There’s an instagram account called insta_repeat. Each post is a composite of twelve photos of an identical (or very similar) location. Each photo is taken by a different photographer. If not a landscape, the post of twelve almost identical photos may show a particular photography trope such as the view from a tent doorway, or feet next to a camp fire, or the photographers legs dangling over a cliff above Horseshoe Bend. Every post shows twelve almost indistinguishable travel photos gleaned from Instagram and highlighting the banality of the “instagrammable” culture: if I photograph this place, or this activity, with myself in it, it means that I too am cool, maybe even cool enough to become an influencer. Among a certain large group of youthful travellers their culture on Instagram has become so devoid of truth, spontaneity, and originality, and so focused on lifestyle, as to be devoid of real meaning.
Which brings me to another photography trope: that of having a single person in a shot that is not entirely, or not even a little, about the person. Frequently it is used in landscape shots to indicate scale. Often the photographer sets up the shot, and then using a timer quickly rushes to insert himself into it, and stands surveying the scene with one leg casually bent. It seems to me that it’s less about showing scale and more about showing off. Their disingenuousness makes me cringe. Still, although photographing an image with a single person in it is overused it can be very powerful, and some of my favourite photographers use it frequently, to great effect. Used in the right way the single person in an image gives it life.
Which brings me to my own use of this particular trope. For me it is sometimes about indicating scale. In other cases it’s about making an otherwise ordinary background more interesting, giving context and meaning to it. Sometimes the background is plain, and that’s what makes the image powerful because it best highlights the person. And sometimes the background is the statement but the person walking by enhances it and allows the viewer to place themselves there.
Here then is a collection of images from around the world with just one person that tells, or highlights the story.
Antofagasta, Chile, 2013
We did a road trip by bus in South America: Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile, two days later Santiago to La Serena, two days later La Serena to Antofagasta, two days later Antofagasta to San Pedro de Atacama. All the buses were double-decker, and all had seats the size airplane business-class, and on every leg we got the upstairs front seats giving us panoramic views of the landscape as we travelled. It was epic! Antofagasta is a working class town with a rough edge to it, a regular downtown core, and a small beach; an unremarkable mining town in the far north of Chile. Still, there is this bright mosaic gecko bringing a little life to an otherwise dull building. I specifically waited until someone walked by.
New Delhi, India, 2012.
We went searching for the spice market. We had visions of open stalls heaped high with bright colourful spice powders, being sold by women in bright colourful saris – a photographers’ paradise. I don’t know how it happened, but after taking the metro, and then walking for a long way through an area of crushing poverty, and then onto an extremely busy main road, and asking and asking all the way, we finally found, by venturing into side streets and narrow alleyways, the labyrinth that is the wholesale spice market. We had found our way into a place few westerners visit. It was neither pretty nor monumental, but the men (and the two women) we found in those narrow alleys, as well as being extremely industrious, were wonderfully friendly and welcoming, and seemed genuinely delighted to have us there.
Jodhpur, India, 2012
The houses in Jodhpur were painted blue for practical reasons. Going back in history they were originally painted with lime-wash. Since Jodhpur has an arid climate it is prone to be infested with termites who were prone to destroy the lime-wash. It was discovered that the termites could be repelled by adding copper salts to the lime-wash, which caused it to turn blue. Here, a woman in a contrasting orange sari highlights the bright cerulean walls.
Chartres, France, 2019
On our way down to the river I see this man coming towards us. He’s one of very few people we see on the ancient cobblestone streets. It turns out he’s not French though I would have sworn he was. We chat a while and he reveals that he’s 90, from Boston, and has lived in Chartres with his French wife for the past ten years.
Mingun, Myanmar, 2013
The largest working bell in the world was ordered by the unhinged King Bodawpaya. The Mingun Bell was cast in bronze in 1808, and weighs 90 metric tons. Bodawpaya was very powerful and more than a little insane; he had the master craftsman killed to make sure he never again made anything as big. A buddhist monk leans nonchalantly against it highlighting the size of the bell. I, like many others, crawled under and inside it and encountered a group of pink and orange clad nuns who had done the same.
Vancouver, Canada, 2019
In almost all parts of this city smoking is banned, so smokers must find a place away from the crowds. But for me this photo has nothing to do with the fact that she’s smoking, and little to do with the woman herself except for the colour of her dress and shoes. It was the colours that caught my eye; the three primary colours highlighted against the neutral grey background forming a minimalist, contemporary design.
Montreal, Canada, 2019
Every year we go to Montreal for Christmas with family who live there, except for 2020 of course when an invisible pesky little creature made it an unwise choice. Anyway it usually snows there during December but not that much. I was always waiting for a really big snowfall, the kind with really big soft flakes that makes it worth photographing. Finally I got my chance, grabbed coat hat scarf gloves boots, and raced out into the suburban streets. I think this would be a pretty mundane urban winter landscape, but the woman in it makes it personal.
La Paz, Bolivia, 2013
After a three day overland trip from San Pedro de Atacama across the Bolivian altiplano to the Uyuni salt flats we flew to La Paz, Bolivia’s capital. I don’t remember why we decided to not spend time in La Paz; instead we took a bus straight to Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. I took this photo from the bus while waiting to leave La Paz. Mi ciudad esta cambiando – My city is changing.
Near Cusco, Peru, 2014
For over three weeks we were based in Cusco, the still-beating heart of the Inca Empire, as we explored the Urubamba Valley. It is known as the Sacred Valley because it was the property of the emperor and is littered with imposing Inca ruins and traditional villages. We visited such sites as Moras with its enormous circular crop terraces and the cascading salt evaporation ponds of Moray, the villages of Chinchero and Ollantaytambo, several of the more prominent Inca ruins, and of course Machu Picchu. And all along the way we encountered ordinary people living their lives pretty much in the same way as they have done for hundreds of years.
Near Edfu, Egypt, 2015
We’re on a three-night cruise on the Nile River. One of the overnight stops is at Edfu. Early in the morning we travel by horse and buggy to the Horus Temple. It sounds so regal, but the reality is much more prosaic. Our driver’s name is Abdullah. His horse, Samir, alternates between walking, trotting, and cantering. It’s a bouncy ride. Abdullah says several times very good English, very good English, though clearly this is not the case. Bouncy or not, I still manage to capture this man and his gun as we trot by.
The Horus Temple is the second largest of all Egypt’s ancient temples and is dedicated to the falcon god Horus, and his wife Hathor the cow goddess.
In December of 2014 we crossed the Pacific from Vancouver to Sydney, island hopping along the way. Flying first to Hawaii we spent four days there, then flew to Samoa. After seven days in Samoa our next stop was Fiji followed two days later by a flight to Sydney. It was one of our best travel decisions ever: no jet lag, and three mini tropical vacations along the way. This photo was taken early morning on Wailoaloa Beach.
Madaba, Jordan, 2015
We drive south from Amman, a whole day on the road with several stops, passing through the countryside, and in and out of towns. We drive through a parched desert land dotted with olive groves until we come to the town of Madaba where we stop to see the ancient mosaic map of the Holy Land. A little further on we stop at Mount Nebo, the place where Moses was granted a view of the Holy Land. To quote LovelyLittleTravel, a Tripadvisor reviewer: “not much to see. You basically just stand there and look towards Israel and then you can be on your way”. I am far more interested in what I can see from the bus window. Like this woman in Madaba,
and this Bedouin man in the desert:
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2016
We lived in San Miguel for three months. From our casita in one of the suburbs, or colonias, we would often walk into town through the narrow winding cobbled streets of Colonia Guadelupe. Guadalupe has been named a Districto de Arte, and a street art festival, known as Muros en Blanco or The Festival of White Walls is held annually. As we stroll along the streets we see hummingbirds, butterflies, dragons, flying fish, flowers, ducks, bulls, skeletons, seahorses, trees, musicians, a flying horse, and much more. At every turn there is something different to see. Different styles, colours, content; some beautiful, some surprising, some puzzling, but all fascinating.
Valladolid, Mexico, 2017
Valladolid is in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula, about half way between the state capital of Merida and the tourist resort town of Cancun. Initially Valladolid’s beauty is not obvious. There’s too much traffic on both the streets and sidewalks to see it at first but slowly the town speaks to us. Buildings in the softest candy colours line the streets. I spy them through the crowds and one day set out early, before the town is awake, to capture the beauty of this Spanish colonial town founded in 1543.
San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, 2017
San Cristobal de las Casas lies in a small valley surrounded by hills in the Central Highlands of Chiapas. It is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos and the magic is seen and felt in the red tile roofs, the Spanish Colonial buildings, and the cobblestone streets. After Oaxaca, the state of Chiapas has the highest concentration of indigenous people in Mexico and for me the magic lies in them as much as in the colonial cobbled streets. About eight blocks up the hill from the east side of the zocalo, or town square, is the market. I sat down on the curb of the street leading to the market and watched the world go by, entranced by the many different trajes, or traditional outfits, of the women.
Near the zocalo in San Cristobal a woman with a vibrant pink umbrella is highlighted against the equally vibrant yellow wall of the Spanish colonial church.
Antigua, Guatemala, 2017
Antigua charmed us with its cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial buildings, stunning Baroque masterpieces, flowers spilling over the walls of hidden courtyards, looming blue volcanoes, earthquake ruins, and the organic flurry of the market and the nearby chicken bus terminal that made it feel uniquely Guatemalan. In this photo a young woman walks down a street in the colonial core, the buildings highlighted by the late afternoon sun.
Havana, Cuba, 2017
Havana dates back to the 16th century. It has a long history, surviving pirates, wars, occupation, and revolution. In the early 1800’s when many of the mansions were built, it flourished and became so fashionable it was known as the Paris of the Antilles. Havana still lives and breathes this history, the good and the bad, creating a rich visual and energetic jumble. The city is insistent in a way that’s hard to describe. The crowded streets, the noise, the dirt, the music, the dancing, the street art, the feeling of decay and neglect all contribute to the tapestry.
Trinidad, Cuba, 2017
Trinidad is one of Cuba’s foremost tourist destinations, mainly because the centre, a few square blocks of cobblestone streets, is a well-maintained Unesco World Heritage site showcasing a Spanish Colonial town of finest quality built on the backs of the slave trade and the sugar trade. People amassed huge fortunes and built expansive, and expensive, plazas, mansions, and churches. The centre is all very pristine, but as you head out everything becomes gradually more dilapidated until you are in the rough and gritty suburbs, which are more authentically Cuban and for me more interesting. For lunch one day we score a table on the balcony of a nice restaurant overlooking the Plaza Mayor and sit there for a long time watching the passing parade.
Next post: swinging back over to Japan for a day trip to Nara, one of Japan’s ancient capitals, with a whole lot of free-range deer.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.