Whenever I travel, I bring a camera. Whenever I go out to do something potentially cool and photo-worthy (i.e. hiking or going for a stroll in a favorite neighborhood), I bring a camera. And whenever I bring a camera, I expect that I’ll be writing a blog post. This habit influences what I look for, which impacts what I see and subsequently write about.
And I know I’m not the only one. When I first moved to New York, I had coffee with a couple of bloggers (literally a blogging couple – what a dream!) that I met online and we talked about feeling pressure to document, write, and maintain readership. Crafting a good travel blog post, for example, involves some planning: What’s the story I want to tell? What themes do I want to capture? What feelings do I want readers to have? What do I want readers to see or experience or look forward to? As the post builds in my head, I document accordingly. At the same time, photographing and writing about my weekend wandering when I was living in New York gave me a sense of purpose when I didn’t have one.
I’ve learned some really valuable lessons throughout, like what makes a compelling photo. Seeking out those photos has encouraged me to stray from the beaten path, talk to locals, and simply to wander. But I’ve also learned that the minutiae of humanity are important to me. I spent a week in Europe in April and photographed every interesting doorframe I saw and then turned it into a framed poster when I got home. I have pictures of people’s laundry hanging up to dry from everywhere I’ve been.
Some of my favorite photos are looking over the rooftops from a few storeys above the ground. But when I take photos like these, I catch myself wondering whether they fit into the story I’m trying to tell.
As I look around, I’ve seen beauty everywhere – in the sky, in the water, in urban and rural settings. Sometimes, it’s enough to be overwhelmed by what is everywhere while other times, it’s the focus on one element that quickens the heart. I take photos of sweeping landscapes and historic village centers but sometimes the ones that I like best are close-up shots of individual flowers, rocks, or flagstones.
Visiting family in Toronto this summer, which I’ve done dozens and dozens of times, I did not bring a camera. I knew that we’d spend time walking around downtown, which I’ve rarely done because my time in Toronto is always spent hanging out with family. But honestly, I didn’t expect to see anything worth photographing. To me, Toronto mostly means the suburbs where my grandparents and some cousins live and the downtown residential neighborhood where the rest of my cousins live. I didn’t really think there was much to see. If there were, I figured I would have seen it by now.
Turns out I was wrong.
After brunch with our relatives, my dad and I wandered through downtown. We followed a guide my sister had written specifically for this occasion; she went to university in Toronto and has recently moved back there. She sent us on a walking tour of her favorite downtown spots, landmarking what we’d see with restaurants, little shops, and parks. She included anecdotes about some of her favorite experiences and suggested places to stop for food and drinks.
Turns out, I wished I had a camera. If I’d had a camera, I told my dad, I could have documented the day and written a blog post. He reminded me that I had a phone and that my phone has a camera. Oh. Right.
But then I realized something important. I realized that, in my irritation at not having my camera, I was forgetting to look around and actually see. And in that, I wasn’t present. I wasn’t experiencing what was right in front of me. My favorite experiences of all time are seared into my memory because I was present throughout; I don’t have any hard evidence to document them, but even writing this sentence has brought a smile to my face.
Had I become so focused on looking that I’d forgotten to see?
That thought disturbed me and I made a conscious effort to shift my perspective as we continued our stroll. Instead of documenting for my blog, I walked around downtown Toronto with my dad, pointing out what I thought was cool, stopping here and there to visit a shop or taker a closer look at a mural, a poster, a unique building. It was interesting to hear what he noticed and how it differed from what I noticed and it was relaxing to just take a walk without feeling like I had to tell anyone about it.
Over the course of that afternoon, I learned something valuable. I learned that while I enjoy taking photos and writing about my experiences, I don’t have to do that all the time. Sometimes, it’s enough to just be present wherever I happen to be, with whoever I’m with. And I learned that I need to balance documenting a place for others and being present for myself.
When I recall my favorite travel experiences, there are no cameras. The travel moments that I treasure the most – telling stories during long road trips after dark; utter chaos at dinner in the middle of a city; stopping at a farmer’s market to buy food for a picnic that we prepared in the trunk of the car; drinking jugs of sangria outside in the winter; tasting spicy cocktails in a restaurant that looked like a forest – are documented through my memory of smells, sounds, mental images, and feelings of warmth. There’s likely something scribbled in a journal, too, and I expect that my memory and the moments themselves differ.
So while I love taking photos, telling stories, and sharing them, I’ll be doing that with a different mindset. I’ll be looking, yes, but the goal will be to see.