Becoming the Snapshots, Part One

In part one of this two-part blog, I’m looking at the growing number of tour operators who offer professional photographers as part of tour packages, and I’m looking at the reasons why professional photographers won’t solve the problem that their inclusion in tour packages is designed to solve.

It would be no surprise to say that we go travelling* to have experiences, to visit exotic countries and learn about other cultures; and it would be no surprise to say that recording our experiences is a large part of travelling — understandably we want to remember the exotic, cultural, potentially life-expanding things we’ve done.

Unfortunately, we can’t trust our memories to take care of the recording because memories are notoriously unreliable. Memories fade. Memories change against our will. We start to remember things the wrong way. Details creep in or out. Sometimes we remember things that never happened. That’s why photographs have become such handy analogues for the human memory. Photographs remember things for you, and they remember without much effort. Photographs don’t change over time. Unlike memories they’re not vague and fuzzy. Details don’t creep in or out of photographs. They seem perfect for the purpose of remembering. Perhaps more pertinently, they allow us to share our memories and experiences with other people.

There is of course a problem with photographs, a problem summed up neatly by Richard, the protagonist of Alex Garland’s The Beach:

I don’t keep a travel diary. I did keep a travel diary once and it was a big mistake. All I remember of that trip is what I bothered to write down. Everything else slipped away, as though my mind felt jilted by my reliance on pen and paper. For exactly the same reason I don’t travel with a camera. My holiday becomes the snapshots and anything I forget to record is lost.

Richard has a memory for this sort of thing that’s beyond most people’s. The rest of us are left to worry over the temporal nature of memory, which means that we can’t break free from the camera and the travel diary. Those of us who have been travelling have felt the pressure to record everything; we feel that we will lose whatever we don’t record. So we go around with cameras and we take photographs of everything we can photograph. One of my clearest memories of China is standing in the mouth of a giant digger (don’t ask), watching a tour guide take the same photograph, eleven or twelve times, with different cameras. I don’t have the photographs any more, so there’s very little else I could tell you about that day. What little I could tell you is vague and blurry — rather like a series of badly-focused photographs. What I remember most is having my photograph taken.

The Beach Di Caprio.jpg
“Everything else slipped away, as though my mind felt jilted by my reliance on pen and paper.”

That this is the most significant and clear memory of that day says a lot about the way that our experiences are affected by the need to record everything. This is a fact we’re waking up to. We’re so stressed about recording and capturing, we spend so much time doing it — taking enough photographs to make sure that we really capture the experience — that we’re failing to fully enjoy our experiences. At some point we stop paying attention to the things we’re trying to remember. There’s an obvious solution to the problem: we could leave the camera at home. But this would mean we’d feel the pressure to record even more keenly. We’d feel the camera’s absence. We’d suddenly become consciously aware of the frailty of memory, how unequipped memory is for the task of remembering important things. Relying on memory would likely leave us bug-eyed and stressed. It would be counter-productive. And we’d have nothing to show other people when we got back home.

Some entrepreneurial tour operators have proposed a different solution. Their reasoning is simple: if you can’t be free of the camera, why not get somebody else to hold it? As we’ve become more aware of the impact that our cameras have on our experiences, tour operators like El Camino Travel, Flytographer and Shoot My Travel have stepped up, offering professional photographers as part of their tour packages. The appeal is beautifully simple: you not only get to fully enjoy your experiences without stressfully trying to record them, you also get the records. Most enticingly, you get the records in the form of professional photographs, with a quality far beyond your best amateur efforts.

But what in theory is an elegant solution is in practice the same problem with a different name. That’s because a camera’s need for attention is total. Even if the camera is held by somebody else, we’ll always be primarily aware of the camera. The reason for this is that we’re not in control of other people’s photographs. So if we remove the camera to a third-party, we might not be stressed about capturing all our experiences, but we’ll be thinking about how we’re going to look in the photographs. Our immediate thought at any time is going to be: How will the photographer make me look? El Camino knows this, which is why the primary appeal of El Camino’s tours is going to be the 20 uploadable photographs that travellers get to see and upload to social media every morning. It’s hard not to think that seeing your professional photographs every morning is going to be — overwhelmingly — the most exciting and important part of travelling with El Camino.

It’s hard then to see how professional photographers are going to solve travelling’s inherent paradox, or even if the point is to solve the paradox. Despite the assertions of Shoot My Travel’s Valerie Lopez that “We created the service for people who like to travel light and don’t want to worry about anything but being there. When you’re worrying about taking a good photo you’re not in the moment”, Shoot My Travel’s own website’s emphasis is slightly different: what Shoot My Travel’s website asserts is that travelling’s overriding problem is that there is a lack of professional photography in travelling:

When people travel it’s likely that they bring along their camera to document all parts of their trip: where they go, what they see, what they eat, etc, however, most of the time they are missing quality images of themselves on a one of a kind vacation!

Couples end up with “just him” or “just her” photos and boring selfies. Families can never get a good picture of the entire group. Asking strangers to take the photos ends up being annoying and the pictures come up plain or bad quality.

But the lack of professional photography is a problem that did not exist until professional photographers became part of tour packages. So it’s more likely that professionally photographed travelling is not really about removing the distraction of the camera but making the camera the focus. It’s the sort of thing that will likely appeal to people who are more interested in exotic photographs than in visiting exotic places. In other words, it will appeal to those people who other people think of as rampant narcissists. Which will be the subject of part two…


*That’s ‘travelling’, as opposed to ‘going on holiday’. There’s an important distinction, one which you might consider to reflect only how pretentious the traveller/holiday-goer is. That’s neither here nor there; the point is that it’s a useful distinction because it separates those extended holidays that students spend in exotic Asian countries — what used to be called ‘backpacking’ — from holidays in which families get suntans next to hotel swimming pools.

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