Michael George is a freelance photographer, writer, and self-avowed people person based in Brooklyn, New York. Travel has taken him all over the world, both in a personal search to understand our shared humanity and on assignment for an impressive list of publications. Throughout all of these experiences, he has maintained a child-like sense of optimism that fuels him at times like these. When Expedia invited us along with Michael on a trip to Japan last year, he had the chance to enrich his budding love for the country and its culture through new experiences that empowered his work in creative travel and inspired him to learn more about himself, his passions, and how certain colors and aesthetics related to his craft.
What were your first associations with the color yellow? What does it mean to you in terms of creativity?
Growing up in Florida, yellow was the sun. Always present, year-round, beating down on you relentlessly. It gave everything light and also seemed to slowly burn the world away. My first association is heat, intensity. Today I see yellow as the spark of creativity and the burning desire to continue creating.
You have been to Japan on a number of occasions. What is it that makes the nature there so special to you and to photograph? How did traveling through your interpretation of the color yellow change how you captured the country and how was it different than previous trips?
Prior to my first visit to Japan, I had three separate people tell me, “You’re going to love it. It’s the most Michael George place ever.” I now understand what they meant. As a type-A, overly focused Scorpio with little patience for disorganization, Japanese culture is a dream. From the small things, like the precise packaging of goods in stores, to the pristine public transit with nary a piece of trash. Traveling through Japan feels like the inside of my brain matches the world outside for once. This order and beauty is infused in all of their gardens and parks as well. The pleasing layouts & lines calm the body as you walk through. Sometimes photographing there feels like cheating since it’s already been made with a balanced composition in mind. Focusing on the color yellow sharpened my awareness of autumn and the impending seasonal changes; the bold colors of nature matching the intense colors of temples and shrines.
On your trip with Expedia, you visited several destinations: Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka, and Nara. What challenges did you face photographing an urban space versus a quieter one?
Urban spaces require more energy and patience from the photographer. It feels like turning on a “spidey sense.” I become suddenly aware of the crowds, cars, objects milling about one another and I wait patiently for everything to settle into a natural order. In nature and quieter spaces, the photography process is much slower. It requires less energy but more creativity to find unique angles and perspectives. I enjoy moving between the two. It feels like working different groups of muscles in my brain.
Yellow is the color of courage in Japan. How do you think the relationship between color and culture affects the perspective of the Japanese people?
I don’t believe I am the best authority to comment on the perspective of the Japanese people. However, I am always astounded as a visitor at the ways the architecture blends natural beauty with bright pops of color. You will often see a luscious dark wood exterior with soft paper windows next to a bright colored shrine. The contrast seems like it shouldn’t work, but it always finds a balance.
“For me, yellow is the color of autumn and the spark of creativity.”
What is the most influential aspect of Japanese culture for you and how has it shaped your art?
I feel most influenced by Japanese design. Their photobooks, journals, etc. are all created with such care. The business cards of even the smallest business will have a thoughtful clean design. When I am putting together pitch decks or designing small books for myself, I’ll rifle through images to find examples from my travels in Japan.
What advice would you give to travelers headed to Japan for the first time? How would they approach planning a trip?
- Corner stores actually have great snacks. Running around the city and in a pinch for some calories? Drop into a Seven Eleven or FamilyMart and get a little rice snack or pork bun. They’re delicious and way better for you than the gas station hotdogs back home.
- If you’re going to be traveling to a lot of different cities, get a JR Pass for either 7 or 14 days. You’ll get to ride unlimited trains for a fraction of the cost.
- Have an inexpensive way to pull out cash. So many places are cash only.
- You’ll basically never find a garbage can. Carry around a small plastic bag with you at all times to stow your trash away.
- Learn some basic phrases! Arigato gozaimasu (Thank you!) will likely be your most used phrase.
- Pocket WiFis are super cheap and will save you money on your International phone bill.
It took me almost ten years of dreaming before I made it to Japan for the first time. This was largely because I knew I wanted to go for a long time: 2 to 3 weeks. This gave ample time to recover from jetlag, see the big cities, and go out into the country for something more intimate. If you can afford the time and expense, this is how long I recommend traveling there. My planning is always a mix of magazines, websites, Instagram, and personal recommendations. Tokyo is especially overwhelming so it really helps to find people who have been and ask their “Top 3 Recommendations.” When I was first asking people, they would send me an overwhelming list many pages long. It was much easier to ask people their absolute favorites.
What does courage in creativity mean to you and how has it shaped how you photograph new locations?
When I first started out in photography, I looked to others to find my aesthetic. I’d see a good portrait, and try to recreate it. Similar to a musician starting out by playing other people’s songs. Eventually, I found the courage to strike out on my own and seek a unique perspective. This involved getting weird, experimenting, pushing myself. Taking bad images and being okay with it. The world is overly photographed at this point, and when I go to a destination that has been posted to Instagram over one million times, it takes courage to say “I’m going to see this in a new way.” Sometimes I am successful, sometimes I am not. Either way, I enjoy the creative process, and the adrenaline that comes with making an artful picture is irreplaceable.
Where are you going next?
Vancouver Island with my partner Orion. We’re going to embrace the winter and camp out in the green and foggy wilderness.
Want to read more about the transformative nature of travel? Hear about its power to heal from author and speaker Ruthie Lindsey on her trip to Hawaii.