How Travel Photography Saved My Career

I can recall proclaiming in a near obnoxious tone that I strictly photographed people whenever someone asked me what I photograph. This was when I was in my late teens to early twenties, bright-eyed, and full of unrivaled, millennial nerve. I prided myself on photographing people and condescended on humdrum subjects like landscapes. People are interesting and dynamic. Landscapes can’t talk to you and are mundanely stagnant. Good thing this perspective didn’t last very long since I have landscapes and travel photography to thank for saving my career.


The Backstory

After graduation I didn’t just dive head first with trying to make photography work as a career, I bulldozed it with a Komatsu D575A! I was determined to prove to the world (and by world I mean my parents) that I would be successful. At the time I equated success with money, fame, and by how busy my calendar appeared. As a budding photographer I did everything possible to uphold these pillars of success. Sleep was optional and productivity was king. I honed many of my current hard skills during this time period, but gradually I began to breakdown physically and spiritually. Despite upkeeping my success pillars by working with bigger people/companies, meetings with potential photo reps, and juggling a chaotic schedule I found myself unfulfilled by my mid-twenties. That overconfident version of me soon discovered the toils of the real world. Bigger names didn’t guarantee bigger numbers on the budget sheet. Meeting with agents were more like awkward online dates. Packed schedules felt like a soulless office job and left little time for relationships. Periodically I’d reignite my creative spirit with sabbatical trips to New York [The Power of Time Off,] however there wasn’t enough miles between Los Angeles and Manhattan to separate me from the actual thing that was destroying my photography career: myself.

The way I viewed success as a photographer was absolutely toxic. My perspective spiritually took me to a place where my anxieties were the decision makers. Despite a portfolio with internationally recognized faces and brands, everything I did never reached my unrealistic standard. Photography wasn’t fun anymore and by continuing to bulldoze a career out of it I dug myself into a hole of artistic depression. Throughout this time I saved face to hide everything I was dealing with, which only made things worse internally. Clearly I needed a real break, but my workaholic habits would only leave me feeling guilty if I dared to let my productivity drop.

Mount Baldy by Melly Lee (

Luckily for my natural curiosity outweighs guilt and when a friend and I decided to Mount Baldy my interest in travel spiked. My friend, Yohan Yoon, was about to move from Los Angeles to Myanmar and hiking up to its highest point sounded like the best way to commemorate the city. Mount Baldy is an hour’s drive away from the city, but it looks and feels so far away. Aside for Yohan and other hikers on the trail, I was completely isolated. I couldn’t even busy myself with nonsense on my phone since I lacked reception. There wasn’t anyone or anything that I could compare myself to and thereby induce detrimental anxiety from. I had even left my big fancy camera at home. The pressure of making everything a great shot was gone. This initial taste of euphoria through reconnecting with nature opened my mind to healthier approach to my life and career.


Journey, not Destination

After that first hike to Mount Baldy I was hooked on exploring and getting into more remote areas. In the last couple of years I’ve become an avid backpacker and characteristically I’d document my trips with photos. When you’re spending multiple days in the wilderness you’ll quickly learn that you can prepare for most things, but nature has a mind of its own. Through travel I was literally forced into understanding that relinquishing control is acceptable and that it’s also not the same as giving up. There have been plenty of trips in which my friends and I didn’t reach our destination or conditions weren’t right for the photo I wanted take. The only options you have when conditions aren’t ideal are to let go and adapt. Adapting is part of the journey and in that process there’s still plenty of ways to grow and adventures to be had.

This gradual change in mindset relays back to my photographic career by allowing me to not only be at ease, but also appreciate the downtime during the slow season. When things are slow rather than plummet to my untimely death I find things to do such as create personal project, catch up with friends, or take another trip somewhere.


You and No One Else

White Sands National Monument

Traveling is such a personal experience because even when you travel with others what you feel and process is completely yours and no one else’s.  There’s something very beautiful knowing that you can go someplace look at the same famous tree/mountain/rock/valley/etc and your moment is unquestionably exclusive to you. What are the odds that another person of the same gender and background, wore an identical outfit, was in the same stage of life as you, stood in the exact same spot, and mirrored your same emotions? Close to none. With that said on my trips I would document my journey in bits and pieces for no other reason than because they were interesting to me. The moments resonated with me because of a genuine emotional response. I wasn’t takings photos for clients or my portfolio. I took them for my own memories.

Creating unique images is what you’re paid to do as a professional photographer. Ironically when you’re desperately trying to make a unique image you’ll most likely end up with a discounted version of another famous image. This pressure was significantly reduced after I learned to appreciate my own individualism and made images that were meaningful to me. Photography became fun again.


Community is Key

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

I often venture off with nothing else but a 28L backpack and camera. However, I find traveling with others more rewarding and memorable. There’s a higher chance that you’ll go farther and experience things that weren’t on your list because you’ll come to rely on each other as a team. On top of distributing travel chores amongst your teammates, you’ll also be able to relive the adventures through sharing stories together years down the line. Richer and more compelling stories will reemerge when you look through old photographs as a collective memory.

Building a community around travel trickled back down into my network back home. Before prioritizing travel my workaholic nature rarely made time to foster relationships. Graciously that changed because no one can make it in the creative industry with the support from others. As a photographer I’m only as good as my team backing me. As an artist there’s only so far I can go without the support from my friends and colleagues. Community gives people a reason to cheer for you and collectively wants to be successful by elevating its members.


Final Thoughts

Jessika Van by Melly Lee (

I’m very thankful for my innate curiosity and resourcefulness. If it were not for these traits I might not have left the city and discovered travel photography. Without traveling I could foresee myself burning out and then quickly calling it quits with photography. Venturing outside of Los Angeles was the catalyst of personal growth and artistic change. While portraiture still remains at the heart of what I love capturing, I now incorporate elements from my travels to the images. Ultimately this brings another level of detail and narrative to the images.



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