Kept away my camera which will remain in the cupboard until the next vacation. I often wondered would I one day be bold enough to travel to a new destination without a camera.
If travelling represents a carefree transient roaming existence, doesn’t taking photos run counter to that? A fleeting moment is miraculously frozen. A moving scenery is suspended by the click of the shutter. A sight long past gets to be revisited in the future. We are not so nonchalant even when we think we should be living in the moment.
Photo-taking has somehow become part of the travelling experience. Packing in the camera and its entanglement of cabled chargers has become just as vital as packing in a toothbrush and passport. Taking photographs is just as essential as trying that famous local stew; equally (though inexplicably) required is one or more photos of that stew. Ridiculous statues of dictators or incomprehensible art works are pointless apart from being background props for one to ham it up for the camera. It’s as if the camera has become a tool for self-entertainment, both when one is excitable and when one is disinterested.
Once heard a scuba diver giving a tip to someone who was about to dive in: “If you can’t see anything [in the waters], follow the photographer. The photographer is always looking for something.“
Perhaps having strands of the photographer’s trait of “always looking for something” is what connects photo-taking to travelling. Maybe the camera helps us to be aware of the surroundings more. The photographer thinks: what story am I going to tell? Where’s the focal point? What are the distracting elements? Is the subject better portrayed if the shot is horizontal or vertical? Having a photographer’s mind sharpens our senses so we pay attention to details that would otherwise escape notice. Having the photographer’s eye adds another dimension to the cognitive aspect of travelling if there is one. Photo-taking is story-telling. And don’t we mostly travel to collect experiences and stories.
We also take photographs when we travel because it is a reflection of things that matter to us. Whether it is for the memories kept in that scrapbook – in today’s context, it could be facebook, flickr or a blog. Or to share with family. Or for bragging rights. Or for creative expression, like an attempt to re-interpret what has been done to death (just google the image of say, the Taj Mahal). Or to put together a narrative that just seems incomplete with words alone: maybe the likes of National Geographic have spoilt us for life and we are trying to create our own NatGeo feature, indulging, even if only casually, in the sport of photojournalism that once upon a time was only accessible to few.
Or maybe the proliferation of affordable digital cameras and smartphones (and soon, smart glasses) has rendered photo-taking as simply too easy not to do. And sometimes we do it with such frequency and volume that all those giga and tetra bytes of photos are relegated to sit idly in a hard drive for the next few decades. It could be worse though: rather than sensitise us to our surroundings, the ease with which photos can be taken might evolve into an unconscious and even unwitting reflex. I’m not a Luddite. But true curiosity is hardly ever on auto-pilot mode. Why should our innate perceptiveness be ever numbed by gadgety convenience.
Travelling somewhere for the first time without a camera? The experiment would be a bold one if not for the fact that people used to do that eons ago.