The image of a raging elk chasing a tourist on the rim of the Grand Canyon is permanently imprinted in my mind. Prior to this hilarious spectacle, the tourist was creeping up to the grazing elk with a camera pressed to his face. When he got to be a foot away, he clicked his camera and the elk snapped his neck around and charged. This is just one of many instances of tourists using their cameras over their minds.
The problem with surface traveling, or traveling behind a screen, is that it causes a disconnect between the traveler and the surrounding world. Everyone has been to a concert only to have their view blocked by a glaring iPhone screen. Older people love to complain about technology-obsessed millennials who never seem to put their phones down, but it is actually our entire society that is being affected by these new devices. Phones are not the only devices that captivate us; camera also dictate how we live. We are a society that loves--needs--to capture every moment. Who wouldn’t want a beautiful photograph of their family with Mickey Mouse from a family vacation to Disneyworld, or a selfie with a polar bear at the zoo?
I was standing in front of the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, gazing at one of the most famous paintings in the world, “Mona Lisa” when I was blinded by a diverse mass of arms and devices and deafened by the cadence of aggressive shutters snapping. As I looked around, I noticed that no one was gazing into the eyes of Mona Lisa with their own two eyes. Instead, their eyes were glued to a viewfinder or screen of some sort. Their lenses became their artificial eyes. What was most alarming was that I was watching this whole scenario through the lens of my own camera. Cameras form a physical and mental barrier between the traveler and the world around them when used in excess. When someone has their phone in front of their face, they are not noticing the way the Mona Lisa’s judging eyes follow their every move or each individual brushstroke on the canvas. When people travel somewhere or experience a significant event, they get caught up in trying to capture and record every moment of it. If they can’t they feel like the moment is lost forever and wasted. Capturing every single moment of an event or location in photographs kills the chances of gaining genuine memories. Susan Sontag wrote in her book On Photography, “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.”
Matt Hershberger, a writer for Matador Network, says, “My desire for souvenirs, trophies, and general documentation that I am an interesting person has long gotten in the way of actual travel for me.” Validation is something that is ingrained so deep in humanity that it subconsciously affects the way we travel. Instead of traveling purely for the sake of self fulfillment, people are traveling for their audience on social media. Look online; every photograph depicts someone at a new location. This need for validation is toxic to our society because it constructs a community of self-serving individuals. “The problem was that photos required much more of my attention during the traveling itself, and I found that when I got home, the images in the photo had replaced the images in my memory. Photography allowed me to experience travel later, and not be present to it now,” Hershberger adds. People stop relying on their own memories and start to rely on the visual documentation that photographs provide . This causes a barrier because it distances us from what we are experiencing in the now.
When I got back from my trip to Yosemite National Park in California, I realized that I had taken over 2,000 photographs, but I wound up only using 50 on my website. All I could think of was how in those 1,950 clicks, I could have been enjoying the waterfall or watching the sunrise in peace rather than figuring out what the best angle was for my next photograph. Liam Hutton, Video Media Arts ‘21, says, “Usually whenever I go on family vacations, I'm the one who takes the pictures just because I'm the best at it. I enjoy it, but sometimes I feel like I can't actually be in the moment because I have to capture it instead. Also, I'm never in any of the family pictures because I'm the one taking them.” Constantly capturing the moment can often feel like a burden, even if someone is just taking photographs for themself. Having a device that takes photographs puts pressure on the individual to use it at all times simply because they have it. In order to avoid surface traveling, we need to understand the right moments to take a photograph instead of clicking the button at every corner. It is all about quality over quantity.
The next time you find yourself confronted with an elk in the wilderness, take a step back and enjoy the moment. And, whatever you do, don’t get too close with your camera.