It will probably come as no surprise that I’m not a fan of the “pics for Facebook” mode of travel in which the main objective of a journey seems to be getting lots of selfies to show off on social media. If we go to Angkor Wat and do nothing more than take a succession of photos of our own face, are we really seeing and experiencing Angkor Wat?
But bitching about other people is not a very interesting use of my time or of a blog post. (And as promised in the title, I am after all making my way toward the beauty of a single flower.) I think the Stoic philosophers were really onto something when they pointed out that while the problems of our world are as vast as the world itself, what each of us can actually control is an infinitesimal portion of that. Maybe we’re all better off just focusing on what we can control (and letting all the other stuff go)?
In the end of course it’s really none of my business how other people want to travel this world or what sorts of photos they want to take. As long as they don’t poke one of those awful selfie sticks in my face or ask me to move so they can get their perfect shot, it’s their right to do nothing but photograph their own face when they travel (and my right to unfollow them on Facebook or Instagram when I find their photos vapid and self-absorbed).
Rather than roll my eyes at the selfie crowd, I think it’s more interesting to look at my own patterns of traveling and living, and try to keep learning and growing myself. In this context, I sometimes ask myself whether my own habit of taking 3-400 photos a day when I travel is consistent with being in the moment and really appreciating these fabulous places. Am I really seeing these destinations or just looking at them through my lens?
My best current answer to this dilemma is that while photography can definitely be a distraction, if practiced with a sense of awareness, it can also offer an alternative way to see and experience the places we travel. To get photos that are appealing to myself and to readers I need to ask myself “What’s interesting here?” and “What is beautiful?”, and try to find answers that surprise and delight myself and others. Often having questions like these as companions in my travels through this world helps me notice unique points of interest and beauty that I would have otherwise missed. Instead of just noticing the postcard view of the Saigon opera house, what if I can notice a vintage Coca Cola sign with a garland of barbwire and a group of men in animated conversation at a sidewalk cafe I come across while walking the city’s streets (below).
In noticing and photographing some of these less obvious subjects for the blog, I can also appreciate them myself. And in addition to taking lots of photos, I do make it a habit of just putting down my camera and appreciating each stunning vista, atmospheric street scene and intriguing face I encounter in my travels.
At its best, having the camera and the intention to take good photos can motivate me to be more aware of the beauty and wonder of everyday life everywhere on our planet, and help me see the world in alternative, hopefully creative ways. If accompanied with awareness, photography can be an aid to seeing and appreciating rather than an impediment.
Of course, we don’t need an interest in photography to do this. Instead of carrying a camera, we can keep a sense of awareness, appreciation and wonder as we travel through this world.
As I strolled around the Imperial Citadel in Hue, Vietnam last year I had a thought that I often have when visiting big, famous places – it’s really difficult to photograph these epic attractions (castles, cathedrals, imperial palaces etc.) in ways that are interesting to me and to anyone who looks at the photos. Is it really possible to photograph the Eiffel Tower in a new and interesting way? (My own answer: Yes, but it’s not easy.) If all I can take are postcard style shots I’m not really motivated to pick up my camera. And, if I don’t have anything interesting and unique to share, I don’t think there’s any point in writing a blog. And, to take the analogy a step further, if I do nothing but follow conventional patterns of living, I don’t feel like I’m making the best of my time in this world.
The solution that came to me as I strolled around the Citadel in Hue was to mostly avoid photos of the epic buildings and monuments and try to cultivate awareness of smaller, less obvious points of beauty and photograph those. If I could notice and appreciate the beauty of a single flower in the vast Citadel or the pretty rosaries in the hand of a statue of the Buddha, perhaps I could also take steps in developing my own awareness and at the same time take more interesting photos. I’ve included those photos below, along with a more traditional shot of one of the Imperial tombs outside Hue.
Nothing against the third shot above, and I do like the way the tree branches in the close foreground frame the monument, but lots of people are going to stand in that same spot and take that same photo. Obviously, I’m an amateur photographer but my favorite photos are those where I was able to notice a mostly unnoticed point of beauty or interest and raise my camera to record that for myself and readers.
Beauty and wonder are everywhere on our planet – from our own backyard to the most distant travel destination on our bucket list – if we can but slow down, maintain a sense of awareness and really look.
An irony I see with the set of photos I’m sharing below and the one from the last post is that while the Laugavegur Trek is a much more epic destination, my personal feeling is that the photos below are stronger. In too many of my trek photos I try to capture the vast and epic beauty of the entire landscape but to really appreciate that you need to be there. Landscapes are not my strongest type of photography and more and more my feeling is that, no matter how stunning the scenery was, good nature photos need to have a strong point of focus (the silhouette of a solitary surfer in the sunset, a single Joshua tree with a vast desert spreading out across the background, a ramshackle farmer’s hut sitting midway up a terraced rice field in Bali etc.). (As two examples, I’ve included a photo from my trip to Bali last September and the flyer from a cool photo exhibit I saw in Bangkok last week.)
The Reykjavik Botanical Garden and cemetery, captured in the photos below, were very pleasant parts of a great day in the city but they aren’t going to make any “best in the world” lists (which the trek regularly does). I like the photos a lot more though because I was better able to focus on small points of beauty and wonder that we often miss while traveling through this world. And getting photos I’m happy with at completely normal places in a single small city in a tiny island country in the middle of the North Atlantic is a good reminder to myself to cultivate awareness and an appreciation of beauty everywhere.
On the trek there was a near constant feeling of “Fuck, this is awesome!!!,” but at least for the photos from the first day, I don’t think I focused in on dramatic points of interest enough to make them truly exceptional. When I showed those photos on a date last week, I noticed right away that the photo the woman lingered on was the one where I zoomed in close on a few completely ordinary flowers (below) – weeds to most gardeners! – and not the ones where I was trying to capture the vast, unforgettable beauty of the entire landscape.
Here are photos from my first full day in Reykjavik, Iceland this past July. More and more I’m drawn to Zoos, Botanical Gardens and other nature conservation areas and I walked over to the city’s botanical garden on the morning after I arrived. The cemetery visit was completely unplanned – I stumbled upon it on the way back from the garden and was drawn in for a visit by the moody, moss-covered tombstones and the tidy beauty of the flowers planted around them. After putting this set together, I also liked the completely unintended juxtaposition of birth and death (with a really good lunch in between!).
The Botanical Garden