Of all the possible accessories you can bring with you on your travels, a camera is probably the most essential. That, at least, seems to be the prevailing wisdom. Search via google or on the Matador Network and you will discover tens of dozens of articles–from the best point-and-shoot to which lenses best fit your SLR. Often, travellers will bring two cameras, just to ensure they can get the important snapshots. Bulked up with these photos, sites like flckr, picassa, facebook, not to mention personal blogs, are constantly growing.
But why are cameras so important? Other things you can bring, from MP3 players to GPS, help your journey, they improve your present. Even a journal has the practical aspect of filling time on buses, in trains, at restaurants, or in long lines. Uniquely, then, cameras don’t enhance the now at all.
I started thinking about this one February afternoon in Seattle. I was there with a few extra hours while the South Korean embassy processed my visa. Walking around Pike’s was pleasant, and no Simpson’s fan can resist The Monorail. Exploring the area was a fantastic way to spend a late winter afternoon. I balked at the Space Needle though. There was no line and it wasn’t horribly expensive. But I didn’t have my camera, and I didn’t want to risk experiencing anything potentially photogenic without it.
I wasn’t always like this. Less than three years before, I had spent two weeks in Tasmania without even considering a camera. And it was one of the greatest trips of my life. But the world has changed. With so many ways to share our journeys, it suddenly seems misguided or even irresponsible to visit a new or foreign land without some sort of photographic proof.
Videos are better still; a proof more immediate and visceral. Watch any of the the traveler videos on Matador or similar sites, and you’ll be struck by how many people’s instant reaction are to grab their camera and press record. Are these desires interfering with some hypothetical level of travel achievement? Would it perhaps be better to sometimes simply observe rather than record?
Should we even ask this question? Is experience inherently better than observation? The old writing adage “Show don’t tell” suggests so, to be sure. But without photos, videos, blogs, or journals, memories will fade and stores fall into cliche and exaggeration before the ultimate ignominy–disuse.
The question I wonder is: who are we documenting our journeys for?
Are we documenting our experiences for our friends? Obviously we want to share with our friends and family, those most likely to be interested in living vicariously through our travels. That’s certainly part of the equation. But we all know that our friends are far less interested in seeing our photos than we are in showing them. Even your mother doesn’t actually want to see all 350 pictures you have from Songkran or Holi.
Are we taking pictures for the world at large? While the number of travelers and travel bloggers in particular is growing, it’s still a small club. A great photo can win respect from your peers, and a series of great photos can lead to a photo essay or perhaps paid work. These goals are certainly understandable, but at the same time it’s probably important to remember that you are, presumably, traveling for yourself. You are learning about the world around you, and simultaneously about yourself–if that is true, maybe recording every minute of your journey can interfere with an appreciation of the present. Perhaps photo time supersedes thoughtful, reflective time.
Are we doing it for ourselves? Is trying to capture everything on card (or film for those still so inclined) a way to justify our alternative lifestyle? With a blog full of pictures from a Full Moon party in Thailand, a monastery in Switzerland, or an Argentine steakhouse, do we as travelers rely on this proof as a talisman against the terrors of the mundane. Are the high levels of documentation some sort of self-evident argument against the world of cubicles and coffee breaks?
It’s probably a combination of all three of these, and more factors as well. And it’s overly didactic to suggest that one can only be a photographer OR an an adventurer. Certainly, depending on circumstance, one can choose whether bringing their camera is appropriate. But cameras are insidious, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, without pictures, it didn’t really happen. It’s also hard to enjoy your travels when you start wondering if you are really enjoying them as much as you should be. For my part, I have taken hundreds of photos in the last two months of travels, but there are days when I don’t bring my camera at all. And I know that someday, I’ll head back to Space Needle. And I definitely won’t have a camera with me.