Travel Talks : Focus on Hortencia Cisneros

March 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Loosely defined, travel photography specializes in introducing or exhibiting the culturally significant, historic, informative, or just plain awe-inspiring aspects of destinations and locales and the people or creatures who inhabit them. There are many sub-specialties - adventure travel, documentary travel, architectural, etc. - but it all comes back to visually telling the who, what, why, where, and how of a place. 

Every few months I'll interview an emerging or established travel photographer. My first is Hortencia Cisneros of Hortencia Cisneros Photography

She's a New York City based photographer who has shot for Christie's and Macy's, been published in W Magazine, and still finds time for travel photography - a passion she's developed since 2007. Hortencia began her photography journey in the 1990s.

Tell me a little about what drew you to photography in general, and travel photography specifically.
I was studying marketing and was bored and disinterested. I was on the subway and saw an ad for an art school in the city , so I said why not? I dropped out of college and started taking classes at SVA (School of Visual Arts) from beginners to advanced - every aspect of photography. I started assisting fashion photographers and soon decided I wanted to go to Europe to see if I could make it as a fashion photographer, and later decided fashion wasn't for me (although I love fashion). Well I loved my trip to Europe but it wasn't until 2007 that I started to use my traveling as a way of creating work I enjoyed and [seeing] places I wanted to see. I traveled to Ecuador, Argentina, Spain, Morocco, Central America, it helps if you love to travel and want to see the world and that [is] a dream to me.

What type of travel photography do you specialize in? e.g. Editorial? Documentary? Advertising or stock? Fine Art?
Editorial, for sure, but I also make it a point to work on personal projects no matter where I go.

A narrative is so important professionally: editors want to know if you are able to tell a story with your images, if it's fresh, relatable to the viewer. You want people to say 'wow who shot that? I want to see more.'
Describe your camera kit. Any must haves and favorites? Do you travel "heavy" or "light"?
Camera - d90 
Lens - 18-105mm  or 24mm for landscape shots 
Gaffers tape (it's a strong durable tape. I wrap a fair amount of it around a pen so when I need it it's easy to find and doesn't take up room in my bag)
Note pad
Backup hard drive (for traveling, it's great. it's small and easy to use)
Extra battery for my camera 
Point and Shoot (when I need to take a quick shot)
[Media] cards
Grey card (for white balance)
Few pens
Lens cleaner 
Lens filters (Polarizing, sky)
Lens hood

All these things are pretty small and easy to carry in one bag. I wish I were able to take my tripod, but on long trips I simply can't risk it being stolen or me forgetting it somewhere.

Describe your average day while on the road / in the field. (e.g. work flow, schedule, preferences, etc.)
Depends where I am, it's all relative to where I am. I people watch and I talk to the locals. I want to know where they live , work etc. I always ask if I [can] photograph them. It's important to develop a relationship and strike up communication. [She relates a story how while in Laos, tourists were routinely bused to a main road in town where the local monks would be collecting alms. So many people would just "shove cameras in their face" she wanted to yell at them.]

Also, take advantage of fancy local hotels and use their business center to access the Internet.

Model releases. Use them or no?
I don't use them [because my travel images are] not published work - [I] am not using some one's image for financial gain. But, if I were on assignment then, yes,... or if I were going to use the image for a say a gallery show (single or group) [then] yes. 

[When asking for one, you] explain as best you can what a model release is and what you're going to be using it for.
Top three things a travel photographer shouldn't leave home without.
Passport, wet wipes, backup HD [hard drive]. This is not in [any] order. I work from a list of things to get before I head out.

Wet wipes?
I have to have them. Even when carrying hand sanitizer. Plus some places are so dusty and dirty and I need to keep the camera clean. [She tells another story about being in a Calcutta movie theater bathroom - no toilet paper but working toilets that some chose not to take advantage of].

Travel safety has been in the news lately. How do you handle yourself?
Since I mostly travel alone, I blend in. You walk and act like you're a local. I like to be very aware of my surroundings. I feel it's easier for me when I travel alone, since it keeps me aware of everything and everyone around me. You [need to] have awareness everywhere you go.

Best destination you've shot and why.
India. People are so happy about being photographed. They, in fact, ask to be photographed, it's refreshing.
Most challenging destination and what you learned from it.
Morocco and Cuba. Moroccan people were not receptive to [photographers] and, in Cuba, I simply was not prepared in my photography. But I want to return to both places and approach it with a new vision and lessons learned.

In what way were you not prepared?
Morocco is a religious country and woman are not used to being photographed there. I was also asked more than once to pay to photograph a mosque.[Once] while... at a local beach, [I saw] a local was making sand animals. I started to photograph the "sand animal" (not the man) [and] was told I had to pay for taking a photo. I'm very sensitive to the culture and show respect. When I return I'll try to find a way into the culture through other women.

In Cuba, I found it was easier to travel alone.
How do you prepare for assignments? Or, do you shoot more on spec? Both?
I figure out where I want to go and research places in that country. I take notes, read blogs and travel books, look through magazines. I haven't had any paid assignments as yet, so when I travel I think of it as a working assignment, but I also remember to have fun. [I] make sure I have the gear I want and need.

Do you keep in mind the publication you're interested in submitting to? Or, create your images more intuitively?
Intuitively. But when I do research in a book store or magazine shop, I write down the contact information and later contact them personally by phone to try and establish a relationship. I went to a seminar recently where a photo editor said most don't even look at emailed submissions.

Do you develop a shot list or do any pre-shoot scouting?
No. You get only what you need [and] know what you need. If it's local, there are more opportunities to scout first. When working internationally, I get the tourist shots along with the ones that interest me as a photographer. But [you] don't need the longest lens or the most expensive camera. You just need to know what you are doing with what you have and have fun. Enjoy what you're doing.
What role does post-capture processing play in your work? HDR?
Some. I use CS5 (Adobe Creative Suite 5). I use the color balance and cropping, nothing major. I'm not a fan of overproduced enhanced images. I keep to my style and please the client. When on-assignment, you may not have the time to do a lot of editing. If the client wants to see your (unedited) work and it doesn't look like what they're expecting, that's the first and last time you'll work with them. It's important not to over-stylize or give an unrealistic idea of a culture, country, or people.

What's on your travel photography "bucket list"?
Africa , Cuba, China, South Korea, New Zealand, Oz, the South Pole, [North] America, South America, Central America. It's endless.
What (travel) photographers inspire you? Who are you watching?
I don't follow any ONE [person]. I am inspired by many people and things and look at many magazines, not just travel, but food , home decor. I look at everything for inspiration.
Anything else you would like to add?

Have fun, enjoy yourself, keep shooting if you're passionate about your work. Editing is HUGE! DON'T BE AFRAID TO EDIT. 

[Note: We had some technical difficulties during the interview process. Thanks Hortencia for being gracious and re-typing your answers!]


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