Visual Vagabonding: Transforming Perspectives Through Photography

When Lorraine Chittock rolled off the California lot in a white, four-wheel-drive Jeep Wrangler, her nomadic leanings had long been solidified.

Growing up near Sacramento with British parents, she’d made many trips across the pond, at times by ship.

As a young adult, she’d indulged wanderlust with long backpacking trips in Europe and North Africa, and in her early 30s took a job as a photo editor in Cairo, beginning a 12-year tenure in Africa marked with memorable journeys that began where paved roads ended. 

AramcoWorld published photos from her camel trek along the Forty Days’ Road between Egypt and Sudan, and she’d spent six weeks bumping along the dunes of Mauritania photographing a piece about the ancient manuscripts preserved in that desert country.

Returning to the United States in 2003, Chittock was merging back onto the road, reacquainting herself with the country of her birth.

“I loved being on the move, so when I was living in both Egypt and Kenya I had this idea—how can you be on the move and be at home at the same time?”

Her plan for a grand American adventure: Create a mobile photography studio and crisscross the country working on books and practicing her craft, with her two slim Saluki dogs in the back.

“I had this idea that it was always going to be in these wild, open places like I had been while traveling in the Middle East,” she says. 

She just needed assignments; that’s where AramcoWorld came in once again.

For 75 years, the magazine has commissioned journeys around the globe in pursuit of stories that center human perspectives. Words have always been important, but over time vibrant images have become increasingly vital for providing readers a sense of perspective and place.

AramcoWorld’s former editor Richard Doughty, who’d helped Chittock get to Egypt when he hired her at Cairo Today in the early 1990s, knew she was traveling along the eastern US and asked her to photograph Arab American authors and poets who’d settled mostly along the New England coast.

She mapped an itinerary overlaid with the homes of friends she’d met in Egypt. In those reunions, as well as in meetings and meals with Arab authors, Chittock felt she’d picked up a lost rhythm.

“The authors and poets lived both far from cities and immersed in the hustle and bustle. What was consistent were the symbols in their home of what they’d left behind and brought to the new land,” she says. “The spaces they created for themselves were all quiet and peaceful, even if the outside was crazy and chaotic. Or maybe it was me? I, too, was trying to orient myself to a world that had changed radically since I left in 1991. Being amongst those authors was like coming home.”

Such opportunities were not rare at AramcoWorld.

Norwegian writer and photographer Tor Eigeland helped shape this sensibility over some 50 AramcoWorld assignments spanning 1966 to his last assignment in Tangier in 2015.

While he wrote and photographed entire issues on Saudi Arabia and Oman in the ’70s and ’80s, Eigeland’s work also tracked the way the magazine gradually opened to other parts of the world. Among memorable journeys to the jungles of Brunei, the hills of Andalusia and the marshes of Iraq, Eigeland navigated the Silk Road behind the Iron Curtain from Istanbul to China in 1988 and, in his native Norway in 2012, reported a story on Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast north of the Arctic Circle.

So, what’s his lesson from that lifetime of journeys? He says despite their differences, people are basically the same the world over.

“I have never thought of people as ‘others.’ We are all people, and we are all diverse. I started traveling as a 16-year-old, taking a year out from school to be a merchant seaman, and my traveling never stopped,” Eigeland says.

The magazine has also sought not only to send photographers from West to East, or from the developed world to the developing but to view the world through local lenses where possible.

Shahidul Alam, a prominent photojournalist in Dhaka, Bangladesh, says that’s vital in a world where the long dominance of Western media has contributed to biases and discrepancies in coverage, he said, citing an African proverb.

“Until the lions find their storytellers, stories about hunting will always glorify the hunter,” he says.

To counteract these forces, he founded Dhaka’s Drik Picture Library to help outside news organizations source locally produced images and to build the capacity of photographers at home and across what he calls the “majority world.”

Still, he says, sending trained writers and photographers across borders can offer a refreshing outsider perspective—with the right level of sensitivity.

“Our own limitations and thinking need to be challenged, and they are not always apparent when you’re in your comfort zone,” Alam says.

Photojournalist David Wells has seen this during 30 years of traveling to India. Married to an Indian photographer, he has a personal interest in the country where he has undertaken many AramcoWorld assignments. Those included a journey to the historical city of Bijapur, also known as Vijayapura, which boasts an Islamic architectural legacy some liken to a Taj Mahal without tourists.

In the early days, Wells says he was bringing visual storytelling skills that were harder to find. Now, it’s his position between cultures, born of extensive in-country travel and study, that informs the work.

“I think of myself sometimes as a kind of cultural translator,” he says, giving a nod to AramcoWorld for offering the space not only to physically embed in a place but also to imbibe its culture. “You need people like us, journalists, to take the story and frame it in such a way that somebody who doesn’t know it will look at it and say, ‘I want to know it, I’m being educated, my brain is being expanded.’”

In the late 1990s, documentary photographer Kevin Bubriski intersected with the magazine as it sought to widen its lens on the Islamic world.

He undertook many assignments in the ensuing decades, joining conservationists following a migrating herd of elephants across Mali and portraying the descendants of sultanates in the mud-walled Saharan city of Agadez in Niger.

These would set up what would become, unbeknownst to Bubriski at the time, one of his most important pieces from a documentary perspective: a profile featuring his portraits of shop owners in the souk of Aleppo, Syria, in 2003.

“Photographing is always documenting what is for the future,” Bubriski says, admitting he didn’t know civil war would transform Syria in the ensuing years, but he did have a sense of its fragility.

Photos from that journey took on heightened relevance amid the subsequent destruction and displacement, forming the basis for his 2017 book Legacy in Stone: Syria Before War.

“Like the title says, it’s to remind us of what was and what was lost,” he says.

South African photographer Samantha Reinders, who also edits and assigns photographic pieces for the magazine, agrees AramcoWorld has a knack for surfacing stories about timeless customs that may not be well understood outside of where they emerged. That was the case on a dual assignment in 2022 to West Africa, where she examined the prospects for the all-important ground-nut industry in Gambia and did a deep dive into pirogues, the traditional fishing boats of Senegal.

At first, she wondered why a story on the ground nuts of Gambia was relevant; then she hit the ground and tasted that first spoon of peanut butter, the product of an industry that supports many livelihoods in the country of 2.7 million.

“Farming to selling to transporting it to using it, it is kind of around you,” she says.

Upon arrival, it was evident that the riverine nation of Gambia was a world apart from her home, reinforcing Africa’s diversity in 54 countries.

For one, she happened to be there during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which somewhat limited her working hours but gave her a different opportunity. She decided to fast with her Gambian hosts.

“That enabled me to get slightly into the headspace of the people that I’m working with, she says.”

In Senegal, she spent multiple days persuading pirogue pilots of her pure intentions. Yes, she was there to tell the story of the long wooden boats, not reporting on an illicit activity.

The real heroes of each story, she said, were the local people who helped her unlock each place, gaining the cultural license needed not only to snap a beautiful photo but to relay a more nuanced story than the classic portrayals of African poverty and dysfunction.

“You generally hear about the same old, same old. As an African, it’s so depressing to hear about the place that you live in described in the same way,” Reinders says adding that she appreciates working on stories that challenge long-held stereotypes.

Doing so, says Chittock, requires a publication that values time spent on the ground, among the people one is endeavoring to cover.

After stints in the US and Chile, Chittock returned to Africa about a year and a half ago, settling—for now—in Tanzania. In a hurried world, she says, pace in many ways equals perspective.

“Slow travel is more valuable than fast, and I think this is one of the things that I had in my head when I bought that Jeep Wrangler. I didn’t want to just fly in and fly out of a country and just grab little pieces. I wanted to go slower,” Chittock says. “What we’re trying to give the audience, the viewer, is just a taste of that.”