Photography: Panama Tourism-Richard Hamilton Smith

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There's something about the current print campaign for Panama Tourism, themed "The path less traveled," that, unlike so much travel hype, seems a bit off the beaten path itself. The photographs in the four ads released so far are beautiful, of course, but just unconventionally fetching enough to stand out in a sea of travel come-ons. Much like the destination they're selling, goes the strategic thinking from BBDO/Atlanta, in its first work for this client. "We're playing to Panama's strengths," explains copywriter Carlos Rique. "It's where Costa Rica was 20 or so years ago, before it was inundated by tourists. Panama remains pure, for the most part, it's not really on the radar yet. We're speaking to an adventurous target market - people who'll be exploring parts of the country that are basically untouched."

"These are unusual, as far as Latin American tourist shots go," adds art director Dave Stanton. "Nobody knows what Panama's about; they think of Noriega and the Canal, and that's it. We want people to say, 'What the hell is that?' before they go, 'Ah, tourist destination.' We want shots that make you look at a place in a different way, even as you don't quite know where it is." The creatives went to veteran landscape/stock shooter Richard Hamilton Smith, whose work they've long admired. "We needed somebody who could look at the country a little differently and who could handle the logistics of getting the shots," says Stanton.

The logistics on the 35mm shoot were fairly intense, but so was the creative satisfaction, according to Smith. "It wasn't one of those jobs where the client had signed off on something and we had to go get that particular picture - we could let it evolve as we worked, and we went down there with open minds. It was the perfect job, because I lost track of how many days we were there. I think it was 10." Minnesota-based Smith (see Richardhamiltonsmith.com), who's been working professionally for some 25 years, got his start more or less by chance. "Back then, I lived on the edge of a wilderness area. There was some contentious legislation going on at the time, publications came looking for pictures of the area and I had them. It got my foot in the door." Smith was in his late 20s at the time; he'd never assisted or even studied photography. In fact, he says his family never owned a camera when he was growing up. While living off-campus and studying medicine at a state school in North Dakota, "my roommate couldn't pay the rent and he gave me his cameras in lieu of rent money. When I later started working, it was strictly on-the-job training by the seat of my pants. "

The Panama shoot had its own seat-of-pants moments. "I got a pretty severe ear infection down there that prevented me from flying," recalls Smith. "They had to leave me behind. The infection could be from the jungle; we were in the rain forest for a day and it lived up to its name - we were in ponchos and big rubber boots. Later, I found myself in a Panamanian doctor's office while he hit my head with tuning forks. He didn't speak English, I didn't speak Spanish. That was an adventure in itself."

As for the particular shots, "we wanted to explore one aspect of Panama in each ad, rather than clutter it with all the other stuff you can do, too, which is what a lot of tourism advertising does," says Rique. The Kuna Indian in the boat "has a turquoise-water element, but it's got a story and texture to it, too," he adds. This shot "was probably the most adventurous part of the trip," says Smith. "We chartered a small plane, flew over the mountains and landed on a tiny runway that was partially underwater at high tide. We lived in tiki huts with sand floors for three days on an island about the size of a football field. The native guys would go out in a dugout canoe or dive off the reef and catch fish and that's what we'd have for lunch."

The stunning rain forest shot is an area "that's reasonably accessible," he continues. "We rented a small boat and a guide, then we had to hike a trail. The stone walkway is left over from the days of the Conquistadors. They would've used it to transport the gold they were looking for."

The remarkable shot from a church tower seems more like personal work than a travel ad. "We had to do a Panama City shot, they wanted to see the skyline," explains Stanton. "We were fighting the idea - 'The path less traveled' is great in a rain forest, but how do you make it work in a city? But the Old Town is very cool, kind of rough around the edges, so we chose to shoot from an old church tower for a different perspective - one that shows the modern city but gives a sense of history."

All told, "I was astonished by the country," says Smith. "I also enjoyed the fact that part of Panama has no phone service, so my producer was in complete limbo. He didn't know what to do with himself. That was sort of fun for me."

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