Disclaimer: this article does not claim to give any official health advice to travelers.
Snapshots – many believe our trips would be incomplete without them. Photographs provide concrete memorandums of the discoveries we make whilst traveling. One fleeting moment can be cherished forever and relived multiple times thanks to a single photograph. Sharing our ‘pics’ with friends and family has become an important bonding activity; they can relate to the highs – and lows – of our travels via this visual medium.
Images fascinate us as a culture, and always have done. Photographs, in particular, can educate us about the past, as historical documents and ancestral artifacts. They lay claim to a certain objectivity (despite the subjective point of view of the photographer), that paintings and other artistic representations do not. Hence the popular dictum of today: “Pics or it didn’t happen”. It seems that a lot of travel photographs are about obtaining proof, for ourselves and for others, that our seemingly unbelievable or unimaginable experiences really did happen.
When photography first developed, it was the apanage of an elite few. But with the wide range of high-end cameras available nowadays – from DSLRs to high-res cameras built into mobile phones – photography is at the fingertips of every one of us. Now that it is overwhelmingly accessible to all, professional photojournalists and travel photographers need to work extra hard to distinguish their work from that of the masses.
Indeed, a handful of carefully composed photographs have become legend. A single photograph possessing that ‘special something’ has the power to capture the imagination of a generation. Take, for example, Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’ (1984), with a pair of green eyes that will go down in history and pierce hearts across borders and cultures for years to come.
But in this dynamic, transient world where images are two-a-penny, many seem to have forgotten the lasting power of the Art of Photography. The most mundane of things are now worthy of tourists’ digital memory and social media posts on Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, etc. Some feel that this is simply a modern-day convenience for sharing photographs with friends and family, as we have done for so long. Yet the narcissism of this relatively new and instant way to publish personal photos sometimes smacks you in the face. Social media feeds nowadays are shamelessly flooded with selfies and trout pouts. In many ways, travel has just become another excuse for these self-promotional displays where an historical monument or beautiful scene in the backdrop legitimises a ‘You’ looking fab in the foreground.
This epidemic is part of an underlying, widespread desire to construct an online illusion of an unrealistically perfect life, modelled on advertisements and consolidated by ego-boosting Likes and Comments. Photography nowadays is about coming out. It has moved from the private realm of contemplation to the public sphere, despite the personal nature of the subject matter. The cliché of the black-and-white photo hidden away in the attic has been replaced by the snapshots which we splash all over the internet. And our sense of self-worth is largely invested in pixels on a screen and the internet audience reached.
Why this paradigm shift? Does photo fever enrich and consolidate our experiences? Or are we exploiting photography in order to compete with others and impress our ‘Friends’ online? Perhaps we need to take a step back from the lens. Perhaps we should be more truthful with ourselves as to the real reasons why we take so many photographs on our travels.
When taking photographs becomes the primary aim of visiting a place, you can hardly claim immersive exposure to the local ways of life. Instead, you tend to move around in a little bubble, coalescing with your fellow feverish in the jostling ‘photo free-for-alls’ which collect around tourist hotspots, arguably spoiling the experience for other visitors.
Travel is an external exploration but it should also be an internal one, where you allow yourself the space to introspect, rather than taking the familiar weight of social anxiety and insecurity halfway round the world with you. Wouldn’t you rather be someone who lives in the moment than the person who is constantly, self-consciously searching for opportunities to pose?
Steve McCurry probably didn’t go round Afghanistan all camera-happy with his index finger permanently glued to the shutter button and a patellar reflex in his elbow joint. He would have taken the time and found the space to let the indigenous culture wash over him, meeting with local people in order to obtain their trust in him as a strange foreign man with a camera. Obviously, the aim isn’t always to emulate the professional photojournalist and produce publishable work; sometimes we just want that personal memorandum to take home. These photos become our own Afghan Girls, so to speak, gems to save for the grandkids, the pictures that really are worth a thousand words and testify to an unbelievable adventure, rather than an unbelievably big ego. Compare this with the hundreds of snapshots we see every day which are only worth one word: ‘Unfollow’.