21 April 2010 ~ 1 Comment

Reasons to Photo-Fast

This is a guest post by Eric Lewis:

“Take lots of pictures!” It’s something we hear just about every time we leave for someplace exotic. Family and friends want to experience our adventures vicariously, and who can blame them? Photographs preserve certain moments—priceless scenes and scenarios that evade verbal description. But every action has an opportunity cost. What is the price of photographically cataloguing our travels?

Cost one: disconnect

We look for or are struck by opportunity: a picture that frames well and tells a story. The story can be anything. The story of glistening sushi, the story of a flat tire in the middle of the Bolaven Plateau, the story of haggling with a pregnant Cantonese fishmonger. Something that we must never forget, and that we want to share with others.

Next we try to capture the story. Ambient light, camera settings, timing, an eye for composition. The process of composing a picture pulls us out of the reality that we’re trying to capture. There is plenty to say in favor of this creative process, of course, but Facebook, loved ones, and our own vanity argue strongly enough in favor of photography. My aim is to discuss its drawbacks—and the act’s creative nature is drawback number one.

We cannot listen while talking, and likewise we cannot experience a moment while trying to communicate it to others.

I was once strolling through Prague at dusk with a friend. As we neared the Charles Bridge, a fireworks display went off, pitching swaths of orange and blue over the city’s gothic landmark. We had no idea this was coming. My friend, Katie, dropped to her knees and tore through her backpack, fumbling to locate and assemble her Pentax. I, having recently been gassed and robbed on an overnight train and therefore camera-less, just stood with my mouth open, looking into the sky. Then came a crescendo, then the finale. Katie shrieked in frustration. The show ended before she could snap a single shot. And I will never forget what the Charles Bridge looks like under the glare of fireworks on a clear winter night.

Had I not been freshly robbed, I probably would have flipped into snapshot mode. Sometimes life gives you free lessons.

Cost two: intrusion

Another story: During a tour of Cambodia’s Angkorian temples, my group visited Ta Prohm, famous for its appearance in the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider. Naturally, the site is always thronged with tourists. Near the entrance a backpacker had asked a passerby to take his photo. Standing as far from the crowd as possible, the backpacker instructed his photographer: “Make sure there’s no tourists in the picture!”

A participant from my group advised, “You’d better get out of the shot then.” So true.

It’s easy, when taking photos, to see and think of our surroundings only as we want to. In framing the perfect shot, we often block out the bigger picture. This myopia is especially prevalent—and egregious—in the developing world, where well-meaning visitors transform into misery voyeurs, scanning for shots that pack at-home shock value.

Disregarding the context of our photography may be harmless at the entrance of a temple, but it can be downright intrusive when people are the subject matter. There’s a reason why rock bands and Marine platoons are notoriously distrustful of the press: they’re skeptical about how they will be portrayed. Approaching people with a camera is a good way to put them on guard, especially in developing parts of the world, where no scenario is off-limits in the minds of snap-happy tourists. The association between visitors with cameras and invasion of privacy is not lost on locals, who are showcased without consent on countless blogs and Flickr accounts.

Cutting cost

Try going camera-free. By removing this distractive crutch, you will truly engage your surroundings. Enhanced memory is just one benefit of being mentally present. Because memory is a multi-sensory capacity, tuning in to the scene around you will enhance your ability to recall it. Taking photos creates a cycle: we need pictures to jog our memory because we depend on them to do our remembering for us.

Even more rewarding are the interactions you’ll have, with locals and fellow travelers alike. People act more naturally off-record, so ditch the camera for unfettered authenticity. Photo-fasting is especially useful in cultural exchange situations, such as home stays. The aim is to connect with people who are ostensibly quite different from us, and we can facilitate interaction by removing the mental and physical barrier that photography imposes.

Making it work

While it may be unrealistic to stop taking photos completely, you can reap the benefits of intermittent photo-fasting. I recommend a ‘one day with, one day without’ routine. (If you’re the journaling type, note the differences between these days.) Another option is to nominate one person in your group to photograph each day—the Internet makes photo sharing easier than ever.

As photographer Adam Vaught puts it, “Anyone can shove a camera in someone’s face and bring home unique photographs, but at what cost? I’ve discovered that honest interaction, exchange and interest in your subject leads to more interesting photography.” Photo-fasting will help you find this balance between observation and interaction, which will improve both your photography and your ability to connect with those around you.

Eric Lewis recently returned to his home state of Virginia after spending the better part of a year in Cambodia with PEPY. He believes personal happiness is positively correlated with one’s use of passport and library card.

  • churchimiqui

    When I lived in Cambodia (in the days before digital) my camera grew mold or something; it wouldn’t work right the whole time (worked fine after 3-4 months back in the US) so I was forced to go without.  I didn’t have money to buy a new one, and now I regret not having those photos.  We had a friend photograph our wedding so I have a few (10 total) photos from that day, and I borrowed a camera when our son was born but someone destroyed the film before it could be processed so all I have is his passport photo.  We had a chance in 2002 to go back (for 5 days) so I bought up throwaway cameras and madly photographed family, friends, old haunts and new discoveries, and those photographs are my childrens’ most treasured possessions (they were 5 and 8 at the time), a way to keep memories and heritage and relatives close.  The few photos we had from our wedding also meant that the kids could recognize their grandma when she came to live with us after the coup in 97.  I realize that there is a time and place for photography and times and places to refrain, but I will never camera-fast again!