Conversations with a Photographer of Boutique Hotels – Anna Bek

By Hâfi Martinsdóttir

Estimated reading time: 21 minutes | 4271 words

Anna works with boutique hotels and villas around the world to capture the essence of their space and I felt immediately drawn to her art – elegant, clean and simple. Browsing Anna’s images feels almost like a meditation in and of itself and so I leapt at the opportunity to profile her for our ongoing Conversations With series.

She uses photography to paint with light, tell stories and share her love of the “wabi-sabi nature of our existence”. Chatting with Anna felt more like a conversation with an old friend and so I hope you enjoy the results of our talk shared here below.

Can you give a brief description of your role as a photographer of boutique hotels and villas?

People hire me because of my ability to tell stories with images with my specific style or for my attention to light. I studied cinematography and lighting for me is everything. Sometimes people don’t know what they need or what they want. They just know they need images. I like to consult with people and understand what they’re trying to achieve with the photographs or what they’re trying to achieve in terms of their business goals and the brand strategy. And that all informs the scope of what kind of photos we need, how much time we need to take, how the photos are lit or styled.

Some people like to capture their space clean where everything’s ironed and it’s got the perfect flowers and it’s lit to showcase the lighting design. Then sometimes its appropriate to create a mood or vibe where the bed has been slept-in and the lights are off and you just have one window light illuminating the wrinkles of the fabrics and maybe there’s something staged on the bed to imply that breakfast was had, or even a person in the bedroom, so all of a sudden the story changes.

Oftentimes, the clients realize they don’t know what they need. I enjoy providing the help to guide them by asking the right questions and probing into how they want the photos to function. And then from that we make a schedule to shoot.

I’ve really been working on the storytelling component and trying to get people to realize that pretty pictures are great, but they’re more effective when there’s a purpose and a strategy around it. And some people don’t think about whether they need it for websites versus Instagram versus newsletter and different formats. So, asking the right questions initially is so important to avoid having to reshoot later on.

I’ve learned a lot about how to work with clients that don’t necessarily have lingo or the photographic eye. Each person obviously is unique and has to be treated that way. So that’s why it’s important to take them on that journey.

I love mood boards and they’re a mandatory part of my process now. Sometimes hotels are a little bit harder to mood board, but I think if you need to describe something that’s really intangible like, do you want it clean or do you want it lived in or do you want it styled?

It’s hard sometimes if people are new to it, they don’t know. But then a lot of the clients that I’ve worked with, they have such an attention to style and detail that they’ll be with me on set and we can work creatively to capture options. I have a process where I have a director’s viewfinder so they can see exactly what’s in the frame and then we can dial in all the little styling details so that the client has an ability to be as hands-on as they would like to be. I enjoy the feedback and conversation, that’s the most fulfilling way and it gives the client a lot more of that control, but not everybody has that sense of care or eye.

So, sometimes it's best if you're left to it, are given the full trust and you crack on with it in your own way, your own style and in your own time.

Yeah. I mean, that way of working is certainly one that can move faster, but I’ve also done that before, and then I’ve gotten into a place where I’ll come back in and the client says, “do you have a version of this with this light turned on?” And I’m looking at the frame like “there’s a light in there!? Where’s the light?”. Like there’s some hidden LED under the desk or something. And I had no idea that it even existed. And it just depends, not every light needs to be on. So, again it’s what’s the vibe of the photos and what does the story need to be.

Where did your passion for photography begin and what was your professional journey like?

I started shooting when I was 14 in my freshman year of high school and I just fell in love with it. I was in the dark room. I was actually in the dark room and the colour lab for eight years before digital which is rare.

I’ve been shooting now for 21 years, which is absurd but my journey is varied. I began with a love for photography, but then I went to film school and was working in film and television for a long time. And only more recently did I – I guess the past two or three years since I made a go of living outside of the U S – did I really put my mind to the fact that all I really want to do is photography. Video editing was killing my soul.

So, I came back to my passion and my roots and it’s in a time of Instagram so I’ve gone through phases of being a bit disillusioned or dispassionate and then I used it to only tell stories I cared about, which has led to clients with similar mindsets and brand values as well. I just have a forever romance with the medium, I just love it so much. There’s nothing that brings me back to myself more than cameras.

Did your appreciation for the dark and the light stem from your time in the darkroom?

I think my eye reads light and I wouldn’t necessarily say that photography and the dark room was the thing. I think it was actually my cinematography background because you know, when you’re shooting you have what’s in front of you in the camera. And most people, if you’re shooting with natural light, you can expose your camera to favour the highlights or the shadows and that’ll affect the mood of the images; more overexposed or underexposed, even exposure, depending on where you’re setting your light meter to read the image. But when you’re doing cinematography, you’re lighting the space so you can choose what to illuminate and what to leave in the shadows by the placement of lights, the quality or quantity of it as well as the color temperature. I’ve always been a fan of mixed color temperatures. 

You’re lighting a lot of stuff in photography too, but I will say that my passion for lighting came from cinematography. I think I’ve had a way of using those ideas in how I now do a lot of my photographs because some people come to me and they say they really like the light in this and I’m like, “oh yeah, that’s just a backlight with side fill” and they’re like, “what?”. I get a little nerdy with it!

What excites you about a hotel or a property?

It’s a very good question because I wouldn’t say that I’m new to the space, but I’m new to owning my obsession. I think there’s the traveller and the wanderlust inside me, as well as the maturing woman that has a desire and a taste for good design. I’ve travelled in places that I love, I study places and I study things through my camera. So, when things are designed well, and they’re lit well, and they use materials in a way that attracts me, I pay attention and I really study them. And so, when the hotel has a specific vibe that I like, then there’s no greater joy than to capture it.

I’ve noticed a lot of the smartest hotels here in Bali are the ones that see the need for a place to be designed well for photography, because then they know that people want to photograph there. And that’s like embedded marketing and for better or worse Instagram plays into that a lot. Those are the smartest business owners that are thriving here. They’ve got a story, they’ve got something that’s unique, they’ve got something that’s picturesque and they can allow people to be creative in those spaces, bringing life to it.

It’s like free promotion. When people see that this place is being shared on Instagram, they think “well, I want to go there”. Someone sharing a beautiful photo is like a positive review.

There’s a place that a friend of mine who built Le Cliff, he built another place (Le Bamboo) and he’s been looking at ways to develop interest. On the second floor he’s created these nets that suspend out into space and they all face the ocean and the sunset. And he’s just like “well, if they’re going to be great, all the girls want to come and photograph them”. And so, he thinks like that. He knows that if you make something where the experience is unique and people want to photograph it, then he’ll have clients.

How has COVID-19 impacted the importance of telling a hotel story through imagery?

I think a lot of people are learning how to adapt. When it comes to hotels, they can’t just rely on; “Oh, there’s supply and demand”, it’s more; “how can we carve out a unique place in the market and attract the right clients?” It is not sustainable anymore to rely on a steady flow of tourism.

It’s now more of an opportunity for people to be unique and to come back into the essence of their story, so they might say “I’m a 17th century old Venetian canal-side estate.” And maybe it got run down before, but now it’s the perfect time for them to reinvent themselves and be able to say, “yeah, we’re back and here’s our story. And we’ve been here all these years. You may have forgotten about us or you may have overlooked us, but this is why we’re special and worthy of you coming back.”

Because now tourism is going to need a bit of a boost. I think a lot of people are going to need reminders of why travel is so special and that needs to be a part of the story.

How important is the property location when considering the visual narrative of a hotel?

I think a lot of hotels overlook the power of the place itself. Bali has beautiful culture, so some places can simply get by with a shot of the landscape and maybe a shot of a ceremony or something. But there’s a lot of those details that can really help give the essence, the sensorial experience of a space.

So, where you’re located is a huge part of the story, you need to showcase the essence of the space. (Using a jungle retreat as an example) Why would it be relevant to go to this kind of remote jungle place? There are so many remote jungly places, what makes your remote jungle place special? And so, the shot list would be so different compared to simply taking photographs of the rooms or whatever. So, it could be setting out the offerings in the morning with backlight on the smoke and a table setting with a newspaper out for example.

There are a lot of moments that make someplace different, as well as some of the textures and the details. There are all these really cool ways to give a sense of the space, what it would feel like to be in that place. So, I think a lot of places need to be thinking about that now because it’s about a feeling now more than anything when it comes to the experience of travel.

And sharing how a place would make you feel sets them apart from all the other remote jungly places out there. Perhaps you're looking for a place to stay and you're thinking there are locations here, here, here, and here. But what is going to make your hotel, your villa, rise above all the others and go, that's the one I want, I don't care how far away it is. That's the one I want to go to. And it's all about giving the feeling of what it's like to be there and how they would feel to wake up there.

In the past there are a lot of places that had business because they focused on Instagram influencers and then they would create content that would go viral and then people would be so blown away by this bamboo space out in the middle of nowhere. The place might be beautiful with nice architecture, but there are a lot of bamboo structures that are done similarly. But when people (on social media) see the people that they know (staying there) and the photographs are shot in a certain way, that’s also one approach. I wouldn’t say it’s for everybody, not everybody wants to call in the Instagram influencer crowd. It definitely depends on the market and the hotel’s purpose.

For example, there’s this place here called Uluwatu Surf Villas and they just decided to bring in Kelly Slater (a famous pro surfer) and for them to have and share content that he’s staying there, everybody’s suddenly like “wow! This is the place”, just because Kelly Slater got into Bali and was staying there. So that’s a different approach.

I know some higher end places that do have certain connoisseurs of culture, who are like way cooler and more old school and highbrow, I guess. And they’d be hired by some of these luxury hotels to plant the seed amongst the celebrities and the musicians etc to bring that kind of clientele in. And there are lots of different ways in order to do it and it just comes down to resources and objectives.

Where do you begin when creating a visual narrative for a space, property or brand?

I think it’s evolving on my end but sometimes it’s nice to go to a place and not have any references or see how it’s been shot before. So that what you capture is entirely unique. A photographer that I’ve studied under – Ana Lui – she has a philosophy of just rocking up. But she’s not the one being hired to shoot the website photos or the initial photos to tell the story of the place or like those big brand campaigns. It’s more when a hotel is going to be photographed and be on a story and the cover of a magazine. So, she’s got a bit more creative freedom and I envy that. So, there are a lot of different approaches.

There’s a place in Ibiza called La Granja, and I love that space. I’ve photographed it and I’ve put on events there and it’s got a lot of different ways of looking, but how they chose to put it on the website is unique and evocative and gives a vibe. I do give that as a reference because there are so many ways you can photograph a place. And they’ve chosen to take it into this really dark, moody way. And it’s definitely not for everybody, but it’s got that sort of austere, minimalist, unique vibe that pulls the right kinds of people.

And as a result, that whole collection of hotels that Claus (Sendlinger) put together all have a vibe of mysticism and of the ethereal, like an intangible artistic wabi-sabi nature to them that a lot of people aim for. You just need to have photographs that are bold and in one direction and clearly thought out. It requires you to really understand what your brand is or who your clientele is.

Personally, for my own personal brand, I’m still evolving that, it’s a journey. It’s a process and it’s not really set in stone. You shoot one set of images and that’s the vibe of the place. You can rebrand at any point and that’s what’s beautiful about Instagram too. You can see the space come to life in so many different ways and looks and ideas from all the user generated content in that way. And I think that that’s definitely an important marketing strategy.

It's a great way to constantly refresh the look and bring in people who might not have initially been drawn to the initial images, but suddenly they've seen this new angle, this new perspective. And they think “Wow. That's really pulled me in. I never thought of that place like that before”.

Yeah. That’s a destination, where people say “Oh, I want to go to that place because those people took this and I want to shoot something similar to that look or I want to experience something similar.”

What is the biggest mistake that you often see hotels or hospitality brands make in relation to photography and what would you suggest they do instead?

This island is a perfect example of all of that. A lot of people can make a property look good and they can have new furniture, beautiful tiles, it can be clean, it can be pristine, it can have the pool, it can have the air conditioning and it can have nice pillows. But if it’s just the same as the one next door why would I choose that one over the other one? There’s nothing special about it. I think that’s why Airbnb became so popular, because there were these properties that all had a bit more of a home vibe and more of a story and experience behind it.

And it also depends on your clientele, but nowadays people are not just going to a place and looking for a bed to rest in. Where they stay is a huge part of the story of their experience too. When I was in my early twenties and there were no smartphones, I definitely had a different agenda. As long as it was clean and had an empty bed! So, knowing the clientele is important.

Do you have any advice for hoteliers looking to revamp a hotel's image on a small budget?

I obviously stand behind the power of fresh images and content and I think that’s not at all a costly expense. You can certainly get somebody staying for a few nights for free and shoot some fresh stuff. I think it’s more about being open to those collaborations and allowing creatives to come into these spaces.

I also think a lot of people need to take a look at what their presence is like online or if they need to be seen by other blogs or be part of a certain magazine. You can always submit your property to be photographed or to be included in things. So, I think it’s a beautiful opportunity at this time to just say what are my systems in terms of my marketing channels and how can I reach out to those channels and broaden or refine or iterate?

I think everybody’s having to do that in their business, but the ones that are actually going to succeed are the ones that do the work and they don’t just rely on things going back to normal in terms of tourism, because that’s going to be a long time before I think things are back to where the numbers were before. People just don’t really have the desire to travel like they used to and I think it will take some time.

You’ve collaborated with many Riads in Marrakesh and as a result these properties gained more fresh content and a unique perspective. So, hoteliers could open themselves up for similar collaborations that mutually benefits their marketing strategy and the photographer.

Morocco has been a unique chapter in my life to be honest, I’ve gone back at the tail end of my time in Ibiza for the past two years. Last year I hosted a retreat there, the year prior I was photographing for a retreat for a yoga teacher that I’ve worked with over the years. And through that experience I got in with one of the more Instagram famous Riads and she (the owner) started asking me to shoot. So, then I used my own images to market my own experiences. And then the next year after I did the retreat and I shot more for her. And then people saw my work and they asked me to come and shoot for them. And I was just one of the few people that, as a solo female traveller, was putting in a lot of time there. So, in a matter of two weeks I could shoot two, three or four properties. And we’re not talking extensive, every room kind of stuff, just some fresh content, which are very different in terms of the scope of a project.

The intention this year was to actually spend more time in an artist residency place. There’s this organic farm outside of the city, more into the country and they have an artist residency place. And I’ve fallen in love with Marrakesh, it’s become a muse of mine, a creative muse. My intention was to be there for a solid month and I would have a retreat there for photographers, but then afterwards I would spend a solid month just creating and capturing the culture, more Riads and design. They have some of the best artisans and when you get comfortable with Marrakesh it really opens its doors to you. But when you’re really afraid of Marrakesh, it can boot you out of there real fast. But it’s gotten a lot more travel friendly in the past decade since I’ve been going. So, it’s much more accessible than when I first went back in 2008.

Can you tell us more about the retreats that you curate?

Retreats are my favourite part of my business. However, obviously this year I had to postpone, cancel, pivot and I don’t know what next year is going to look like.

So, the future of my retreats, what I’m envisioning is that they’re primarily for creatives, artists, photographers. The vision for Morocco was for it to be specifically for photographers, just because there are so many perfect spots for workshops on all the subjects. And it’s a beautiful way to experience culture! Having a camera and going out and seeing things with the eye of photographers, it’s just a great way to share a place.

But I am also really passionate about allowing people to create the life that they love, feeling in full vibrancy. I’m extremely passionate about farm-to-table foods and nutrition and having a very holistic backbone to creativity. I feel it’s really essential for me as an artist. And so, my vision is that when people take a week for these brainstorming retreats, they’re working on business ideas, maybe they’re working on their craft or they’re just taking time for themselves. There’s a wellness component, morning practices and attention to food with the intention of thriving or giving people tools so that they know how to eat while traveling and in ways that support their goals. But it’s also to elevate the experience of the travel because food is such a part of it.

I think we’re all in that space of adapting and my vision is for the people that are my clients, be it photography clients or people that have known me through other retreats or through classes that I’ve taught or workshops that I’ve taught, to be inspired to go on these longer format experiences with me. Because they trust the knowledge and the taste and the whole experience that will elevate them in their businesses or in their personal goals for taking time for themselves. Everybody, in the end, believes in the power of travel to expand our levels of consciousness and levels of empathy and inspiration.

Quick-fire round︱Get to know Anna

  1. Morning Routine

    Coconut water and I pretty much have some sort of self-care ritual first thing. Or I read and do a meditation. I usually have quiet mornings to myself if I am not in the studio. I get up quite early. Sometimes I’ll go for a sunrise walk on the beach.

  2. Best piece of advice you’ve ever received

    I think the best thing that someone’s ever told me is about trusting your gut. It’s about trusting your intuition and listening, being patient and really reading the cues and the clues and then not being hasty with your decisions. Or really trusting your gut and going with it and not wavering.

  3. Favourite song

    I love music in general. It’s everything to me! But to mention one, right now I’m really liking MARDELEVA.

  4. Favourite drink

    Green juice.

  5. Favourite food


  6. Favourite activity

    Swimming in the ocean.

  7. Favourite country to visit

    It depends, but lately I’ve been having dreams of going back to Cuba or exploring Colombia.

  8. Travel essentials

    Well, obviously my camera. Noise cancelling headphones, those are essential and my iPad.

  9. Favourite hotel & why

    I really do like some of the properties that have wellness integrations in Tulum such as Nômade. It has a Moroccan theme but on the beach. It’s similar in vibe, but larger in scale, to a place that I go to in Formentera which is called Can 7. It’s the place where I host my creative retreat.

    Any of the places that I’ve photographed, I just adore.

To view more of Anna’s work and to get in touch with her you can visit her website here:

You can follow her work on Instagram here: @missannabek

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