Monday, September 09, 2013

Anti-Travel Post #3: So Many Photos, So Little Time

It is just as I figured. In the rush to finish things up, I left a mess behind. Those last few items of clothes in the dryer, the cover for my laptop, my hair clippers (not sure if that was a Freudian slip), some of Lucy’s hair clips I meant to pack, and the charger cord for my digital camera. The only thing that I’ve missed (so far) is the camera cord.

I didn’t even notice the charger until my camera battery died. When I went to get the charger out of my pack, it wasn’t there. It didn’t take long to search through everything I have (one of the benefits of living out of a bag), and only a little bit longer to search my memory of the places I might have left it along the way. There is only one place it could be, and I just got confirmation by email: it is back in Seattle sitting right where I left it, all ready to be packed away in my traveling electronics bag.

It is too bad about the camera. I guess I have mixed feelings about it because I generally don't like looking blatantly like a tourist, stopping every two feet to take pictures of stuff. I'd blend right in here in Georgetown though, because there are so many tourists. Many of the tourists are Asian, and, not to perpetuate a stereotype, but it is true that many Asian people are obsessed with taking pictures.

All tourists from every ethnicity take pictures; that's part of being a tourist. Asians, however, elevate it to a form of mania. I saw a guy last night taking a picture of the shadow of a door. He was crouched down in the middle of a hallway in front of the restrooms trying to compose his shot, while at the same time blocking anyone from entering or leaving the building. Today I saw a woman standing in the middle of the street (not a wise move considering the drivers are Asian as well—oh no I didn’t!) so that she could get just the right perspective of her friend posing in front of something along the side of the road. I guess inconveniencing others or risking one's own life are secondary considerations to capturing that all-important moment in time.

Many Asian people take pictures of everything, including all of their meals. Asian women in particular like to take food pictures. Once I saw six women sitting around a table in a restaurant and each of them was snapping away at the food in front of them. Who they think will ever want to see these pictures is a mystery to me--especially since millions of others are simultaneously taking and posting food pictures (including their own dining companions). Will they look at each others’ pictures of the same plates of food and compare them (“I like your angle on that won ton!” “Oh, but you really captured the light on those fries.”)? Lucy is a victim of this obsession as well, and I keep slipping up and digging into my meals before she gets a chance to record them for posterity. It makes me feel so guilty. Then I have to do some food plastic surgery to make it look like it did when it first came out of the kitchen. Sometimes I have to place a fork or spoon strategically so that it looks like a bite has been intentionally taken. You know, to make it more dramatic. It makes me wonder if someday the gastronomic photography obsession might extend to including photographing what happens at the other end of the digestive system. I hope not!

I've never made a secret of my antipathy towards travel and tourism, and part of that is that tourists and travelers often seem more concerned with checking things off lists (for example, countries: "I've been to fifty-seven countries" followed by a carefully memorized list) and with creating tangible records of their experiences. In terms of picture taking, a lot of times this means that people spend more time taking pictures than they do actually experiencing where they are. A couple of examples come immediately to mind:

Once I went to a place called Ali Shan (Ali Mountain) in Taiwan. It is very famous for its beautiful sunrises. However, to see it you have to get there at dawn (obviously), which means getting up well before dawn so that you can get to the special train that takes you up to the viewing area. Besides having the experience ruined by a hawker with a megaphone, I notice that as the sun rose, no one was looking at it except through a camera lens. Then, only moments after the sun came up over the mountain ridge, everyone turned around and headed back to the train platform. I couldn't believe it. The best part about seeing a sunrise or sunset is watching the sky gradually change as the sun's position relative to the horizon changes, but when you are just checking things off a list, you end up missing the beauty of the experience; you end up missing the point. This is not to mention that you can't see a sunrise or sunset in its glory when you are looking through a viewfinder.

Another example, and this was the one that made me realize how the photography obsession really detracts from actual experience, was in Hong Kong. I went with a friend up to the Peak, which is a mountainside right next to the city from which you can look directly down on the high rise buildings. It is a really stunning sight. I was up there snapping away with my camera, jostling to get the good spot along the rail of the observation deck. Then the battery on my camera died, so I put it away and just started looking. The longer I looked the more amazing the scene was. I could suddenly see things without a border and in their full three dimensional perspective. After a while I realized that people were eyeing my railside "real estate" with envy, so I stepped back to let others get a better view. Then I started looking at people, and there were a lot of them to look at. As my gaze moved along from person to person, I noticed that nobody was looking at the view other than through a camera. Most of the cameras were digital, of course, so this meant that everyone was looking at one of the most awesome views I've ever seen on little tiny TV screens. It seemed so sad to me that I actually stopped taking pictures for a long time.

Photography is a wonderful thing, and it has been extremely important in preserving historical images (personal and social) as well as being an art form in itself. As an element of journalism it has revolutionized the way that we record and disseminate information (one picture > 1,000 words). With the advent of digital photography and online photo sharing, however, I feel like we've reached some kind of saturation point. For one thing, people take so many pictures now that they can never have the time to actually look at all of them, other than maybe to flip quickly through them. And if everyone is doing this, how are they going to ever have time to look at anyone else's pictures? I mean REALLY look at them. Before digital photos, photographers had to really think about what they were shooting (much like writers, before word processing, or even typewriters, had to really think about what they were writing). Photos were limited, and therefore more valuable. The moments in time they captured were special, or even if they weren't, they became special in time because they were recorded. Now every meal is recorded. Hotel rooms are recorded. People's outfits and shoes are recorded. People take pictures of other pictures. People take pictures of other people taking pictures. Everything and anything has become worthy of being a photographic subject. This in itself, I think, has diminished the value of photography.

Just imagine an archaeologist a thousand years from now having to sort through trillions of digital photos and trying to piece together what the societies of our time considered important. Well, there'll be a lot of porn, so they'll probably think we were perverts. And there'll be a lot of self-portraits (some bordering on porn), so they'd probably think we were narcissists. Then, of course, there will be billions and billions of photos of food, so they'll probably think we were either really hungry or had some kind of bizarre eating disorder (which will be reinforced by the fact that a lot of the people in the photos will be overweight).

My main point (I'm getting to it!) is that people seem to spend more time and effort on recording experiences than they do on actually having experiences, to the extent that they don't actually have the experiences at all, but instead watch them on a tiny TV screen. This seems to be a theme that runs through the world of travel and tourism in general, and is really more of a symptom or indication of something deeper--that much travel today, as well as the social cache that goes with it, is the product of a slick marketing campaign (waged by airlines, travel agencies, hotels, tourism bureaus, publishers of travel guides and maps, and so on). There's nothing wrong with travel in itself, nor certainly with photography, but people should be mindful of what is really happening when they book a trip or take a picture. Are they being sold what the Spanish call "gato por liebre" (cat in place of rabbit)? Is is a pig in a poke? Do they believe they are spreading fresh creamery butter on the toast of their life when they are really using margarine? Are my metaphors getting annoying?

My camera battery died, and I left the charger about eight thousand miles away. For a few moments I was frustrated, then sad, but now I'm kind of glad. I don't take many photos anyway (and they usually aren't very good by artistic measures), but now I'm going to be forced to only look at things with my own eyes (at least until I break down and buy a new camera). I hope other people, travelers or not, will consider doing the same, at least part of the time. Sure, take a few photos to preserve those memories, but put the camera away for awhile, too, so you can actually have the experience you think you are having in the first place. While you are at it, use your other senses as well. Be present. That way you might have an experience real enough to be worth remembering.

Oh! One more thing. A friend of mine who must have gone around the world a dozen times, including back in the days before jet travel, once told me not to bother taking pictures. He said to just look at things with your own eyes, and then buy a pack of post cards of the place. That way you don't have to waste your time getting that perfect shot, and the people who take the postcard pictures are probably better photographers than you are anyway.

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