Better Branding Through Photography

A director of photography shares how she built a magazine's visual brand.

Consider the visual noise we sift through every day: The social platforms we scroll through, the pop-up ads, the steady stream of incoming emails… If a brand isn’t visually compelling, it's just a digital afterthought.

I'm the director of photography at AFAR, a travel magazine. In 2008, when working on AFAR's first issue, I had very little to start from except for AFAR’s mission; the vision of founders Greg Sullivan and Joe Diaz; and a mood board I created to land the job. At that point, the idea of creating a brand identify was the furthest thing from my mind—I just wanted to find decent talent I could afford in far-flung regions where I had few contacts. I dove in, and over a relatively short time, creative director Jane Palecek and I developed AFAR’s initial visual voice. That early voice then shaped the brand identity that has been synonymous with AFAR ever since.

Two key contributions to that voice were the magazine's mission, and some photographers whose distinctive work personified the mission's expression.

The Mission

AFAR’s original mission was to inspire, to guide, and to enable deeper, richer, and more authentic travel experiences. I believe in this fully. Nothing is more rewarding than sitting down and having a drink and a laugh with someone from somewhere else. It’s also an amazing way to learn a few things.

For me, the visual point of view at AFAR should first focus on that “someone” and secondly on that “somewhere else.” The magazine as a brand should inspire and guide the traveler to get out there, and once there, to celebrate connections made. To this end, I've always been on the lookout for portraits of quirky, expressive characters: young and old, and people of every shape and size and color. Then, I may look for an unpretentious, unstyled dinner table, or a magically caught moment. I always want to juxtapose a bit of resort luxury against the personality of urban grit and find small details to round out everything. It's what a travel narrative is for me and I believe it’s what the AFAR reader will be inspired by. The pages of AFAR should focus on the unexpected and, shoot me for saying this, the authentic.

The Photographers

The photographic team TrujilloPaumier was the earliest contributor to AFAR’s visual brand. My collaboration with Brian Paumier and Joaquin Trujillo began with a feature in AFAR’s third issue based in and around Mexico City. I recall Joaquin having relatives in a small village mentioned in the article; he understood the way of life there, its people, and most importantly how to celebrate them.

Photos by TrujilloPaumier.

In 2010, most photographers were rushing to master new equipment and digital techniques, but TrujilloPaumier held fast to photography’s richest tradition, film. I remember the day I received contacts sheets from the shoot. The proofs were cut out individually and pasted onto a Moleskine notebook. It was a beautifully organized visual scrapbook of their first journey for AFAR. (I still have that book on my shelf.) I recall the portraiture and the sense of pride the subjects all held. They stood tall, set apart and centered in front of their colorful environments.

Photos by TrujilloPaumier.

From Mexico, AFAR sent TrujilloPaumier to Shanghai, then to Barcelona, to Minsk, the Caribbean, and Budapest. The work they created for AFAR always held a wonderful sense of symmetry and bold color. Portraits full of pride would inspire playful diptychs over spreads in which we would juxtapose abstractions and still lifes. We've carried through this visual narrative to this day.

I was instantly thrilled by João Canziani's photos and quickly grew to count on his work, which has had a powerful effect on AFAR’s overall look.

Photos by João Canziani.

Photos by João Canziani.

João understands the importance of a photographer owning a strong visual voice. His style is softly graphic with a touch of edge, and his subjects always seem to possess just a slight slice of attitude—maybe it’s the upturn of the head, or the meditative gaze? João's interiors are elegant, and his still lifes lean on the side of poetic. His personal aesthetics and impeccable taste, the works' tonal consistency and the confidence it conveys, make his oeuvre instantly recognizable.

Photos by João Canziani.

Photos by João Canziani.

From his first job at AFAR, João's food photography set him apart. Shooting food for a travel magazine takes a special type of talent. I don’t have the luxury of sending a stylist or providing props. Often, light can be extremely poor and restaurants crowded, and there's never enough time. The biggest challenge, however, can be the food itself. The vegetables, meats, and fish cooked in soupy stews and thick sauces that so much of the world enjoys are delicious but don't always appear appetizing to Western audiences. João has a special knack for making dishes look like works of art. He realizes how important it is to keep the work simple, and though he may use a surface that isn’t a table, the shots are never over-styled.

The creators behind AFAR value going beyond one's comfort zone. The more challenging the journey, and the further one goes, the more rewarding the trip. Jessica Antola embodies this spirit. Jessica is a free-spirited, independent photographer who explores far-reaching corners of the globe to highlight how people define themselves creatively. She celebrates vibrant regions Westerners seldom see or read about.

Photos by Jessica Antola.

Photos by Jessica Antola.

I've returned to her work over and over again. In a 2013 essay entitled the “Art of Expression,” AFAR used Jessica's images to celebrate the personal style of people from Senegal to Vietnam, Ethiopia to West Papua. In 2015, we ran her portraits of African people whom she later highlighted in the book Circadian Landscape.

Jessica once said, "Over my years of travel I have learned that while I could never walk in someone else’s shoes, with compassion and quiet observation I might learn from another’s experience and find common ground.” Nothing feels more in tune with what we promote at AFAR.

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