My husband and I usually take a camera each when we go away on holiday and we snap away like crazy. We can easily take 1200 photos on a two week trip. We go a bit crazy with photography, trying to consume scenery, hold onto it, to capture a moment, to take away with us the light, the shapes, the people. And usually we come home full of excitement to look through our photos, to relive little moments of the trip, to see if the tricky shot we tried turned out…
But recently, none of that excitement was there.
Several days after getting back from our last trip, we grumpily agreed to sit down and start assessing the photos. It took us some weeks to go through them all. Yes, there were a lot of blurred or out of focus or rubbish shots we deleted immediately, but we still had to look at each photo and make a decision – keep / delete; crop? enhance? And then there are the multiples of photos when he and I both photograph the same scene. Several times. We can easily have 12 very similar photos of the same thing. It’s very hard to make a choice of one best photo from 12 that are not all that different.
The very scenic places are also bad for getting snap happy. You arrive somewhere breathtakingly beautiful and just start snapping away. You stop for a bit to actually look at the scenery and then you start to panic very soon you won’t be able to look at this beauty any more and you go back to trying to capture the beauty of it through a lens and carry on taking another round of photos that will look very similar to the first. But when you go back to look at your photos, instead of feeling closer to the scene, it becomes meaningless and the essence what you were so entranced by and trying to capture is lost because you have so many photos. You don’t think, “Oh, it was so beautiful there,” you start to think, “Ugh. ANOTHER photo of mountains. And another. And another. Pfft.”
So I wondered if we had some kind of photography burnout. That we are taking photos out of habit, out of some kind of compulsion. That we are not taking enough time to really take in what we’re seeing. That each new place is immediately evaluated in terms of photography angles and light and shadow and colour, and not experienced as light and shadow and colour for its own sake.
I read an article the other day entitled “Why taking photographs is ruining your holiday – and everyone else’s” by Nick Trend. It got me thinking.
If I felt no interest in looking at photos after coming home from my most recent trips, could it be that I spent too much time thinking about photography and not enough time thinking and looking at what was in front of me? The need to consume, to capture this moment, the next moment, to document each and every thing and not to rely on our memory – this causes a disconnect. It puts you outside the scene you are trying so hard to capture.
“How can you look properly if you are either squinting through a lens or always thinking of the next picture?” asks Nick Trend.
The article revisited some of the same issues raised by Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel where he discussed the John Ruskin, who taught drawing from 1856-1860, and believed that all people should draw, “because drawing could teach us to see: to notice rather than to look.” Ruskin was against the speed of modern travel (in the 1850s!), feeling it reduced people to consumers of the scenery, guzzling down one splendid scene before racing on to the next. Whereas if you sit and draw, you have to directly engage with what is beautiful about the scene you see, you have to pay close attention to the interconnection of light and shadow, the interplay of colours.
Ruskin also encouraged the writing of word pictures, trying to capture in words what made a place so special, so appealing. I’ve included some photos from some recent trips here in this post – would they be as interesting if there were captioned “Port Isaac on a sunny day” or “Mountains near Mestia”?
I am not good at drawing, I will admit this. But many years ago now, I took a sketch pad when I was travelling, and I made a few drawings.
On a sunny afternoon, I sat in a field near Balmoral, sketching some grazing Highland cattle. I remember the sun, the sound of running water nearby, and the lazy grazing of the cows, occasionally lifting their fuzzy heads to look at me before returning their attention to the grass.
In Paris, I found a seat in Notre Dame and drew the Rose Window (very badly), but I got an appreciation of the skill it takes to make something so perfectly symmetrical (unlike my drawing).
These drawings captured more than just a moment. They gave me time to take in what I was seeing, to process, to enjoy. Something I don’t seem to get from the instant gratification of the camera any more.
Nick Trend again: “I think photography stops you looking properly, and interrupts the emotional experience of seeing new and exciting things. The syndrome has been intensified by digital cameras. Now you don’t even look through a lens at your subject; you look at an electronic display screen.” I would go further to suggest that the connection between phone and camera and social media means there is a compulsion to show everyone just how good a time you are having, just how beautiful the scenery is, to reduce your experience of something amazing down to a search for approval. As noted in de Botton, “A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is the desire to hold on to it: to possess it and give it weight in our lives.”
So apart from all those hundreds of photos we took in Georgia, what kind of memories do I have from that trip?
I remember the winding road up to Mestia, around each bend another new view of those stunning mountains, and my stomach rolling only slightly at the bends in the road (thanks be I don’t get carsick). But I didn’t take many photos on that road trip, only when we stopped for a stretch or photo stop. We spent a lot of time on the road in Georgia, and my other clear memories are looking out the window of the bus, looking at the houses, seeing the animals at the side of the road, and in the case of cows, all over the road, standing stock still without flinching as cars, buses and trucks whipped past their noses with only an inch to spare. These things which I remember so clearly and which I felt were very typical of Georgia and our trip, I made a few attempts to photograph, but the photos were bad (blurry mountains, blurry houses, blurry cows) so I deleted them. But the mental images are still very clear.
I’ll finish with a final quote from Nick Trend: “But I wonder if we wouldn’t see more, and forget less, if we tried to wean ourselves off the tyranny of the camera.“