Travel Writing and Photography: A Conversation with Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

May 17, 2013 11 Comments

A Wanderer’s Path — Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan. (Photo by Yilin)

For as long as I remember, I’ve been passionate about two things–writing and traveling. While traveling in Japan and China last summer, I began reflecting on the link between those two interests, which led me to discover travel writing.

As I delved into the field, a question flew through my mind: 

What does it take to be a good travel writer and photographer?

To learn more, I not only read handbooks such as The Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing, but also contacted Ursula Maxwell-Lewis, a very knowledgeable journalist and photographer who has worked in regions around the world. I first met Ursula while volunteering at the 2012 Surrey International Writer’s Conference, where I had the chance to shadow her as a photographer. She graciously took time to answer my questions. Thank you for your suggestions and encouragement, Ursula!

Ursula’s Biography

Ursula Maxwell-Lewis, though born in Scotland, began her career as a journalist in South Africa. She worked as a writer, photographer, and public relations professional in Central and East Africa, Europe, Britain and Canada, before establishing a successful British Columbia community newspaper. Her freelance writing and photography assignments have lured her across Africa, Asia, North America, Mexico, and Europe. Ursula is Director Emeritus of the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, a former president of the Travel Media Association of Canada (BC chapter), and has served on assorted Surrey Heritage Services committees, including the Surrey Library Board.

Photo from Ursula

Q&A with Ursula about Travel Writing & Photography

How did you become a travel writer/photographer?

I trained as a journalist in South Africa, and worked there as a general news reporter. Travel writing, for me, is simply an extension of that. Initially, a photographer was assigned to work with me. Today, newspapers and magazines often require that writers be photographers, and photographers also become writers. Changes in technology have facilitated this, and so have economics. Often a writer knows how he, or she, would like the story illustrated, and prefers to take their own pictures anyway. Becoming good photographers gives writers an edge when selling stories.

How did you learn about the field (hands-on work, books, classes, shadowing, etc.)? What did you find the most helpful? 

As with most careers, studying the work of writers and photographers you admire is important. With both disciplines, but particularly with photography, I’m always searching for ways to improve. I’m a self-taught photographer, but attend any lectures that happen to be available.

One of my favorite photographers is Timothy Allen. He talks about one of his BBC assignments in this video. Perhaps it’s because I’m fascinated with character studies, and he does them so well.

In 1996, I started my own newspaper, The Cloverdale Reporter. I had to learn to do everything – and fast! Black Press Group bought the Reporter from me in 2009. Now, I write bi-weekly travel columns (which include photographs) for the group.

What are the most important knowledge and skills that a travel writer/photographer should have? 

Curiosity is key. So are fact checking, good writing, and flawless spelling.

Learn to ask questions without being intrusive. Aim for unique photographs that tell their own “stand alone” stories, then expand on that with your text.

Of course, if you have a great story, keep your eyes peeled for photographs that will best illustrate the tale.

Photo releases are also important. You have to learn who, and what, you can, and cannot, photograph.

What are the qualities of a good travel article?

Canal Journey — Suzhou, China. (Photo by Yilin)

Successful travel articles entertain and inform readers, but also inspire them to tackle their own adventures–whether near or far. Sometimes readers just want to travel vicariously, meaning they simply enjoy the journey through the writer’s eyes.

What are the qualities of a good travel photo?

I think many factors comprise a good travel shot, just like any photograph. Generally, in my opinion, it’s one that makes you stop and think. But, there is so much to learn about photography.

What common mistakes do people make when they learn travel writing/photography?

They give their work away. I believe all writers and photographers should be paid. Some think that just getting a ‘tear’ sheet is sufficient. I disagree.

Any advice about the pitching or submission process?

Be sure to research the style, recent story lines, and requirements of the publications you are going to pitch. Websites occasionally tell you how the publication, or editor, wishes to be approached. If you email an editor, be sure to offer two, or three, story options. If he, or she, is interested you’ll get a reply.

Where to Find Ursula Online

Ursula is very active online and you can find her in many places around the web. She tweets often and maintains a Facebook page, while her work appears regularly on The Cloverdale Reporter website and in other publications. You can also find her photography on flickr and watch videos on her YouTube channel.


  1. Reply

    Lynne Chesters Nielsen

    May 17, 2013

    Good article! I am looking forward to reading your upcoming post, Writing Craft- Expand Your Vocabulary. Your “header” is a beautiful and interesting photograph, especially the lovely Pink Cherry Blossom Tree, managing to survive the cluster of development surrounding it.

    • Reply


      May 18, 2013

      Hi Lynne, thank you for stopping by on my blog! I’ll definitely write a post about how a writer can expand her vocabulary. My header is a picture of the skyline in Vancouver, where I live.

  2. Reply

    Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

    May 17, 2013

    Hello Yilin:

    It has been a pleasure working with you on this project, as well as at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. You were a very good ‘shadow’! I’m glad SiWC director Shilo Hebert introduced us.

    I love your photos of Japan and China – particularly the one of Suzhou. It is a fascinating destination. I wish I’d had more time there – particularly to photograph the canals, and life on them.

    You are a very good writer, and I shall look forward to reading more of your work as time goes by.
    Enjoy your upcoming studies in Edinburgh! All best wishes, and many thanks ~ Ursula

    • Reply


      May 18, 2013

      Hello Ursula:

      Thanks for your kind words. Yeah, it was very nice of Shilo to introduce us. I mentioned that I’d be interested in helping out with photography, and she suggested that I shadow you.

      Suzhou has a rich history and I really enjoyed my visit there. I got to meet some family friends who showed me around and took walks around different neighborhoods in the city.

      Hope you have a nice weekend!

      – Yilin

  3. Reply

    Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

    May 18, 2013

    Lucky you to have family guides there. China is simply fascinating. I was only there for two weeks – which, of course, wasn’t nearly enough. Maybe one day I’ll return.

    Enjoy your long weekend, and thanks again!

    ~ Ursula

  4. Reply

    Shari Green

    May 19, 2013

    Interesting interview! Thanks so much, Yilin and Ursula. 🙂

    • Reply


      May 22, 2013

      Thanks for dropping by my blog, Shari!

  5. Reply


    May 23, 2013

    wow I really enjoyed reading your blog and find everything very informative. it has been a dream of mine to write, travel and do photography. these three things are my passion as well as just simply talking to people or at least, people find it easy to talk to me – i have been told – and oft find myself hearing their whole life stories. it happens to me wherever i go, on a bus, in a coffee shop, wherever. It has been that way my whole life. I am a single mom to my wonderfull daughter Tauri and a full time psychology, sociology and ethics student at the university of the western cape -south africa- and I am so pleased that coming across your blog has given me an idea to combine all my passions in one. wow… of all the words swimming around in my head and all the emotion i feel as I write this ‘WOW’ is all i can come up with. the only way I can describe a ‘light-bub-moment’. Thank you. ever think of coming to South Africa?

  6. Reply

    Ursula Maxwell-Lewis

    August 1, 2013

    Hi Lauren:
    South Africa is a spectacular country. I know, because I grew up there! You have a wealth of untold stories at your fingertips – the charm of Stellenbosch, carvings done with stinkwood, sociology as it relates to South Africa, university life in the Cape. This list goes on. A few paragraphs on a blog might get you started. Good luck! ~ Ursula

    • Reply


      August 14, 2013

      Thank you for your encouragement Ursula, it has just dawned on me that ‘traveling the world’ begins in my own back yard. South Africa is so rich in every respect and you helped me to remember that. Sometimes one looks past the obvious. Now if I can find the time to set up a blog… i’m a bit of a technophobe. Thanks, again… chat soon.


      • Reply

        Travelling Times

        November 5, 2013

        Hope you got that blog going, Lauren! 🙂