My Back In A Bit colleague Kevin O’Faircheallaigh recently wrote a stinging piece about camera-wielding tourists – very much worth a read if you haven’t already done so. While I agree with a lot that Kevin said I’d like to partially defend myself and other travelling photographers.
First, it’s probably important to remind ourselves that just like all aspects of life, everyone has their own individual ideas about how best to travel and no single travel philosophy is correct. And as much as it sometimes hurts to approve of actions I personally find distasteful, I do respect your right to travel the way you wish and your right to make your own decisions. However, in exchange for my tolerance you must respect my right to fantasise about taking you out with a machine gun while watching you lose your shit with a local over a genuine language or cultural translation problem, or walk around an Islamic country wearing no shirt (men) or pants that barely cover your arse (women). It’s a fair trade.
Same for photography — everyone does it differently (or doesn’t do it at all if you’re Kevin.) I respect your right to use your camera as you wish but I reserve my right to hate the way you use it. Like Kevin, I hate the sense of entitlement that some camera users display when they ask you to move for one of their photos, or the way that a barrage of camera flashes in the face ensure that you can’t just enjoy a quiet moment in a beautiful place. In the past, people have almost had to physically restrain me from snatching cameras out of people’s hands and throwing them to the ground as brides walk up aisles and exchange their wedding vows to the accompanying flashes of a number of point-and-shoots exactly equal to the number of wedding guests minus one. You see, in my mind the focus of a wedding ceremony should be the commitment being made by two of your friends or family members, and respecting that commitment means giving it your full, undivided attention. But I know that that’s just me. I understand that other people think differently.
When it comes to travel photography I share Kevin’s bewilderment about people who go to all the trouble to visit somewhere amazing just to get off the bus or enter a site, shoot a few unthinking shots, and then shoot off again. Order a postcard off the Internet. But of course, travellers of all nationalities with cameras glued to their faces are such a common feature of travel that it has become synonymous with sightseeing.
Last week I was in southern Morocco on a tour out to the sand dunes of the Sahara. As sunset approached we still had some distance left to travel so I spoke to the driver about my concern that we were cutting our arrival very fine. “Don’t worry,” he assured me, “you will get to the dunes in time to take a photo before sunset.”
“But I want to climb a dune and watch the sunset.”
“No problems, my friend,” said the guide, patronisingly patting my shoulder. “There will be a photo, I promise.”
But I didn’t care about the photo. I wanted to walk around in the sand with my shoes off, let my tension melt away, and experience the sunset with every sense. Sure, I was almost certainly going to take some photos while the sun was going down but if a condition of the tour had been to leave my camera at home I wouldn’t have thought twice before locking it in my hotel room. But who can blame a tour operator for thinking that all tourists care about is photos when it’s mostly what he’s experienced?
Having said all that, and putting aside the h8 for a moment, I actually understand the thinking behind our over-enthusiastic shutter-button fingers.
I think that pulling out a camera at the first hint of something noteworthy is a very human thing to do. How often do you find yourself turning to somebody to point out something you’ve just seen or heard? Or unthinkingly pulling out your phone to send them a text message? Humans are social creatures and we inherently want to share stuff that we like or find interesting with others. Our hands twitching towards our cameras as we turn the corner and see a beautiful waterfall is driven by our natural desire to share the sight and accompanying emotions with others. It’s a noble desire, even if the action of taking a poorly-composed photograph mostly fails to communicate what we see and feel.
But surely this can’t mean we shouldn’t take photos of things we find amazing; there’s got to be some grey between the black and white. While taking a photo does indeed add a layer between yourself and the experience, somewhat disconnecting you from that experience, it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. Personally, I find that photography in a travel situation can help enhance the total experience and increase my engagement with it on a sensual level. When I am walking through ruins or buildings I find that looking at these structures through my photographer eye helps me “see” things better – I’m more tuned into features like colour, shape, symmetry, patterns, imperfections and oddities. For instance, while walking through the ruins of Karnak in Luxor a few weeks ago my camera guided my awareness towards small details that I used in my imagination to have a go at working out what it would’ve been like to walk the same steps 3,500 years ago. I really got into the zone at Karnak and it was taking photos that helped me get there.
Quite opposed to that social nature of photography I just spoke about, I find that photography in such situations is a very solitary activity and if I am travelling with others I tend to disconnect myself from the group and wander alone. I disappear into my own head and find myself immersed in the experience. Of course, photos are a great way of visually recording the highlights of an experience, and I love sharing my photos later on (want to come to one of my slide nights, Kevin?), but in the moment that I’m taking the photos they are for me and nobody else.
No matter how many muppets out there do their best to ruin everyone else’s experience with their clumsy photographic endeavours, there remains a place for cameras in travellers’ backpacks.