Roving Robots: Why Sometimes You Need to Put the Camera Down

Open University

Anyone who knows me knows this is a slightly hypocritical stance for me to adopt. Considering a considerable number of my profile pictures feature my (admittedly small) face completely obscured by my (admittedly small) DSLR, it’s a commonly understood fact that I love taking photos. But I have to ask myself what I’ll ask you now: to what extent does documenting your experience prevent you from living it?

In a certain respect, there are two major camps when it comes to photography: the historians and the artists.

  • Historians capture the factual evidence of their trip: pictures with friends, snapshots of food, memories of lodgings, museums, and amusing signs. The results aren’t always interesting to people unrelated to the photographer, as this form of documentation is extremely personalized and not particularly translatable to the Average Viewer. However, this form can veer radically in one of two directions: either it retroactively captures stories that the subjects wish to recall quickly upon repeat viewing (thus making the photo-taking a matter of functional ease), or it constructs the entire experience around the periodic pause and click that marks trips to Vegas, Cancun, Ibiza, etc (thus artificially creating “fun” through the sheer virtue of presenting “fun” for the camera). To their credit, historians create stories through their work that appeal personally to their subjects, allowing a sense of nostalgia that’s not always possible with the artistic rendition.
  • Artists have a very different mentality. They are constantly on the lookout for visually appealing work, framing their experience in terms of what they can recreate in digital (or film ::coughhipsterscough::) form. Their camera is never too far from their hand – after all, you never know when there will be a stroke of natural genius, or a moment of serendipitous malarky. On one hand, they never truly live life – they are constantly subjecting themselves to the limitations of their gear. But on another hand, they’re doing what everyone does: viewing their world through a lens that works for them. And this lens is almost permanently attached to their hand. Better than something else, right..?

Their output is often much more engaging to the general audience, simply due to its distance from any individual. But ultimately, they never really take a break from photography – historians might bring their point-and-clicks, or even their DSLRs, with them everywhere, but the sheer volume of resulting images cheapens the importance of a single image. But the artist leaves their equipment behind for unideal lighting or weather conditions, then pains when a beautiful moment goes unrecorded, cursing themselves for their lack of foresight. Not only that, they spend far more time composing each shot, analyzing the exquisiteness of a sunset through a small viewfinder rather than with the full frame ability of their eyes, attached to the 360˚ capability of their head.

Of course, everyone embodies elements of both. Photojournalists do it best, Myspace girls do it worst. We could graphically portray this relationship as follows:

Hva er det

Whether you’re a misunderstood artist or a paparazzi in training, the common drawback of both camps is that there’s a degree of artificial reality, a certain amount of contemplative distance, that marks the photographer’s solitary existence.

Instead of living your life through a lens: Determine ahead of time what requires documentation and what doesn’t – for example, do you really need to / want to bring your camera into the hundredth museum in Paris, a remote waterfall accessed only by swimming through a lagoon, or a quiet dinner with pajama-clad friends who don’t appreciate your shutterbug tendencies?

I know. It’s going to be hard. Imagine my dilemma: I’m going to have a year of new experiences, some of which will literally be “once in a lifestyle.” But if I’m constantly worried about getting the perfect shot, or forcing myself to remember to photograph a precise and never-ending list of things, then I’ll never immerse myself in the culture I’m visiting. Yes, it’s impossible to be a photographer and avoid the tourist target that is the perpetual presence of your camera – sometimes I even feel like a tourist at home when I do random photography projects. And yes, “going native” is not a realistic tactic unless you fluently speak the language, have a host who is willing to bring you into his or her circles, and spend a lot more than a few months in one place.

My point is: interacting with the people you came to see is ultimately much more satisfying – and respectful – than treating them like actors in your private theatre. Regardless of whether you’re an artist or a historian or some blend of the two, you lose the essence of travel when you’re constantly reviewing your experience on a tiny LCD screen, preparing it for the nuanced digital rendering and living life thirty seconds behind. What you sometimes need to force yourself to do is to put down the camera and embrace the world with two hands – and nothing else between.