Our senses are heightened when we travel. Everything is new—the mist enveloping the mountains, the cow meandering among the cars, the woman in the striking dress—and we want to save every moment. So we take out the camera and read the scene like a lion on the hunt, looking at light and shadow, textures and angles, shapes and colors. And by doing so we have decided, whether by conscious choice or not, to risk the enjoyment of the moment now for a snapshot that will last forever.
But this, I have found, is the antithesis of travel. The traveler’s job is to enjoy the destination, to engage with what’s in front of them, to understand and learn from a people different than them. I want to embrace the place with my full attention, not with a mind busy calculating a scene. But photography requires the opposite modus operandi. First, composing a picture encourages abstraction. We push unusable elements out of the frame, and avoid unnecessary details. We abstract away the world into blobs. Second, exposing a picture encourages calculation. We turn mechanical, engaging our mental energy into making sure that our subject is in focus, that the three variables of exposure are properly set to produce the desired effect. This mindset, when repeated at every new moment (of which there are many in travel), hinders our ability to travel well.
The drastic solution, of course, is to not bring the camera. But I’ve discovered a different way: engage the world through other means.
The Artist Mindset
The camera is a rather blunt instrument. With the press of a button the entire scene is captured and finalized, imprinted into the film or sensor. The pencil, however, is an instrument of infinite precision. A sketch artist must pay attention to every detail, decide upon an interpretation of every point, and employ all skill and effort into every movement of the hand.
This precise form of observation, I have found, is a powerful antidote to my camera-wielding mindset. My wife and I had spent a hot day walking around the ancient agora in Athens. Tired and frankly done with old rocks, we hid in the shade in front of the Temple of Hephaestus. I took my notebook and decided that I would try to draw the damn temple. I started with a couple of lines, outlining the the overall shape of the temple. Then I had to count the number of columns making the facade, then the number of visible fluting on each column. Then there was the problem of figuring out the shaft and entasis, and the roof and its detailed frieze. Not to mention the steps leading to the temple, the adjacent facades, the rocks and bushes and trees.
It was a bad drawing, and I may have missed a column or two, but I did learn patience. I didn’t have the instant gratification of a camera. If I wanted a temple, I had to draw a temple. It was this embarrassing, painstaking labor that forced me to really know my subject, to see details that I would have ignored with a camera, to sit still and enjoy the place for what it is, not for the photograph I can get out of it.
The Writer Mindset
Another remedy is to write. We went to the Italian town of Vernazza for our honeymoon. The locals would come out of hiding at night, when the cruise ship crowds had dissipated. The streets and patios would be filled with beautiful people talking and laughing, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. But there was one young man, no older than nineteen, that I would find every night walking the town in circles, back and forth, from the cliffs through the alleyways towards the cove, again and again, wearing the same scratchy sweater, sweating in the warm Italian night. His shoulders drooped, but he walked quickly and with meaning, as if he was in a hurry to go somewhere. His face spoke of sadness, of longing, of unrequited love.
I wanted to talk to him, to ask him what was burning through his mind during those long walks. But how could I interrupt that overwhelming sadness? So I picked up a pen and wrote a story. About a man with a long face that paced the town every night, spiraling deeper and deeper into darkness. It was my way of capturing that moment, of getting to know this young man. A photograph would not have done him justice. It would not have told the story.
Unlike a photograph, which represents a fixed point in time, a story flows through time. I realized that I could take a character—the rambunctious family next door, the old widow crossing the plaza, the restless young man—and peer into their future. I could turn my protagonist into a hero or into despair. I wasn’t writing for some audience—I wrote for me. If drawing is observation at its most precise form, then writing is communication at its most precise form. Writing brings your ideas out to battle on paper. It sharpens them. It brings clarity to muddy thoughts. And most importantly for me as a traveler, writing brings me closer to my subjects in a way that photography cannot.
Simplifying the camera
My parents shot film but I came-of-age in the midst of the digital revolution. It was all about megapixels, sensor size, maximum ISO, post-processing, pixel-peeping. But the more I travelled, the more I realized that I needed to minimize the amount of time spent in the photographer mindset. I needed to get out of the mire. It was then that I discovered film photography. So I picked up an Olympus Stylus Epic and focused on the basics. Composition, lighting, subject.
The plastic Olympus has a good lens, it’s portable, and it gets out of the way. The only thing I can do with it is compose and shoot. As Hamish points out, the lure of the uncomplicated camera is that it provides “clarity of function.” I’m no longer fiddling around with settings, retaking the same shot over and over, staring at the back of an LCD screen making sure everything was perfect. When I see something compelling I compose, press the shutter, and move on. I only have to turn on my photographer’s mindset for a moment, and I can instantly be a traveler again. I can quickly re-engage with the world. And when I find myself too-focused on the camera, I take out some paper and a pencil. And I draw, or write. Because as much as I love travel photography, I’ve found that travel is even better.
All photos shot on the Olympus Stylus Epic: