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Is Life what is happening to others while we are taking photographs?

Posted by SiteAdmin , 21 November 2007 · 1862 views

Travel Photography: An Addiction?
Is Life what is happening to others while we are taking photographs?

I had another attack of viewfinder vision the other day. It's a recurring affliction for me, and I suspect many other photographers, especially travel snappers. The effect on each sufferer is different, but the common symptom is incipient tunnel perception and an inability to experience reality without a notional frame around it. Sort of like walking around with a giant picture cropper floating around in front of your eyes. Immediacy is lost, and you feel a sense of dissociation, as if a clear glass window has been placed between you and what you're looking at.

Some people find this comforting, but I find it profoundly disturbing. I've always felt that Frank Capra had the right end of the stick when he remarked: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough!" Looking at the world through a telephoto lens is no substitute for getting in there down and dirty. Capra wasn't just taking about physical proximity, either. I want to use my photography to deepen my involvement in the world and understanding of it, not place a barrier between myself and red-blooded reality!

It can happen to you!

At this point, gentle reader, you may be saying contentedly to yourself, "Poor bastard, but this could not happen to me". Don't you believe it! Now that it costs nothing to snap away digitally, the old days of the average consumer's film staying in his camera for three months (according to Kodak research a while ago) are long since over. Without the discipline of affordability, we're all snapping away like crazy, and spending ever more time peering into our viewfinders or those little digital screens – and mobile phone cameras are only adding to our addiction…

I trace the origin, or at least, exacerbation, of my own viewfinder vision to my time as a travel journalist. Before then, I still took plenty of pictures on my trips, but for my own purposes. When my daily bread depended on producing saleable shots and a story, I found it concentrated my mind wonderfully – or woefully.

Walking down the street, I found myself peering at colourful local stalls, their owners and customers not out of curiosity and human interest but with a frame around them, assessing their potential as a source of income. A visit to an awe-inspiring temple complex became a flurry of different viewpoints, my only real memories enshrined in the photographs I had taken. If my films had gone astray, my recollection of my experiences would have been no more than secondhand versions of what I'd seen through the viewfinder.

Viewfinder Vision creeps up on you

This doesn't happen suddenly, of course. It creeps up on you surreptitiously, slowly eating away at your other senses until that squared-off frame of vision dominates your relationship with the world around you. Visual perception may indeed provide human beings with 80% of the information we acquire about our surroundings, but like traffic flow when the roads approach capacity, increase it by only a small amount and the whole system starts to fall apart.

So why am I telling you this? Because most of us take travel photos on our holidays. Or of our families. We see these experiences as valuable and want to capture them in some kind of permanent way, so that we can enjoy them again later. But if we spend all our time thinking about taking snaps or peering through a viewfinder, there's a real danger that we'll miss having any worthwhile experiences at all! All we'll be left with are empty images of events that we have never really lived through. And they may be beautifully exposed and composed, and people may admire them, but that is no recompense for the poor rewards provided by mere pictures of life-enriching events we were too busy photographing to actually experience.

Now some personal promo advice:

On a more practical note, how many of you collect ticket stubs, swizzle-sticks, hotel soap and similar odds and ends as souvenirs of your various travels? If you're like me, you always end up with all kinds of stuff, but rather than just consigning it to your drawer full of memories or junking it, why not use it for self-promotion if you're professional, or if you're shooting for yourself, to create a richer store of visual memories for you and your friends?

Previously I was in the habit of sending out locally-bought postcards to all my contacts and clients at least a couple of times a year from some deliberately far-flung location. This slowly built up to around 400 or so, and finding enough acceptable cards (I tried to get really idiosyncratic ones) was frequently a problem. It also got to be quite a chore sticking on the stamps and scribbling some abbreviated but relevant message. If you ever decide to do this, be sure to invest in one of those sponge stamp wetting devices, inexpensive but worth their weight in gold in such situations.

Worked for me...

This was effective in promoting my brand, and garnered plenty of response even though on the surface it had nothing to do with my photography, which was tending towards corporate at that stage. However, it occurred to me that nobody really knew when I was abroad or not, so I switched to having cards made up using a photo I'd taken when I was away, and on the back I used a ghosted line-art collage of air-tickets, beer mats, luggage tags and what have you from the various countries I'd been to. Coupled with a short, hand-written salutation, usually starting with a local greeting like "Namaste!" or "Bula!" these got me a better reaction than my previous mailings and required a lot less effort while I was on the trip – and I saw quite a few stuck up in client offices!

It's pretty easy to do this for yourself. You can always photograph your own arrangement, but it's just as simple to stick the items in a scanner and do it directly. Three-dimensional objects are no real problem. Scaling them down, converting to monochrome, adding drop shadows and even montaging them together in new arrangements can be done in most image manipulation software nowadays.

These images can make original and attractive graphics for website pages, and colourful additions to emails telling your friends where you've been, as well as in the production of promotional mail shots as described above. You could even print them out on notepaper and – I know this is pretty retro – actually write a letter to someone in the space you've carefully left plain…

Tony Page

Tony Page is a professional photographer, writer and web designer now living in Sydney, Australia. His commercial clients are currently distracting him from his latest venture, the "Travel Signposts" website (http://www.travelsignposts.com) which contains information, resource links and over 10,000 photos of European and Mediterranean tourist destinations to help plan a European tour or river cruise.

From my article in Better Photography magazine, 2006.

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