Out of Print

The Far Cities are Beautiful and Bright

by Sam Potenciano Photos courtesy of Sonny Thakur, Jake Verzosa, and Where to Next

At a time when documenting our journeys has become an essential part of our travels, photographers and storytellers share how the pandemic has changed the way they see the world.

ravel has always hinged on a certain amount of imagination: committing carefully saved-up finances (and equally precious time off) based on the ability to picture yourself miles away, months from now, sticking your toes into white-hot sand on the way to a geotagged beachfront rental. Or trekking through brush to reach the peak of a fog-rolled summit you’ve never been to, but whose every angle you’ve already mentally cataloged via other people’s photos.

In recent years, this ability to visualize yourself in an unknown, future destination has never been easier or imbued with such specific clarity—thanks in large part to the accessibility of low-cost travel, but also to the steady stream of travel-related content that has become a byproduct of it.

From the personal feeds of professional photographers, to those of self-proclaimed influencers, mountaineers, and even conservationists, each one has become a proxy for exploring and navigating the outside world from the convenience of home.

However, it can feel increasingly difficult to imagine any semblance of travel in a post-coronavirus landscape, especially when even a short walk to the grocery can feel like too much of a risk.

We catch up with three photographers whose careers have both shaped (and have been shaped by) the local travel landscape, to find out where they’re heading next.


Sonny Thakur, photographer and co-founder of GRID Magazine

Samantha Potenciano: How has your personal relationship with the idea of travel been affected by everything that’s happening? Sonny Thakur: I have never felt the need to go out and get lost and find something good to eat along the way than ever before.

There’s a sense of hopefulness that runs through GRID’s ‘We Will Travel Again’ video. Does this optimism reflect your own thoughts on the future of local travel?
It's reassuring to say that everybody at GRID feels optimistic about the future of local travel. Our brand has always talked about responsible, informed, and local travel. Our executive editor, Paco Guerrero put together the ‘We Will Travel Again’ video with the help of some of our past collaborators working with stock footage we've amassed over the last six years of telling stories from all over the country. We're unsure how things will turn out, but we're all preparing for the next story we can tell.

When you do travel again, what sorts of destinations do you personally feel drawn to covering as a photographer?
I personally would like to climb outdoors again. The Philippines has some great outdoor climbing, and some areas are even accessible by car from Manila. I've only been a couple of times, but I want to go back to Montalban in Rizal. The trails are beautiful to photograph and so are my climbing buddies.

When we can start doing assignments again, I want to be able to photograph places that are a little inconvenient for others to get to and provide a form of escape. There's a running joke in the office, if the assignment provides luxury accommodations, Paco gets to shoot it, if there's a hut in a rice field it almost always has my name on it.

“It is different and it is difficult… I cannot find the words, but for now it seems like I have to.”
— Sonny Thakur
GRID’s recently released podcast is an example of the different ways in which stories about travel can be told. Can you tell us how it feels to be producing content for an audience without the visual aspect of it?
The GRID podcast is something we've been trying to do for a while now. All our guests are people we have met while on assignment for print stories. These are all relationships we've strengthened over the years producing the magazine and website. The photographers involved in the making of the podcast seem to all have gotten comfortable about talking about what we miss shooting and you can really sense a feeling of longing from the host (Paco) and all his guests. It is different and it is difficult. Personally, I struggle with words and I have caught myself stopping or stuttering or trying to find the right words but people have gotten great at editing things out. I cannot find the words, but for now it seems like I have to.

Do you feel like there is a greater responsibility on travel photography and journalism moving forward in terms of its role in helping revive local tourism? How do you think this will shape the types of stories you choose to tell at GRID?
100%. Our audience is going to want honest reporting. I'm happy to test the systems that will be implemented once we're allowed to travel again and we all want to be the source for all things travel in the Philippines. We'll continue to work harder to make our stories feel inclusive, giving more weight to stories from the Visayas and Mindanao regions, and use collaborators from there too. We will try to continue to produce print content as best we can but you can expect to see more long form stories online, more podcasts, more videos, and more engagement on social media. GRID will continue to tell stories from all across the Philippines because with 7,000 islands and only 27 print issues released, we haven't even begun to scratch the surface.

Jake Verzosa, freelance photographer

Samantha Potenciano: How has your personal relationship with the idea of travel been affected by everything that’s happening? Jake Verzosa: Up until the lockdown, travel has never been easier and more accessible to everyone. For something like this to happen all of a sudden and on a global scale, I think we are all still trying to make sense of it and what the future holds. Personally, traveling (for work or otherwise) gives me new perspectives and challenges my limits. I always learn something about myself in the process. With all the restrictions in place, the challenge for me is to find ways to grow personally, to fill that void that traveling provides.

“I was able to photograph the silence the city never had.”
— Jake Verzosa
Recently, you shared photos of long, empty roads like EDSA during the lockdown. What drew you to these images?
Shooting landscapes for me has always been a slow and solitary activity. It is where I can take my time to prepare, be intentional with equipment, light and composition. Before the pandemic, I remember going out early on some Sunday mornings to take pictures of the city at its most quiet. The lockdown has not only made it possible to photograph one of the most densely populated cities in the world devoid of chaos - people and cars, smog and noise. I was able to photograph the silence the city never had.

Do you feel a difference in the purpose or intention behind your photography post-COVID19?
It is difficult to say right now. Like most people, I am also trying to survive and adapt to these changes. Making personal work has always been a pursuit fueled by curiosity, passion and discipline. With a very limited creative space (literally and figuratively), I try to look inwards and explore how much can be done with little resources.

“Photography as a profession may have dried up at this time, but as a career, it is one of the best times to create.” — Jake Verzosa
So much of your personal work seems tied to travel—your portraits of the tattooed Kalinga women, medium format photos taken during long biking trips both in Sagada and throughout India—has being home for so long affected the kind of work you think about making?
Being stuck at home has given me the necessary time to slow down and pursue a studio-based practice. It is not always about taking pictures. I appreciate the slow pace of digging through my archives, scanning negatives, printing and making books out of my selections. Spending this much time looking at the past and the present has definitely given me a new perspective on which work to pursue in the future. Photography as a profession may have dried up at this time, but as a career, it is one of the best times to create. 

Where to Next Team. Photo by Sara Erasmo
Ayen dela Torre, co-founder of Where To Next

Samantha Potenciano: On a personal level, how has your relationship with the idea of travel been affected by everything that’s happening?
Ayen dela Torre: It’s been more than a hundred days since I last roamed wild spaces. I long for the rush of our oceans and the quiet moments provided by our mountains. I believe travel is a teacher, and my views of the world, of others, and of myself are deeply influenced by the adventures that I get to be part of. My urge to travel isn’t the priority right now, and for most people it never was. To be able to travel is a privilege. We live in a time where we are witnessing so many inequalities, and my personal focus is to pay more attention to these unjust systems and reflect on what I can do to be part of meaningful change.

At Where To Next, we always say that travel is no longer the desired end. It is just a means to connect and change people through our art. And now the question we are still trying to answer is how can we still continue our work even when we cannot travel? 

Ayen dela Torre and Rachel Halili Aquino. Photo by Aya Cabauatan

Where To Next has begun doing more intimate series on people’s creative spaces, turning inward rather than out. Can you tell us about the idea behind that?

In the past, we were too busy thinking of where we were going next, to pay attention to what has always been there. Due to the pandemic, our home is now our place of work. It is where we rest, where we interact with others, and so much more. We have the time to look around and examine our homes more closely—to study the little intricacies of our daily lives, instead of passively just taking them in.

What we’ve realized is that what we surround ourselves with shapes the kind of work, art, and relationships we get to build. We need to set boundaries between our areas for work and rest. We need to make space for things that bring us joy and meaning. We need to create a home that we can truly call our own.

Seeing a glimpse of someone’s creative space, whether that’s in a physical sense or a mental headspace, provides our readers ideas on how to organize their own areas and creative processes. We want them to think of themselves as artists—people who see things differently—and we hope to inspire them to build spaces that will encourage them to continue pursuing their curiosities.
“At Where To Next, we always say that travel is no longer the desired end. It is just a means to connect and change people through our art.”
— Ayen dela Torre

Ayen dela Torre and Rachel Halili Aquino. Photo by Artu Nepomuceno

Do you sense that there is a difference in the kinds of travel content that your followers are engaging with these days?
Our platform was inspired by our adventures, but we aim to go beyond it. We want to hold space for people to speak their inner truths and pay attention to their set-aside dreams.

We asked our audience what type of content they would like to see and some of the themes that showed up weren’t even travel-related. They wanted to talk about mental health, civic action, stories of hope, and dig deeper into our relationship with the communities we belong to and our natural environment.

How do you see the stories that you want to tell through your platform shifting in light of the pandemic?
We started a story series on hope, inspired by this quote from author Rebecca Solnit. She says that "Hope is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about the ones that invite or demand that we act."

We invited our readers to use our platform as an outlet to share how they feel. Prompts included: Who inspired you today? What obstacle did you overcome? By sharing their story, our goal was to inspire others to hope, and maybe that hope will lead to a spark that will help us find our way out. We had frontliners, family members of frontliners, share their bravery amidst this crisis and so it was quite therapeutic for us to listen to their stories. And some of our audience members also reached out, saying that this was a breath of fresh air for them, too.

What role do you believe travel photography will play in contributing to the future of local travel?
There will definitely be an emphasis on local travel once we have the active cases under control. There are many micro and small enterprises that rely on travellers. Travel photographers can help provide content, reviews, and even economic support to these tour operators, boutique hotel owners, restaurants, and craftsmen. It’s our responsibility as visual storytellers to give justice to these stories and to make sure local voices are heard.


Sam Potenciano is a former magazine editor and stylist currently doing creative odd jobs in Manila.