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 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.
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.
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?
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.