How cameras have changed travel

Evergreen, Opinion / Saturday, February 27th, 2010



As I walked home on Friday evening, a strange thing happened. I stopped, as I often do, to take a photo or two as I walked down the steep hill from the University’s campus – struck by an especially pretty skyline over Bath’s city centre, the Abbey’s side gently illuminated and a million lights twinkling around it in the night sky. This fabulous sight at once makes the daily walk back down this monster of a hill so very worthwhile, and at the same time reminds me of just how lucky I am to live somewhere so gorgeous; somewhere tourists come from miles around, to snatch just a few days amidst its ancient beauty, is where I work, study and call home.

But this time, as I walked on having taken my pictures, I was struck by how strangely instinctive it has become to hold a camera at arm’s length and position the shot on the screen, rather than to hold it to your face, squinting through the lens as was normal for so many years before the rise of the digital camera. It is, of course, just habit, but even just being able to zoom today seems so normal. The idea of waiting for the flash light to start up on an old-fashioned disposal camera seems as far removed as is possible, as does the idea of cutting off someone’s head and not finding out about it until the photos are developed – even the idea of taking a film into Boots is dead. Opening a pack of prints to find a white blur around the edges, or someone’s thumb over part of the lens, is unthinkable. If that happens now, you’ll know about it a split second after the photograph has been taken – and, with the sunset, monument or hugely posed and exaggerated facial expression still there, in-situ and waiting, the photo is easily deleted an re-taken until it’s the postcard-perfect snap you were hoping for.

But has all of this changed the camera’s role in travel? A cursory glance at the sheer number of photos any one person posts on Facebook, within even just hours of returning home from a trip, is enough to show without a shadow of a doubt the impact of modern photography.

I recently took a casual ‘which type of tourist are you’ profiling quiz as part of a French conversation class, and one of the questions related to the thing you most want to do when you get to your destination after a long journey – one of the options being to climb straight into bed for a rejuvenating snooze. On the flip side, perhaps the first thing to be done on returning home from a fortnight away is nowadays not to catch up on sleep and get over the jet lag, but to leap for the laptop and put up all those embarrassing photos on Facebook.

We lap up this new ability to take countless photos – and travel becomes less about seeing and experiencing new things and places, more about what there is to show for it at the end of the trip ; what proof there is of where we’ve ben and what we’ve done.

We all seem to be as guilty as one another in this domain. I vividly remember a trip during my gap year to a landmine museum just outside of Siem Reap, the Cambodian home of the stunning Angkor Wat temples, one of the seven wonders of the world, stepped in history and with nature’s dominance over them as evidence of just how long they have been there. Two friends and I were in Cambodia for just three days, and yet I spent much of one of them capturing just about every exhibit and its textual description on film. The photos mean very little to me now, and this wasn’t about having something to prove my travels when I got home. Rather, just as ‘citizen journalism’ is supposed to have irreversibly sprouted at home, turning us all into mini roving reporters, so too on our holidays we have all become travel writers, travel photographers, intent on capturing every detail about a place, all for our ‘audience’ back home. The same is true of my travels around Thailand, recorded by countless photos of anonymous temples about which I remember very little.

A Canadian friend visiting me in Bath for a few days saw my post-it-note-scrawled ideas for this blog post and agreed – we seem to travel just as much nowadays for the pictures we can take home with us, deleting the unflattering ones and posting the rest online. But as hard as it can be to resist whipping out the camera t every opportunity (and I know, because I’m as snap-happy as I ever have been, and just as much as any other traveller), we’re better of savouring the experience and taking home real memories, rather than photographed ones we barely lived ourselves, because we were too busy peering through the glass window of a camera.

2 Replies to “How cameras have changed travel”

  1. I saw the topic of this blog on your facebook status as was intrigued. You make some interesting observations. However I would like to add a couple of points that you might like to consider.

    First of all – you are right to highlight the fact that cameras have changed the way we ‘report’ our holidays. Given the ease of use of digital cameras, their immense storage and low prices, it is unsurprising that we’re seeing an increase in the number of photos we take while on vacation. Despite this, I don’t actually think that they have ‘changed’ travel (which was what attracted me to your piece in the first place). Digital cameras haven’t affected where, when and why we go on holiday. Despite this, your blog is still interesting.

    One suggestion I’d like to make – if you, or anyone else is concerned – is to take an old, reliable ‘analogue’ camera with you on holiday next time. I normally do this whenever I go away, and you will find that the types of pictures you take will change enormously. You won’t be so snap-happy, given the cost of developing and the risk of coming home with nothing. At the same time, it will make you really think about the pictures you are taking; you’ll try and find interesting subjects, angles, different lights… if you want to take home some memorable photographs, this will work.

    Unfortunately, the ease of access to cheap cameras and the internet has left us with facebook profiles full of (mostly) uninspiring holiday snaps. They normally don’t focus so much on the places but the people.

    I like the subject that you’ve chosen, and it’s put a few thoughts in my mind. But next time, take two cameras – one for trivialities and one for the photographer in you!

  2. Interesting thoughts Stefan. I don’t think where and when we go on holiday has necessarily been changed by cameras, and that’s not really what I set out to say.

    On the flip side, I do think what we get up to on holiday, and so why we go, has seen a transformation partly because of the change in use of cameras. We are far more interested in spending time taking many many pictures than we were in the past, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that photo-snapping has become a holiday activity in itself, where it used to simply be a way of remembering other activities – it’s gone from being something on the side of a holiday to being central to it, if you like.

    Of course, other factors come into play too – budget airlines, for example – and these are things I’m toying with the idea of writing about in coming posts. I also like your idea on taking two cameras! Glad you like the blog.

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