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On the Obsession of Travel Photography

A few weeks ago, I ate dinner with Barbara—a woman also staying at Hostel La Candelaria in Valladolid in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Valladolid is frequented by travelers and backpackers alike for its proximity to Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and breathtaking cenotes–natural sinkholes–scattered about the Yucatan state.

Barbara showed me Google photos of Rio Lagartos, a coastal town north of Valladolid where pink flamingos roam free. Even though she failed to recruit any other hostel dwellers to join her day-trip, she was determined to take the two-hour bus ride to the lagoon and photograph the flamingos.

“I will go there and take photos of pink flamingos. And they’d better be there or else I will Photoshop them into the picture!” she said.

I couldn’t be sure whether her priority was to actually see the flamingos or possess first-hand photos of them.

I had previously written about the transformative effects of being filmed on the experience of diving. Barbara’s excitement to possess images of pink flamingos prompted a renewed contemplation over a subject that has long agitated me.

As a “traveler/blogger” I often feel an omnipresent expectation that I should frequently take photographs of the places I visit, upload them on Instagram, and fulfill the mission of making my friends and followers jealous of all the indulges that I soak myself in daily (because I didn’t just spend three days brushing cat hair off a filthy couch).

I love having photos; I enjoy looking at them minutes, days, or years later, reminiscing an imagined past in nostalgia. Yet most of the time I neither enjoy taking them nor do it well. Too many times have I remembered to take my camera out of the bottom of my backpack to realize that the battery has died having sat idle for so long.

When the only apartment you can find is filthy with cat hair, you have no other choice but to clean the apartment. The truth is, even brushing cat hair off a couch can be enjoyable. Hence the smile :)

When the only apartment you can find in small-town Mexico comes with cat hair stuck on every surface, you have no other choice but to clean the apartment. Tried and proven method to clean filthy couch: hit it with a wooden stick. And smile 🙂 (Then cover it with at least two layers of clean sheets before sitting on it!)

Travel photography as experience

The act of taking photos almost always diminishes my enjoyment of the experience by interrupting a flow of being in the moment whether it is a moment of awe while staring at the grandeur of the Chichen Itza pyramid, a moment of relaxation while swimming in a deep blue cenote, or enjoying a conversation around the dinner table.

My complicated relationship with photography aside, why are we—the modern travelers—so obsessed with taking photographs? Few people—minus professional photographers and serious enthusiasts—travel with the main objective of taking photos yet few travelers return home without digital proof of their discoveries.

Before digital photos and the advent of the camera phone, photographs had a prolonged ritual attached to them. One film roll allowed for either 24 or 36 shots and they had to be used wisely. Before pressing that button you had to evaluate the view before you and determine whether it was worth spending the frame. Once you pressed the button, there was no going back.

And until you got home, took your roll of film to get developed, and waited for them to return in a shiny envelope, there was no sure way of gauging the quality of the photos. Every once in a while, a technical failure would result in an entire roll of pitch-black frames. And there goes the proof that you were ever in Bora Bora!

A few days ago, a couple taking selfies on the dock over the Bacalar Laguna were still doing the same when I returned back to the dock after a 30-min swim. Whether selfie-taking is less enjoyable or valuable than swimming remains subjective. After all, there are many activities one can do by a serene laguna: read, stare, meditate, dance, laugh, sleep… My point is that, we choose one activity over the other and the almost unlimited data capacity of our cameras has changed the experience of photography and how we spend our time with our cameras.

Why do we take photos, anyway?

Even before the popularization of the camera-phone, Susan Sontag wrote of transformation of photography into a mass art form in her treatise On Photography back in the 70s:

Recently, photography has become almost as widely practiced an amusement as sex and dancing—which means that, like every mass art form, photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.

For the couple on the lagoon dock taking selfies, photography is an event in and of itself, or rather as Sontag would describe it, a way of “ignoring whatever is going on.” After all, they are taking photos of themselves with the lagoon as a secondary object.

A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.

But what I find more interesting is Sontag’s description of the utility of the camera for the traveler in making us feel more comfortable in foreign environments:

As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. Thus, photography develops in tandem with one of the most characteristic of modern activities: tourism.

on photography bc

Sontag’s “On Photography” is as relevant today as it was decades ago she first published it.

Taking photographs can be a way of hiding from a strange environment and provide a sense of purpose within the overwhelming simulation created by the abundance of the foreign. For the traveller, photography provides a socially acceptable way to mediate the unnerving discomfort of being in a foreign landscape.

Imagine yourself in a busy Mexican mercado, where I frequent weekly to buy produce. Men and women dressed in colorful clothing peel fruits in shades of orange you have never seen, cleaning tiny chili peppers with bare hands. A man in a bicycle cart squeezes oranges and a woman sits on the floor over a tarp, rolling tortillas while chatting with another bagging them in transparent plastic bags.

You think it strange that the crowded marketplace is so quiet. You are used to loud Middle Eastern markets where shoppers yell as much as the vendors. Here, no body is rushing. By a large vegetable vendor, at least seven women wait quietly in line for their tomatoes and onions to be weighed. The abundance of colors on the walls, the fruits, and the dresses of the locals seem to move more than the people themselves. You feel like you are in a crowded circus where all the sounds are muffled. And unless you decide to do some impulsive vegetable shopping, you find yourself standing among all that quiet action, doing nothing but staring.

That’s when the camera comes to your aid. By taking photographs of the men with sombreros selling papayas and pineapples, you find a way to participate in the scene. Taking photos provides a sense of purpose and the Western traveler, as Sontag so aptly pointed out, finds it hard to exist without it, even when on vacation.

Market in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

Market in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

Photography as a tool for power

Most travelers I’ve queried about their reasons for taking photos have said that they like to capture the moment and take a piece of their travels home. Travel photos become souvenirs of sorts – objects that belong to foreign lands and yet we can still possess. For what’s a better way of showing triumph over climbing Machu Pichu, if not in a photo?

Through the photograph, we are able to possess what we cannot possibly put in our pocket. Hence the reason so many people take photos of famous paintings and sculptures in museums when better, more professional versions of them are available for download on the museum website. Our desire to own, to possess is soothed by taking photos of that which cannot be bought or possessed.

As Sontag writes: “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”

So what happened to those pink flamingos you ask?

Barbara arrived on the shores of Rio Lagartos around noon as the sun shone through a cloudless sky on the flat lagoon. She bargained her way into a lancha for a third of the price and watched pink flamingos congregate on shallow waters. She returned to the hostel in Valladolid cheerful and painfully sunburned.

I asked her whether she succeeded in getting the pictures she so desired.

“I took some pictures in the beginning but afterwards, I found myself just enjoying the boat ride. Strangely enough I didn’t end up taking that many photos at all,” she said.

She offered to show me the photos on her tiny phone camera. I said I’d look at them the next day; I couldn’t be bothered to get off my bunk bed. Finally, I saw images of the pink flamingos of Rio Lagartos as I browsed Google while writing this post: Photos that had prompted Barbara to take the trip in the first place, photos taken by travelers unknown to me or to Barbara.

Arrive in Chichen Itza early, when the doors open at 8.00 am. Or you will have to share this view with throngs of tourists bussed in from Cancun and Playa del Carmen!

Arrive in Chichen Itza early, when the doors open at 8.00 am. Or you will have to share this view with throngs of tourists bussed in from Cancun and Playa del Carmen!