Like most people, I like to travel. Unlike most people, I’ve always hated taking photos.
“But don’t you want them as memories?” I get asked after returning home from an extended solo trip.
I point at my head and say, smug: “Why do I need photos. It’s all in here.”
I make no bones about the fact I consider solo travel a selfish pursuit. It’s for you and about you. Thus why most people who do long-term solo travel are young, white and well-off – the kind of people who say stupid things like all their memories are safely stored forever in their brain.
The irony of course is that I spend my time studying neurodegeneration. I know perfectly well that memories fade, through time and disease, and that no one can possibly remember every sight, smell, sound from their time in a particular place.
So, the fact I don’t take photos is a personal choice, and stems from a lot more than a hubristic faith in the strength of my synapses.
Taking photos gives you something to share with the world, whether through snapchat/facebook/instagram or through a good old-fashioned pack of childhood holiday snaps. A photo lets you include someone, lets them see what you see, lets them share in your experience.
Taking photos gives you a memento to remember something by. It’s a souvenir of an experience. A photo of your new hostel friends or of this amazing streetfood stall you ate at or of that waterfall you chanced across hiking in the arse end of nowhere. That photo captures a moment, reifies the experience as something worth remembering.
Taking photos gives you a means to be creative and express yourself. Humans are visual animals with a beautifully evolved camera and photographer we call the eye and brain. A photo, then, is a way of being selective, being appreciative, being artistic, a way of putting your own stamp and personality onto an experience.
I hate looking at other people’s photos. While I love reading travel writing, I find looking through other people’s holiday snaps on facebook or in the flesh tiresome. I find many (but not all) visuals-heavy travel blogs to be fleeting and insubstantial. I don’t care about seeing a substandard pic of an experience when I could wait til one day to hopefully experience it myself. So I struggle to understand why anyone would want to see my photos were I to take lots of them!
I hate that taking photos can make you see the world through a lens. You end up focussing more on the photo than the moment. You’re not experiencing the world for yourself. You’re experiencing it for those back home, the people who’ll see your pics on facebook and instagram. You risk treating photos like the proof you’ve done these things, as evidence not experiences. When I woke up early one morning to watch the hot air balloons rise above the skies in Cappadocia, Turkey, I was depressed to see everyone wandering around with cameras and selfie sticks, soaking up the experience through their screens.
I hate that the easy availability of amazing photography online has made the world seem unsurprising, unbeautiful by comparison. Think of the increasingly elaborate BBC Nature documentaries, which make seeing an animal in the wild but a shadow of the excitement and elegance of iPlayer. And the awe-inspiring travel photos found on Instagram that make your own photos look shite in comparison. Because, for most of us, we can only ever dream of capturing a pale imitation of the people, the place, photos that will forever be unsatisfactory.
But life, like photography, is rarely black and white. I spend much of my working day looking down a microscope. The point of microscopy is to look deeper into things. This is what photos can do – they can uncover the beauty In the mundane, pick out the truth among confusion, they can expose the good and the bad, they can change the world. Think of the infamous photo of the emaciated Fikret Alić taken in 1992 by journalist Ed Vulliamy at the Trnopolje concentration camp in Bosnia, which exposed to the world the atrocities committed by the Serbs against Muslims and Croats during the Bosnian. This single photo said more than ten thousand articles.
In my field, biologists use advanced imaging techniques to unveil the inner workings of nature, exploiting high-tech microscopes and genetic techniques to visualize cellular processes, focussing in on the formerly hidden, trying to create the truest picture of the world we can.
These are photos with a purpose. This isn’t mere stamp-collecting.
Yet stamp-collecting is what travel photography can fall in to. Ticking landmarks off a list and collecting destinations. Here is me with today’s tour buddies uploaded to twitter, here is me at Machu Picchu as my facebook cover photo, here is me with authentic local person put on tinder to make me look worldly, here is me eating delicious home-made national cuisine uploaded to Instagram, here is me and my amazing life, wandering the world, one photo op at a time.
Ultimate, the reason I took very few photos was because I never felt the need to share my experiences. They were mine. Yet, though I never cared about showing people my photos, I did care about telling my stories.
But now I am deciding to write about life and travel and science and islands and more. And I realize that my words, as vivid as they may be, mean little without something visual to ground them. The magic of the printed word is that it can convey every sense and sensation, yet humans are above all visual and auditory animals. The text tells the story as if speaking to you, but the photo shows the story as if you’re seeing – the photo puts the reader in the active, not passive, position.
Another New Year’s Resolution, then. I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime. I’m going to look at the world through my eyes. I’m going to image the world as I image my cells, to uncover its workings and connections. I’m going to take some photos – and, call me crazy, share them on social media.