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View finders: Travel photographers' images of the world during the pandemic

Model figures in watermelon Photo by Erin Sullivan

The novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc in countless ways, not least, grounding millions of travelers. How did professional travel photographers respond over the last year? We asked four leaders in the field—including an Oscar-winning climber and an Instagram star—to share their photographs and their experiences.

Alison Wright

New York City in March 2020

Taken with a Nikon D850 with a 24–70mm lens, exposing the frame at f/6.3 for 1/500 second

Documentary photographer Alison Wright

Bona fides: Documentary photographer and author who has published 10 books, including Human Tribe, a collection of portraits celebrating the diverse tapestry of humanity
Home: New York City

“In early 2020, I was looking forward to a year of assignments—to Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Bhutan, and Papua New Guinea, among other places. When the pandemic hit, I was opening a photo exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in Vermont. I took the train back to New York and it looked like a ghost town. I do a lot of humanitarian post-disaster photography work: Haiti after the earthquake, Sri Lanka after the tsunami. Now, a crisis had come to my city, and I felt compelled to document it. I walked every day, sometimes 15 miles or more. I took this photo in late March near my neighborhood, at Eighth Avenue and West 46th Street. It was strange to see New York streets so empty. I knew I was documenting a moment in history. One positive outcome is that disasters bring people together. I’d been living in New York City for about 10 years but never felt like a real New Yorker. Now that we’ve been through so much together, I feel a special affinity for this city.”

Chris Burkard

Taken with a Sony a7RIV with a 35mm f/1.4 lens, exposing the frame at f/1.4 for 15 seconds

Taken with a Sony a7RIV with a 35mm f/1.4 lens, exposing the frame at f/1.4 for 15 seconds.

Adventure photographer Chris Burkard

Bona fides: Adventure photographer, filmmaker, and notable Instagrammer who has published seven books and directed the 2017 Iceland surfing documentary Under an Arctic Sky
Home: Pismo Beach, California

 “I was at home celebrating my birthday on March 12 and was supposed to leave for Iceland the next day when the pandemic got very real. I canceled the trip and suddenly realized I didn’t know what the next several months would look like. But I started my career telling stories in my own backyard, and I guess 2020 was a much-needed return to those roots. In July, I went camping with my two boys and my younger brother and his son. We’d been cooped up in the house for a long time and needed a reprieve. It didn’t seem responsible to go far away, so we went to the Ventana Wilderness on California’s Central Coast. It was great. We stayed up roasting marshmallows on our portable stove and listened to elephant seals barking up through the fog. While everyone was asleep, I captured this shot. Since we got back, my boys have been asking to go back to ‘the spot above the clouds.’ Sometimes we convince ourselves that we have to go across the world to have amazing experiences and get great shots. This year reminded me to appreciate all that we have close to home.”

Erin Sullivan

Taken with a Sony a7R III with 90mm f2.8 macro lens, exposed for 2 seconds at f/8

Taken with a Sony a7R III with 90mm f2.8 macro lens, exposed for 2 seconds at f/8.

Travel photographer Erin Sullivan

Bona fides: Photographer specializing in travel, the outdoors, and wildlife. Her recent TED Talk explored being more intentional and present in photography.
Home: Los Angeles

  Taken with a Sony a7R III with 90mm f2.8 macro lens, exposed for 2 seconds at f/8.

Taken with a Sony a7R III with 90mm f2.8 macro lens, exposed for 2 seconds at f/8.

“I was at home in Los Angeles when the pandemic got serious, and I watched my work calendar just evaporate—trips to Greece, Italy, and Indonesia, as well as local destinations. Although my jobs were canceled, I thought, my creativity wasn’t. I started thinking about how to stay connected to travel and the outdoors. When I was bored as a kid, I’d imagine tiny scenes in my parents’ house, like ice caves in my bedsheets when I couldn’t fall asleep. I wondered if I could photograph a version of that—outdoor scenes made with stuff in my house. To add scale, I used model-train figures. The first scene I photographed was an ice cave using pillows. I posted it on Instagram, and it really resonated with people. My work on miniatures took off from there. At a time when we have to physically distance—when travel is limited and we’re facing unprecedented challenges—these photos give people joy. I love working on them and communicating a feeling through my images. I think this genre has earned a place in my body of work forever.”

Jimmy Chin

Photographer, climber, and filmmaker Jimmy Chin

Bona fides: Photographer, filmmaker, and climber who, with his wife, Chai Vasarhelyi, won an Academy Award for directing the 2018 climbing documentary Free Solo
Home: Wilson, Wyoming

Taken with a Canon EOS R5 with EF 14mm lens, exposing the frame at f/2.8 for 1/1,000 second.

Taken with a Canon EOS R5 with EF 14mm lens, exposing the frame at f/2.8 for 1/1,000 second.

“I’d just returned from Antarctica and Chile and was settling in at home in March when everything started to lock down. I normally travel 250 days a year, so I felt fortunate to be home with my wife and kids. Living here, I was lucky to be able to go backcountry skiing, trail running, and climbing—while being conservative so I wouldn’t put pressure on health services. I knew there was a lot of hardship due to COVID, so I did some fundraising, too, to help people who’ve been affected. In September, a few friends and I went climbing in the Grand Tetons. We set out from a trailhead 30 minutes from my home to do the Grand Traverse, an 18-mile climb across seven summits. I captured this image of my friend Conrad Anker with the north face of the Grand Teton behind him. It’s always invigorating being up there. I’ve lived here for 20 years, and the longer I’m here, the more I appreciate it.”

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