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How to Turn Your Travel Photography into a “Real” Job

You’re literally being paid to visit exotic cities and landscapes and take photos of what you see.

by Katherine Gillespie
19 June 2018, 12:55am

Photography throughout by Sarah Pannell

This article is supported by NAB’s Platinum Visa Debit card, which can elevate your overseas experience. In this series, we look at the interconnection between travel and money.

Travel photography is the holy grail for many. Think about it—you’re literally being paid to visit exotic cities and landscapes and take photos of what you see. You’d be doing that on a normal holiday anyway! And usually at a significant expense.

Melbourne-based documentary photographer Sarah Pannell knows the rush of going out on assignment. In recent years her work has taken her to Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and beyond. And she’s worked with all kinds of clients, from the New Yorker to us.

Instagram is full of nice vacation photos, but few of us manage to turn our snapshots into a viable career. We asked Pannell about out how she went from RMIT grad to fully fledged travel photographer.

Photograph what you love

With enough skill, you can take a photograph of anything or anyone and make that subject compelling to the viewer. But Pannell says the key to her success as a travel photographer has been developing a personal style—and that’s meant narrowing down her practice and figuring out what she’s interested in doing with the camera. The turning point was a trip to Turkey in her early twenties.

“That was when I became more focussed on storytelling, rather than just producing eye-catching travel shots,” she explains. “It has been about making the work personal, and I think that’s key. I shoot commercial photos, of course, but those are not what I’d put on my website or social media.”

It all comes back around. While Pannell started out funding her own travels to the countries that excited her—she’s particularly enamoured with Iran —she now gets clients through showing off those photos that she paid for. “Most of the work I get now I get because of that personal work I shot of my own accord,” she says. “So I'll go somewhere because I want to go there and it interests me, and that leads to commissions and grant money. Being able to really identify my own style—to have the confidence to shoot in a certain way—has been key to any success I've had.”

Stand out by going to unusual places

There's an abundance of wannabe travel photographers out there, with many of them posting their images of rugged Patagonian mountain ranges or sun-drenched tropical islands to Instagram and gaining tens of thousands of likes. “You’ll notice there’s a certain formula to it,” Pannell says. The key, she thinks, is not to fall in line with established travel photography trends. It sounds obvious, but try visiting the countries that all those influencers aren’t bothering with.

“A lot of people are going to the same sorts of places, and I think it's interesting to see other places that aren't getting through as much,” she says. “There are so many countries in the world that don't get the attention.”

For Pannell, photographing Iran has been incredibly rewarding. She’s even got fans there. “On Instagram analytics Iran is one of my top five countries and I get a lot of people messaging me from there—which is so cool, because I want that audience to see the work—I don't want it to be that fetishised foreigner thing where only Australians are looking at the photos.

“Getting messages from Iranians who are excited about the work is the best thing possible, because the work is about them.”

Don’t be ignorant

There’s a huge difference between being a travel photographer and a tourist. Pannell is careful to research the countries she visits; her fascination with the Middle East actually began before her photography practice took off, while undertaking international studies at university.

“I studied Middle Eastern history and politics and I've always been fascinated with it,” she explains. “So after a few years it clicked that I needed to go there.”

Pannell is sensitive to avoiding cultural stereotypes when she takes photos. “The Middle East is a region that seems daunting to women travelling solo, but it's definitely not as bad as it seems, and I think it's important to go there and show people what their misconceptions are,” she says.

“People were so horrified when I first went to Iran, but it's such a safe place. There’s a huge stigma that Iranians have had to deal with. And as a photographer I'm drawn to breaking down that stigma.”

Be smart with your money

Pannell proves that it’s totally possible to make a career out of your creative passion, as long as you’re smart about it. “I've always been pretty good with managing what smallish income I have,” she says. “Ever since I was in first year of uni and started travelling, I've always saved up all my money and put it back into travelling and taking photos. That's what makes me happy, and that's really all I want to do.”

To fund her adventures, Pannell balances out paid and unpaid travel assignments with commercial photography work when she’s back home in Melbourne. She also works occasional shifts as a developer at Hillvale Photo, which has instilled in her a love of film.

“I've defined my style and the way I want to shoot while working there,” she explains.

It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been worth it.

“It's a real roundabout route to success,” she says. “It's hard! But if I can be paid to travel, go to a new place in Australia or overseas or wherever, that's my ideal situation.”

This article is supported by NAB’s Platinum Visa Debit card, which provides a more seamless money experience when traveling with no foreign currency fees on international purchases. You can find out more here.