Bruges through a lens
A generation ago, photography was the domain of the professional or serious enthusiast willing to invest considerable money in equipment and even more time in learning how to use it. Today, the advent of camera phones and the affordability of digital cameras means that everyone is getting in on the fun.
Specialist tours give a new perspective on oft-photographed sites
The downside to this explosion in digital image-making is that no matter where you go, there are half a dozen other people brandishing a camera at the very scene you’re trying to photograph. It can be a bit disheartening to realise that hundreds of other tourists have the exact same shot of Manneken Pis, the Eiffel Tower or Mont Blanc that you just took.
Andy McSweeney is here to help. The Canadian photographer gives daily photo tours in his adopted home town of Bruges, offering a unique combination of guided tour and photography.
McSweeney came up with the idea after giving informal tours of Bruges to visiting friends and helping some of those same friends with their cameras and photography skills. He realised that similar tours already existed in cities like New York, London and Amsterdam, but no such tour was being done in Bruges. He’s never taken a photo tour himself, so he’s not influenced by anyone else’s concept or style.
He started the tours thinking that he would show visiting photographers the best sites for taking pictures, with an emphasis on visual interest and good lighting conditions. However, he soon found himself being peppered with questions. Tour participants wanted – and needed – help with their photography, whether it was a question of how to compose a shot or what settings to use on the camera. He says, “Pretty quickly, the learning side of things became part of the tour.”
McSweeney is a self-taught photographer who picked up a camera during his travels in Australia and found that he had a natural gift for making interesting pictures. He calls his style “street photography”, meaning that he takes pictures of scenery and people as he finds them. This kind of photography serves the travel photographer well, as it involves spontaneity and a documentary approach.
At 10.00 one grey Tuesday morning, I stood at the designated meeting point in front of the Basilica of the Holy Blood, camera in hand, ready to join one of his tours. By choosing the morning tour, I’d hoped to be part of a small group – and as luck would have it, I was the only participant. I found myself with my own private tour guide and photography coach.
McSweeney’s personal style is informal yet highly focused. Tall, energetic and a natural talker, he quickly introduced himself and his approach to photography, using a tablet computer to show examples of his work. He asked me about my photography experience and about what I wanted to achieve during the tour. Over the next couple of hours we visited nine or 10 sites and I took about 80 pictures.
At each stop on the tour, McSweeney suggested a subject and then encouraged me to find different ways to photograph it. He pushed me to look beyond the obvious composition or frame and to get more creative. At the same time, he was a fountain of technical knowledge, offering practical tips on how to operate my SLR and which settings to use. I learned more about my camera on this tour than I had in the previous months of fiddling with it on my own.
McSweeney offers three tours a day, every day. Each one has a slightly different focus, covering different sites in the city centre and taking advantage of the best light at that time of day. Although I felt that I knew Bruges pretty well, he showed me a few photogenic spots that I had never discovered on my own. For those who wish to replicate my one-on-one experience, he also offers private tours.
Next month, he is hosting the Worldwide Photo Walk in Bruges for the second year in a row. Now in its sixth year, this international event is the brainchild of Scott Kelby, an American photographer, author and Photoshop guru. On 5 October, photographers around the world will gather together in various cities to walk, take pictures and socialise.
About 25 people participated in the Worldwide Photo Walk in Bruges last year; despite some inclement weather, they photographed sites in the historic centre for about three hours before retiring to a cafe. Most of the participants were locals but at least one foreign photographer who happened to be in Bruges that day joined the group.
“It’s more of a social thing than a workshop,” explains McSweeney. It’s foremost an opportunity for photographers, who normally work solo, to meet each other, share their passion and (in McSweeney’s words) “geek out” on photography talk. This year, he plans to guide the walkers to different sites in Bruges so that repeat participants can expect to find new subjects for their lens.
Other Photo Walks are planned for Brussels, Antwerp and Sint-Truiden this year. Participation is free and registration is via the Worldwide Photo Walk website. There’s an optional photography contest, with winners selected from each city and a Grand Prize winner selected by Kelby.