There’s a lookout over the Australian Blue Mountains that treats visitors to a spectacular view. Below, a gorge runs 2,500 feet deep, and covers more than 4,000 square miles. That’s the size of 80 Bostons. A light-blue haze rises off the foliage that blankets the mountains. Views like this are why people visit this country.
To the left and right, a small army of fanny-packed tourists snap pictures, desperate to translate the view into camera pixels. Maybe a selfie or two. They wait a few minutes, then they leave. On to the next stop.
I didn’t take any pictures in the Blue Mountains that day — or anywhere else I went. I spent three and a half months in Australia without a camera. I did not take a single picture at the Great Barrier Reef. I let countless beach sunsets go undocumented. I passed the Sydney Opera House frequently, even took in a show there, but you’d find no trace of it on my phone. And almost everywhere I went, it felt like I was the odd one out.
My cameraless travel was originally born of necessity: I simply didn’t have a phone or camera to take pictures with. But every time I had to wait for friends to snap photos before we could proceed with our travels, every time I saw tourists attached to their cameras like a child to a pacifier, I became convinced that my experience of Australia was different from theirs, purer and more virtuous. If you see the world through a lens, are you really seeing it at all? I didn’t think so.
I was consistently amazed at my travel mates. Their instinct when coming across something beautiful or extraordinary was to grab their phone. I watched them agonize over the right angle, hand phones to strangers and position themselves just so for a portrait, the strangers dutifully complying. Afterward, some would take in the view a little while longer. Others flicked through Instagram filters without a second glance. It was frequently maddening. Just beyond that iPhone screen are actual mountains, folks — life-size and in full HD. So why the insatiable need to document everything we see?
The cynic in me blames social media. What’s better than a real view? Showing friends how much fun you’re having in a foreign country, apparently. You can almost see the thought process play out on people’s faces.
Click. Facebook’s gonna love this one.
Click. New profile picture right here.
Click. 15 likes, minimum.
These people were not truly experiencing the country, I told myself. Look at them feverishly snapping pictures as if the waterfall could just disappear at any second. How many selfies does one need with a kangaroo? I tried to consciously take the time to appreciate what I was seeing, to muster up some silent gratitude for these experiences.
Though wary of my friends’ paparazzi-like documentation of the country and resolute in my silent protest, I understood their instincts. Throughout those months, there was an unspoken sense that this might be the first and last time we get to experience any of this, Australia being a most inconvenient travel destination for Americans. Perhaps these experiences will not be lost to the ether if they are documented. Perhaps our fickle memories will hold on to these places if we photograph them.
Following my return stateside, I took a summer job in which my responsibilities included photography. I found that as a photographer, rather than focus on the experience, the big picture, one must shift one’s worldview toward the endless consideration of angles, lighting, that person’s head in the bottom corner of a shot. I started reimagining my semester down under. How would a camera have changed my experience?
Maryann Bates, a Georgia-based professional photographer, has traveled through Spain, Mexico, Wales, and a good deal of the United States, a camera her constant companion.
“Everything happens so fast [when you travel],” she says. “If I don’t stop and take a picture, I don’t appreciate it. It makes me look at things intently, see them differently.”
Though I fancied myself superior to all those cellphone photographers, if I’m honest, there were plenty of times when I cursed myself for not bringing a camera.
“[Taking photos] makes it more intimate,” says Bates. “Then I get to live it all over again. I look at the picture, and I get to feel those same feelings again.”
Now a few months removed from my travels, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to muster the feelings I had in some of my most exciting moments. I took in a sunset in Byron Bay as gorgeous as any I’ve ever seen. I climbed the Story Bridge to see the sublime, glowing Brisbane skyline at night. I even jumped out of a plane. These images are fresh in my mind now, but how long will they stay there?
Maybe my experience in Australia was somehow more pure. Maybe I lived in the moment more than others did, shedding technology’s shackles and etching mental pictures I believed far more valuable than pixels could ever be. But 10, 20, 30 years down the line, when all I have is a miniature plush koala — if I haven’t lost it — will I still be able to relive some of the best moments of my past? Maybe I will regret it one day, but I believe my experiment was a worthwhile one, and I’m grateful for all of the mental pictures.
But maybe next time I’ll take a camera.
Jon Giardiello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.