Does photography ruin travel?

Dubai 10Are we snapping away so much we miss the moment? The full 3-D experience? I was as guilty as the next traveller of taking too many pictures. I could be such a snappy happy little addict. Couldn’t wait to get my next fix. But I had a sneaking feeling it was sabotaging my memories. I eventually asked myself: “Does photography ruin travel?” Was it time to step away from the lens? The first time I missed something important was in Dubai at the opening of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Burj Khalifa shining in late afternoon sun 2010
On the way to the opening of the glittering Burj Khalifa

On a typically balmy Dubai evening in January 2010 my friend and I joined thousands to witness the spectacular ceremony. A crowning moment for ruler Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. We were sandwiched at the base of the glittering needle, cameras raised to the sky. The Dubai Fountain (the world’s largest choreographed musical fountain system set in a 30-acre manmade lake) pulsed in time with thundering music. With each orgasmic crescendo we were liberally showered.  The atmosphere was electric. The speeches were too long. Lights were blinding, pulsating. It was all a little bit Vegas.

Watching the opening of the Burj Khalifa

Opening of Burj Khalifa Jan 2010When the fireworks finally began, starting from the base and exploding all the way to the top of the 828 metre building, I snapped away like crazy. I was so focused on getting spectacular images, I realised afterwards I hadn’t really felt the awe. I hadn’t really “seen” the display. With fireworks, it’s blink and you miss it. You need to be in the zone. I was more thrilled I’d managed to get good pictures! As you can see, er, I’d even taken pictures of people taking pictures.

Burj Khalifa opening fireworks Jan 2010We refer to pictures to recover pivotal memories. Photographs only recall so much. Nothing takes the place of living the travel experience. Submerging yourself in it. Sharing a gazillion pics on social media has zero emotional impact by comparison. Yet we’re becoming obsessed with doing exactly that. Travel has never been so minutely, exhaustively photographed, documented, catalogued and shared. But does this improve your travel experience? I’ve decided that for me, it doesn’t.

Crowds in Oia looking for the best vantage point to watch the sunset
Does photography ruin travel and diminish our memory of great experiences?

On the Greek island of Santorini last year, a group of us gathered at Oia to watch the sunset, along with hundreds of others. It’s THE place on the island to watch the sun go down. A rite of pilgrimage for millions of visitors to Greece. For a less congested view, go to Fira. Getting a good vantage point in Oia is a challenge. The trick is to arrive at least an hour beforehand, grab a spot, order a drink and admire the view. We followed the throngs, wondering how on earth we’d all fit on the narrow, rocky promontory dominated by windmills.

Santorini at sunsetAs the luminous orb began its fiery descent into the Aegean, everyone (including us) raised their cameras and iPads. The click fest was as noisy as summer cicadas. As usual, I was too short to get a decent vista, even though I stood on tiptoe. It’s a family trait among we of the vertically challenged. Those godamn iPads literally blocked the view. Incensed, I said loudly: “Please lower the iPads!” Some people laughed.

Nearing sunset at OiaIt was then I put my own damn camera down and put my iPhone away. Instead, I got lost in the moment and simply watched. My family took better pictures than me. If I really wanted some pics, I’d ask them to share.

Sunset at OiaI’ve been given a new camera for my birthday. Not a sledgehammer, top-of-the-range, ego-stroking digital SLR. Instead it’s a Nikon Coolpix AW100. It takes underwater images to a depth of 10m, it’s shockproof and idiotproof, takes seamless panoramic pics, closeups to 1cm and all sorts of fabulousness. That’s exactly what I want. I can’t wait to start using it. But I’ve promised myself I’ll be more judicious about what I take. That moment on Santorini was a lightbulb. And I’ll ditch sunset pictures for good. I’ll leave that to the iPadders. Just watching the sunset was the best bit. I like to live a little.

taking pix during Santorini sunset
The family taking better pictures in Oia at sunset

3 thoughts on “Does photography ruin travel?

  1. Hi Heather,

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

    But it is still a paradox — I love photography and love travel experiences — but they oppose each other. So what’s the answer?

    As a house sitter, I get to stay in one place longer with slow travel. That means I can set out to have a day of photography, lugging around the tripod and equipment. That day is assigned for only photography. I can obsess over every detail of sculpture, architecture, landscape, or angle of the shadow on a person’s face, etc. I can sit in one spot waiting for the perfect light if I want — knowing that I’m not holding up anyone’s day of touring.

    Now that can’t always work, as with your Dubai “christening the Burj Khalifa” event. It was a one time thing, so do you take pics or just enjoy the happening?

    There’s no perfect answer, but I heartily agree that taking photos diminishes your immersion into the experience.

    Thanks for bringing up good food for thought!



    1. I envy your luxury of time, Josie. And it’s very interesting to get your point of view. Yes, they oppose each other. You’ve put it in a nutshell. I was just editing some Singapore posts, reflecting on how I snapped my way around this pretty South-East Asian city, and absorbed less than I would have liked because I was so intent on getting as many OK shots in four short days. Yes, the Burj Khalifa was a dilemma. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I’ve decided next time I attend something so auspicious, the camera stays in the bag.


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