’s a little surprising or has the less expected factor. The image is the opposite of the picturesque post-card one might imagine of a camel-man in a vast desert lit by golden light. 

Main tip

@@Powerful and beautiful photographs are not necessarily two sides of the same coin.@@
— mitchellkphotos

For much of my travels I’ve had what can be likened to tunnel vision. For years I only focused on what was beautiful and exotic. Eventually I came to understand that I missed out on a lot of potentially powerful images. Please note that: Powerful and beautiful photographs are not necessarily two sides of the same coin. An image that's powerful doesn't have to be beautiful and a beautiful image can be shallow and incredibly boring.

My advice is not to limit yourself. Idyllic imagery is very visually pleasing, but, if that’s all you’re shooting all the time, you’re placing huge limitations on yourself. These days the whole world is after the pretty post-card image. If you’re even slightly interested in creating work that’s original, look beyond the typical, the clichéd. Consider the larger significance of what you see. Think of stories, of what you might be able to say with a few visual cues about the place you’re visiting.