13 Anthony Bourdain Quotes: Their Value to Me as a Travel Photographer

Today marks three years since the world lost one of its most interesting and likable public personalities. Anthony Bourdain was one of those unique souls that found a way to inspire people from all walks of life: Foodies, filmmakers, photographers, and casual travelers alike.

Even though it has been three years, for me, it still seems like yesterday that I was watching new episodes of Parts Unknown and No Reservations. To honor his legacy, a new documentary titled Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain will be in theaters on July 16th (trailer above). While the film could never replace the man, it will be good to see Bourdain back on the screen, telling his life stories with his hallmark charismatic smile and contagious laugh.

Even though most of us never got the chance to sit and have a beer with Bourdain, it was easy for people to feel like they knew him. His no holds barred style of life and travel was an inspiration, especially for me as a travel photographer who thrives off experiencing and documenting cultures around the world.

While Bourdain was a joy to watch as he ate his way across the globe, perhaps what I most appreciated about him was his words. Whether it was what he had written in one of his many books and opinion articles or the wisdom he shared in a voice-over on his shows and interviews, Bourdain left behind a never-ending list of quotes that resonated with me as a travel photographer.

Below are 13 quotes from the Bourdain that have stuck with me and inspired me as a travel photographer, and I hope they can do the same for you.

“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.”

Becoming comfortable in documenting people and cultures around the world isn’t a skill that most photographers become good at right away. Of course, photographers improve their technical photography skills with practice, but like any photography genre, there are secondary skills that are critical to the process.

In travel photography, those secondary skills are confidence and the ability to work with people. Being in a foreign country where communication may be impeded due to language barriers, the photographer must know how to understand their surroundings, read the room, and most importantly, get to know the people and the cultures that they are documenting.

Having been to almost 40 countries, I feel like I am a seasoned traveler. However, I didn’t get my first passport and international plane ticket until five years after the age Bourdain references. Looking back, I had wish I found my love of travel at an earlier age, as I had to learn how to both be a traveler and a travel photographer simultaneously. In this quote Bourdain is suggesting that the earlier you start traveling, the more you will enjoy it throughout your life. Most of us didn’t have hefty bank accounts at 22 years old, so traveling at that age usually involves little luxury, which means you might not wall yourself off from meaningful experiences, as many luxury travelers might do.

Instead of sleeping at the Four Seasons, staying at a local homestay and working with a local non-profit can lead you to knowledge about the people and their communities that you otherwise might never have found otherwise. These are the experiences that can build a photographer’s confidence and help them learn how to ethically document people and their cultures.

Even though the food was Bourdain’s public-facing passion and what he was most known for, it’s telling that he mentions “Find out how people live” before he mentions the culinary arts. Food will come and go, but the people and their cultures will always be there and at his core, that’s what Bourdain was passionate about: the people.

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.”

My first trip out of the country was to Costa Rica back in 2007. I went to the cloud forest, the volcano, the beaches. It was amazing. But, I was a tourist, doing touristy things. It wasn’t until I went on a trip to document the work of a non-profit organization in Peru that I changed the way I view the world and how I choose to travel. I know that my work of teaching photography to children and young adults in local communities has left marks with the communities after I left, even if they were small. Those experiences, however, have left huge marks on me and changed the person that I was into the person that I am today.

“The journey is part of the experience – an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.”

As a travel photographer, I am always striving to tell stories. Whether it is with one single image or a photo series, the beauty of travel is the stories that you find along the way. And “along the way” is the key phrase.

Most of the time, we always focus on the destination, not giving proper attention to the journey that got us there. In my experiences, the people that I met and the experiences I had on the journey are often much more rewarding than the destination itself. In our ever-growing ambition to always be looking forward, we often forget what’s right there at our side.

“I wanted adventures. I wanted to go up the Nung river to the heart of darkness in Cambodia. I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback, sand and dunes in every direction, eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow off my boots in a Mafia nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy neon-lit pulqueria in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder. I wanted kicks – the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I’d yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I’d found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books. I wanted to see the world – and I wanted the world to be just like the movies”

This is pure Bourdain. Not everyone has the craving for chaos like he did, but this is an important quote to think about, even if you aren’t as adventurous or fearless as Anthony Bourdain. The lesson learned from this is that there is a certain romance to be found by putting yourself out of your comfort zone. Slowly at first, but as you get more comfortable NOT being comfortable, the rewards of the hair-raising experiences will be in your soul for life. Great travel photos and stories usually don’t have Disneyland as the backdrop.

“I’m a big believer in winging it. I’m a big believer that you’re never going to find the perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one. Letting the happy accident happen is what a lot of vacation itineraries miss, I think, and I’m always trying to push people to allow those things to happen rather than stick to some rigid itinerary.”

“I learned a long time ago that trying to micromanage the perfect vacation is always a disaster. That leads to terrible times.”

These are two quotes, but they are the same. As mentioned before, the real and interesting travel stories and photographs don’t usually come from the final destination, but rather the journey to that destination. From what I have found in my years of travel is that people with minute-by-minute itineraries are often so fixated on keeping their plan intact that they simply don’t notice or appreciate what is right in front of them. Their vision is always focused on the future, which makes their minds absent from the present. Having a rough game plan is great. But don’t let the plan consume you so much that you miss the moments that make travel special. Those unplanned moments and meetings will be the ones that you remember for life. They will also lead to much stronger visual travel stories.

“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there- with your eyes open- and lived to see it.”

Having been to both of those places Bourdain references, I can wholeheartedly understand this quote. While both are filled with tourists, somehow, I find my own zen and I feel completely at peace while silence consumes my mind. I imagine the centuries worth of history that have lived in the walls. I think about the spiritual and religious meaning that these locations had for millions of people before me. Even in smaller, lesser-known places, sometimes experiences just defy description and I can’t express the feelings that washed over me.

In this day in age where many travel moments are simply experienced for an Instagram photo, it’s important to keep this quote in the back of my mind. Often, I am so consumed with getting the perfect photographs, I sometimes forget to have my eyes open, being happy that I was there and had lived to see it. But when I do put my camera down and live the experience, those memories are as sharp as any photograph I have ever taken.

“It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough – to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small and unwise I am, and how far I have yet to go.”

Unfortunately, this one cuts like a knife knowing that Bourdain still had so much life in him, and in his words, “how far he has yet to go.”

The world is never-ending. There is always a story out there to tell. Always a new culture to explore. Always a new cuisine to try. And most importantly, always lessons to learn.

Travel isn’t a skill you can master. It’s simply a never-ending learning experience. And that, as Bourdain says, we are ultimately always going to be small and unwise in the grand scheme of the world. And that’s the beauty of it. You can’t learn anything by knowing everything.

As a travel photographer, this is critical to the way I approach my craft. If I believed I knew everything, if I believed I had seen everything, then there would be no determination to go further. Being humbled is a travel photographer’s greatest weapon. By knowing that there is so much more to the world than I realize, I am in a constant state of having that passion re-kindled. That creates a bottomless well of inspiration that I harness to continue my exploration, year after year.

“When dealing with complex transportation issues, the best thing to do is pull up with a cold beer and let somebody else figure it out.”

By now, I think you may be seeing a pattern in Bourdain’s travel style. He didn’t sweat the small stuff. He knew that the excitement that came from traveling laid in the journey, and not the destination.

Travel, especially in locations that are very different from your own, can be difficult and fraught with complexities and unforeseen setbacks. And often there is nothing you can do about it. And that’s ok. It’s just an excuse to enjoy the moment and be thankful you aren’t sitting behind a computer. Don’t let the mishaps derail you from realizing how lucky you are to be living in the moment that you are experiencing.

“I think food, culture, people, and landscape are all absolutely inseparable.”

This is the reason why you can never see enough of the world. Each continent, each country, each neighborhood, is unique. That uniqueness comes from a multitude of factors, as Bourdain describes. But each inseparable quality comes together in a melting pot to make that location undeniably unique and interesting. When we try to change any of those or don’t appreciate just one of those, the aspects that make a location and culture unique dwindles.

Travel photography is more than just landscapes. It is more than just the culture, the food, and the people. All of these combine to create the country, town, or region that you are documenting. And to tell the most interesting visual stories, you need to be able to not only tie them all together but appreciate them all equally.

“Without experimentation, a willingness to ask questions and try new things, we shall surely become static, repetitive, and moribund.”

I have visited countless countries over and over again, seemingly on the almost same itinerary each passing year as I lead workshops for The Giving Lens. While the experiences are always amazing, I always ask myself “what can I do to try something new? How can I learn something I didn’t know before?” Usually, those answers aren’t evident until they are right in front of my eyes. But without being willing to experiment, learn the stories of the many people I meet, and try new things, even amazing places might start to feel static and repetitive.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

Very similar to the first quote in this article. Not all of the marks left on me have been positive. I have shed tears hearing the hard stories of children all over the world, been haunted by the images of children eating out of the discarded trash. I have found love and lost love. But through it all, every experience helped me understand the world and the beauty that this life is.

Having my camera in hand has at times helped me overcome these hardships. I try to always remember that not all stories are full of smiles and happiness. I have learned to use that heartbreaking feeling to try to help make a change, even if small. It’s impossible to work together to fix the problems in the world if we pretend like they don’t exist. I aim to educate and inform people about not only the positives but also the hardships that people, animals, and communities face around the world. If my travel photography can open just one person’s eyes to help make a change then I can sleep a little better at night knowing that I left something good behind.

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”

“Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”

As Wayne Gretzky famously said in 1983, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take” and I feel that these two quotes are Bourdain’s way of saying the same. In life, the experiences aren’t going to come to you. You need to make an effort to put yourself in the position for these experiences to find you. Most people equate travel with getting on an airplane and flying hours to arrive at a border entry where the agent doesn’t speak the same language as you. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Dictonary.com defines travel as 1) to go from one place to another, as by car, train, plane, or ship; take a trip; journey. 2)to move or go from one place or point to another.

That’s it. Travel is simply going somewhere. As Bourdain says, whether it is across the ocean or across the river, just doing it will yield experiences and lessons that you would have not found sipping a margarita in your backyard.

As a travel photographer, I know there are stories and interesting people everywhere. The stories lie within Shaban, the shisha-smoking man who I have spent countless nights laughing with by a campfire in Wadi Rum despite not speaking the same language. They lie with Lek Chailert, who works tirelessly to rescue the Asain elephants from the abuses that the tourism and logging industry create. They lie with Rick Welliver, the Spokane, Washington boxing coach who volunteers his time training young adults who are working to give themselves a second chance at life.

The people who I have met near and far inspire me to re-tell their stories to people who otherwise would have never known about them. The people and their stories continuously inspire me to dig deeper, to learn more. And I wouldn’t have met these amazing people, or heard their stories, if I simply didn’t open up my mind, get up off my couch, and move.

“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”

While this quote references food, it’s easy to see that Bourdain was speaking more to the experiences that traveling outside of your comfort zone can bring. The hermetically sealed popemobile reference speaks to a form of travel and documentary photography. The experiences that Bourdain cherished the most were the ones that happened far outside of his safe bubble.

Bourdain had a grand appetite, literally and figuratively. He showed us time after time that he did want it all. He did want to try every food, and every experience, at least once. The most heart-wrenching aspect of losing Anthony Bourdain was that he still had so much left to try. I think about that often, and it reminds me that our time in this world is extremely limited. It reminds me to not take myself too seriously. It reminds me to let go of the desire to control every aspect of my travels and experiences. And it reminds me to try everything at least once.

Anthony Bourdain was truly one of a kind. It is said that he was quite introverted, although you would never know it from his on-screen persona. If he was, he put his desire to see the world and connect with people above his natural inclination to avoid overly social settings. In doing so, he taught us about life, love, food, and travel. Most importantly, he taught us that the world is so big, yet so small at the same time. Everyone has a story to tell. He showed us that no matter where we live, we are all the same and there is beauty and romance in getting to know people’s stories.

Even though our storytelling mediums weren’t the same, it’s hard not to be inspired by Anthony Bourdain every time I travel. I often wonder how Bourdain would capture the moment if he was a travel photographer. Bourdain didn’t need a camera to tell stories. He just needed to be himself, and the world couldn’t help but to stop and listen. He was special. I can only hope to match a fraction of that energy in my work, and that fraction would be well more than enough.


Image credits: Photo of Anthony Bourdain via the Peabody Awards (CC BY 2.0).