80 Stays Around the World; an Interview with Trey Ratcliff

Travel and photography have long been comrades. Encapsulating the sights and sounds of a destination in a particular moment is an admired skill, and one that photo apps such as Instagram have allowed to the majority of people to explore. However, there’s a difference between #travelgram and actual travel photography. A good and disciplined travel photographer won’t just snap and walk as they make their way through some of the world’s leading landmarks, instead they will sit and watch the many elements of the scene in front of them, analysing how colours, shapes and light interact with one another.

Studying the subject is imperative in producing an honest image, one that freezes a single moment in time, one that will never be captured again. The good travel photograph will not try and hone in on all of the elements that the photographer has isolated but rather concentrate on one or two that truly define the scene and then think of ways of capturing that scene in a unique and perhaps unusual way.

Each travel photographer will have their own signature style, from the colour bursts of Gray Malin to the minimalist images of Marie Hennechart, but it’s an art form that is celebrated globally and allows for people to transport themselves from their sofa to a particular destination.

However, one photographer is making it his mission to get you off the sofa, out of your comfort zone and out photographing European cities on his “80 Stays Around the World” project. This Spring, Trey Ratcliff journeyed from Lisbon to Moscow, touring some of the greatest and most beautiful cities on the European continent. Supported by The Ritz-Carlton, his team spent four days in each city with an agenda filled with photo walking tours and photography workshops, allowing guests of participating Ritz-Carlton properties and fans to join in this unparalleled experience at no cost.

In summer 2015 The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and Ratcliff partnered on photo tour across the United States in addition to previous tours in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, all of which have continuously captured the imagination of his global audience. “80 Stays Around the World” will be an entirely unique experience for guests and fans wishing to participate in his journey and be inspired by one of the world’s preeminent photographers.

“The Ritz-Carlton is focused on encouraging artistic and personal expression through travel, and we’re delighted to partner with an artist like Trey Ratcliff who aligns with these ideals,” said Lisa Holladay, Global Brand Leader and Vice President, The Ritz-Carlton. “Following the successes of the U.S. leg of the tour, we very much look forward to seeing how Trey’s tour around Europe unfolds this spring.”

We caught up with Trey Ratcliff, the fine art and travel photographer who has designed his own style and way of shooting, opening the world of travel photography to everyone.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

TR: My background is actually in Computer Science and Sociology and it wasn’t until I turned 35 that I actually discovered my abilities in art and photography. Without any formal training or without having read a photography ‘How To’ guide, I picked up a DSLR – I’d made myself buy a top range one – and began to teach myself the art. It was after that that I developed this unique style of HDR photography, because I wanted my images to look exactly as the scene looked through my naked eye. I then started my blog, Stuck In Customs, and it was before the time that we all relied on social media, if you can remember those sacred days, and now we have over 16 million followers. Recently I found out that the photographs on my portfolio have been viewed over 140 billion times, something that I’m so grateful for. I’m a very zen guy and I don’t take myself too seriously; I think that’s one of the greatest creative gifts that you can give yourself.

How did you get into photography? Do you remember the first photograph of your career?

TR: The first picture that I took in my professional career is definitely what made me who I am today, and what made my business. I was in Kuala Lumpur and I’d bought myself a really great DSLR because e I thought that the world is such a beautiful place that I needs to be photographed and photographed well. I was watching this beautiful sunset and decided to take a photo of it; it was the worst photograph I’d ever seen. I didn’t understand how the sunset could be so beautiful but the photo could be so rubbish. I was so angry about the outcome that I set myself a lifelong challenge to make photos look and feel how the moment did in real life. I was motivated by my confusion and feeling of injustice to come up with a new technique – this was the inspiration behind my HDR style – High Dynamic Range.

I figured that the retina is more sensitive to light than the camera sensor, so I needed to replicate that. I developed my own photo processing software called Aurora, as I learned that I wasn’t alone in my frustration.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in travel photography instead of fashion or portraiture photography?

TR: There are a lot of reasons why I choose to pursue this career, but it would take me forever to tell you. Truthfully, I am kind of an introvert and I’m quite often confused behind the camera, so if that’s going to happen then I’d rather it happened in the solitude of nature, rather than in front of a model. I also don’t really have a good sense of styling or of artificial lighting; I don’t ever stage my shoots, so I would find it difficult to set that all up and then curate model poses into that. I applaud t hose who have this creative ability.

However, I do love taking photographs of people. I like natural and organic people shots with all natural light, like my Burning Man shoot. I feel that the actions, emotions and expressions that these people are outwardly portraying tell more of a story than models posed in a studio.

Have you seen the landscape of travel photography change since the launch of the iPhone and Instagram?

TR: Yes, I do think that it has changed, although I’m not one to categorise one type of photography over another. In saying that, I do find a lot of Instagram photography to be either very beautiful and stimulating or very banal and empty. In the beginning of this I talked about not taking yourself too seriously, which means complete dissolution of the ego,  but so much of what you see on Instagram is so ego-driven, and it really vexes me. A lot of what is posted on Instagram seems so empty, hollow and superficial and people always seem to be trying to one up each other. I don’t understand this or what there is to gain from it, but it’s fascinating to watch sociologically.

Another thing that irritates me is that a lot of Instagrammers buy bots and likes, which is so obvious when their engagement doesn’t match their following. It’s so damaging to social media. A lot of incredible travel photographers that I know, who produce fastastic images, often sink to the bottom because of Instagrams style. The small square photoframe makes almost everything look good, whereas travel photographers use a real and rich format for use in galleries, as wall hangings, artworks etc. Photos also read differently if your eye has to move across the photo, that’s why landscape images are so captivating and require more attention and communication. Instagram gets rid of this communication as your eye doesn’t have to move in order to take in the whole image, meaning that the story of the image is already cut short.

You’ve travelled all over the world, as have we. We believe that the destination can inspire the perfect image but it’s the moment that makes it. Have you ever had a shoot where you felt like you were in the right place at the right time?

TR: Sometimes I feel that, although it’s rare. I spend a massive amount of my time confused about life and about photography, but that fuels a lot of what I do. What normally happens is that shapes, colours and light come together and makes sense, so you just have to shoot it!

What’s the most spectacular thing you’ve witnessed when on one of your travel photography missions?

TR: The most spectacular and stimulation thing that I’ve ever witnessed is Burning Man. I’ve been for the past 7 years and it’s just such a visually stimulating environment, you never know what you’re going to see. It’s different than travelling to cities or destinations. For instance, on this bus tour across Europe we are having such a great tiem and capturing some spectacular images, but when we go to different cities, you generally know what’s in store. You know that when you visit Paris you’ll see the Eiffel Tower, or when you’re in London you’ll see Big Ben, but with Burning Man you’re always in for a surprise.

We’ve partnered with Ritz Carlton for this European roadtrip and it’s so refreshing to go to hotels that belong to the same chain but which all have their own distinct look and personality. The properties are really adding to our European photo story..

How many countries have you been to? How often do you travel?

TR: I travel so often, but I’ve never actually kept a tally on the number of countries that I’ve visited. I just found this really cool world map on Etsy, though, so it will help me keep track.  It’s from this boutique store and it allows you to print the map with a colour key, with a colour dedicated to each family member. Each person pins where they have been, or we all pin somewhere that we’ve been together. It’s going to be such a cool visual representation of our family adventures.

In your opinion, what are the top 3 most beautiful destinations to shoot in the world?

TR: That’s a really difficult question. Two of my most favourite destinations are Iceland and New Zealand, but the most visually stimulating place that I’ve ever been has to be Aruba. I stayed in the Ritz Carlton with my family, it was incredible. I’ve been to a lot of beaches and resorts and you generally know what you’re going to get – white sand, palm trees, cocktails in the pool, that sort of thing, but Aruba was totally different. To me, it was beautiful because of the milky white water that fades into the blue sea. It’s not crowded, it’s right near Venezuela so it doesn’t have as much of a Caribbean vibe. The photos that I captured there are so beautiful, very minimalist and elegant.

You’ve been extremely influential in helping people pursue their dreams as a photographer, from filming tutorials to hosting photo walks. What’s your main aim behind the photo walks? What do you hope people will gain from them?

TR: I believe that right now there’s a flowering of human consciousness and people are becoming more present, conscious and aware. It’s hard to teach 8 billion people on the earth how to meditate, but photography is meditation in its own right. It is a very present medium; you don’t have concerns about the part or anxiety about the future, you’re in the moment. When you’re processing a picture you’re in the here and the now, so the more we can get people to take photos the more conscious they will be. Ultimately that’s better for the earth.

Sometimes I feel that it’s up to artists to save the world and keep the world going in the right direction. When it comes to creativity it’s not a zero sum game. A lot of creatives are afraid to tell their secrets and they want to keep them close to their chests. but that’s an old way of thinking; rising tides raise all ships. There’s no limit to creativity and the more people we help to create then the better place the world will become.

All images are copyright of Trey Ratcliff. To find out more about Trey and HDR photography visit www.stuckincustoms.com

To find out more about Ritz Carlton and their global properties, visit www.ritzcarlton.com

For more information about the Trey’s Photo Tours and locations, now taking place across Asia visit 80stays.treyratcliff.com or ritzcarlton.com/en/trey-ratcliff. To visually follow the tour, search hashtags #80Stays and #RCMemories and follow @TreyRatcliff social media channels or @RitzCarlton on Twitter.




Caoilfhionn Rose

Caoilfhionn is a freelance travel writer who enjoys slow travel and avoiding landmarks in favour of diving into a destination's culture. Instagram: @CaoilfhionnRose

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