The photo is ridiculous: A 38-year-old woman – no kid in sight – straddles a fake giraffe on a lit-up carousel, a giant smile on her face as she grips the reins and the ride spins slowly. It is so, so goofy. And I can say that because it’s me.
Taken in December on a solo trip to Copenhagen, it is one of my all-time favourite vacation snapshots. I love it because it captures a fleeting moment of pure joy, the kind we experience so rarely in life. I am not posing for a picture. I am genuinely happy to be riding a carousel giraffe. (Hey, we all have our moments.)
It is also an experience that I would never have been able to document in a selfie. Which is why I hired a photographer to take it. Self-indulgent? Yes. But hear me out – hiring someone to record your travels is about more than just vanity.
People have been taking photographs on their vacations for as long as it’s been possible to do so. Wanting to preserve memories of your adventures is only natural. But since the advent of Instagram – with its easy oversharing, shallow images and influencer culture – travellers are sometimes judged for the simple act of taking and sharing vacation pictures. And as solo travel increases in popularity, we poke more fun than ever at all those selfies.
But what’s a lone jetsetter to do? Or, for that matter, how does a couple celebrating their 25th anniversary get a worthy photo together? Or how does a family get a group shot when one of the parents has to wield the camera? Asking a stranger – unless you like rushed, out-of-focus shots – is not a reliable option.
Enter the pro.
“I was in Paris with my best friend a few years ago and like everybody does we took out our cellphones and took selfies, which just ended up being these big floating heads," says Nicole Smith, the founder of Flytographer, a Victoria-based business that facilitates professional photoshoots for travellers. "Then we gave her camera to strangers and we ended up with seven chins. Nothing reflected what we were seeing, what we were feeling.
“So the next day, I gave my phone to a friend of hers who lives there and said, ‘Can you take a couple shots of us from a distance? I want to capture Paris in the background, like with us walking down cobblestone steps.’ She did and when I looked at my phone it gave me goosebumps because she captured the spirit of our trip in a way that would have been impossible without that third party vantage point. And I thought, ‘This is the best souvenir, how would I do this again?’”
Two years later, in 2013, Flytographer was born. Today, it boasts hundreds of vetted professional photographers in 275 cities on six continents. Rates start at US$250 for a 30-minute session in one location (resulting in 15 photos). Shoots can be a series of directed poses, candid shots or a mix of both. Friends trips, such as the one that inspired Smith, make up about five per cent of the business, she estimates. The majority of customers – around 40 per cent – are mothers arranging family vacations.
“These are moms that are chronicling the family memories, and yet never in the family memory,” Smith says. “They realize, hey, I’ve got 18 summers with my kids and I don’t want to be a ghost in these memories. And so we have moms that come back year after year. It’s just a priceless heirlooms for generations to come, because kids are going to look back and they’re going to want to see their mom in the photos.”
Romantic outings – proposals, honeymoons, anniversaries – are the second most popular reason for booking. And considering the boom in solo travel, it’s not surprising that individuals are increasingly turning to the service.
While I understand the value that comes with hiring a professional, my backpacker’s budget in Denmark meant I had to go a different route.
I turned to Airbnb Experiences, a branch of the hospitality business where approved locals offer a variety of services, from food tours in Mexico City to basket weaving in the Welsh countryside (you do not need to be staying in an Airbnb property to book). In almost every major city, you’ll find at least one photographer available to be your personal paparazzo.
I chose Layal Ayman Sibai, a young woman originally from Syria. Now living in Sweden with her family, she decided to try Airbnb after having difficulty finding a suitable job. Even with the commute to a different country, she was soon earning a decent income. Admittedly feeling slightly foolish about the whole endeavour, I took comfort in knowing my money – $125 for two hours and a dozen edited digital photos – would have a direct, positive impact on someone’s life.
We met outside Tivoli Gardens, the amusement park in the centre of Copenhagen where I had scouted out some possible locations the night before – such as the giraffe ride.
“I am terrible at posing,” I told Sibai. “So I can pretty much guarantee the best shots of me will be when I’m just being myself.”
Was she taken slightly aback at watching me “drive” one of those tiny antique cars that goes around on a track? I’m sure of it. But soon she was laughing along with me and it felt like I was exploring the city with a old friend.
When my time was up we grabbed a seat on the waterfront and viewed the images on her camera. I couldn’t believe what good shots she managed to capture. Thanks to her expert advice – “Put your hand on your hip, left leg out, tilt your head back a little, now lift your chin” – she even managed to get some lovely portraits out of me. Most importantly, the pictures had a sense of place, with the festive spirit of the Christmas season shining through.
Months later though, I was still feeling a little vain until Smith finally erased my doubts about the experience for good.
“It’s pretty hard to get a great photo on your own. And why should a fellow traveller be less deserving to have a nice photo of themself than everybody else?”
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