I had walked back to photograph a dilapidated, colonial mansion glimpsed from the car on the way to our hotel in Pondicherry. A photo of fading grandeur: ochre walls, green-shuttered windows, a collapsing tiled roof. On the roadside, a yellow tuk-tuk was parked next to a royal blue, wheeled cart propped up on bricks. Looking at the photo back at the hotel, I notice a handsome man, long-haired, barefoot. Dressed in an immaculate white kurta and trousers, he had walked into my field of vision when I was taking the photo. I had photographed not what I had seen, but what my smartphone camera had seen. In time, however, the photo will become my memory.
In the pre-digital age when I first travelled overseas, most tourists took a few photos to serve as personal souvenirs. Photos were private artefacts. They were not as now exhibits for public dissemination and approval (none more so than the selfie, in which the tourist site is exotic wallpaper for the real subject: the self). All those years ago, we derided Japanese tourists’ addiction to taking photographs of absolutely everything. Now, everyone has become a Japanese tourist. Taking a photo has become a reflex action. Our phone cameras feed our omnivorous gaze, our insatiable appetite for images. We inhabit the world through our smartphones, their screens filtering and mediating our experiences. Extensions of the body, our phones are our eyes on the world.
When he was living in Los Angeles, American photographer Garry Winogrand made more than 300 000 exposures. He never even looked at them. Winogrand had a relentless compulsion. For him, taking photos replaced seeing. He shot anything and everything that moved, whether it was the inexhaustible flux of life on city streets or the endless horizons of the road, his car windscreen framing his view as he pointed and clicked and drove across America. Winogrand’s compulsion prefigured our own contemporary obsession.
With our phone cameras, we have the world under surveillance (just as the ubiquitous security camera has us under surveillance). The camera sets up a voyeuristic and acquisitive relationship with the world in which everything and everyone is a potential subject. The distancing frame of a screen preferences aesthetic values while facilitating emotional detachment. Our networked smartphones give us a licence to trespass, blurring or even obliterating the distinction between the public and the private. We rarely hesitate long enough to consider whether it would be better to take away a memory instead of a photograph.
Markets, temples, colonial mansions, lush countryside, artisans working at traditional crafts, bright-eyed village children: the Instagram record of my trip to India is yet another iteration of the standard repertoire of travel photography. An exoticised, aestheticised reading of place. If a photograph is always partly a lie, the travel photograph is the biggest lie of all. The camera is a poor interpreter of the world.
The contemporary tourist arrives at their destination with a reservoir of images and preconceptions. Our culture, memories, and expectations shape and inform our visual perception. We think that we are capturing an authentic picture of the place—the real India—whereas what we are photographing is a reflection of our preconceptions and way of seeing. Even if we take lots of photos, we are always selecting one subject over an infinite number of others, excluding what does not fit our narrative. Our photos accord a heightened significance to their subjects while rendering irrelevant what falls outside the frame. While photographs record isolated moments in time with no chronology, we imprint them with a narrative coherence. They show us what we already know—or what we think we know, as Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri more accurately expressed it. While photographs, of their very nature, have evidential authority (even in this age of photoshopping) they simplify, freezing and conserving mere split seconds from time’s continuum, rendering them decisive. The instantaneous record on our smartphone screen persuades us that our photograph is a true reflection of its subject even when we know nothing of the subject’s circumstances or of her lived experience. Yet what we don’t photograph may be more meaningful, more representative of reality, than what we choose to capture.
At the side of a road somewhere in Tamil Nadu, three women spin jute on a two-wheeled contraption mounted in a rough timber frame. We stop to take a closer look. Wearing saris in striking combinations—hot pink and yellow; aqua and orange; cherry red and blue—the women are ciphers for whatever narrative we project onto them (colourful, traditional artisans, the picturesque poor, being the obvious one for a middle-class, Western tourist). Photographs decontextualise, depicting only the ambiguous, fragmentary surface of reality. Although we may think that our travel photos are testimonial, they are an arbitrary and reductive way of representing and interpreting the world.
Rather than amplifying perception, our indiscriminate accumulation of images replaces direct experience, anaesthetising us against seeing, dulling our sensibilities. The torrent of images creates an attention deficit as our proprietary gaze constantly searches for yet another picture. By focussing on the visual, we become less attentive to other ways of experiencing the world. And paradoxically, while photographs suspend time, our over-exposure to images has led us to reduce the time we spend looking at an image. We scan rather than look, take rather than see.
Only rarely does travel photography see beyond surface reality, offering the viewer new potential for perception. An invitation to speculate, to pay close attention, to think through the image.
In her book Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (2015), American photographer Sally Mann writes about the treachery of photography: how photographs rob us of our memory, supplanting and corrupting the past while creating their own memories. Mann ruefully observed that her late father existed for her not in three dimensions, but as a series of photos. A camera’s memories, constructed of silver grain suspended in gelatin, untethered from any recollection of the moments surrounding the fraction of a second it took for the image to be captured. Mann retained no memory of her father’s smell or the timbre of his voice. By only recording the visual realm, photographs deprive us of other ways of remembering. The concrete evidence of a photo not only fails to capture, but erases, the intangible tactile, sensual and visceral ways in which we remember without visual prompts.
When I recall those weeks in India, what comes to mind most vividly is not what was captured by my photographs but what was conveyed to me through my senses, sensations experienced through my body: the humidity, the pungent smells, the constant headache of warning horns in chaotic traffic, the roar of motorbikes weaving through cars, buses and tuk-tuks. Memories still recent enough not to have been erased by my photographs.
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John Berger tells a story about his hospitalisation following a back operation. At first, confined to his bed, lying motionless on his back, he saw his surroundings as potential photographs: the ward, his fellow patients, the spotlessly clean corridors, the spotless ceiling, the anguish. And then, realising that he couldn’t be both patient and photographer, he decided that ‘it was better to live totally on their [the patients’] side, so that the experience should be indelibly printed, not on film, but in my memory.’
The final week of my trip to India did not find its way into a single photograph. I took no photographs of the collapse at a restaurant table; of the rush to hospital in chaotic, Cochin traffic in the back of a clapped-out ambulance; of the week spent hooked up to machines in intensive care; of the many tuk-tuk trips between hotel and hospital. Like Berger’s hospital stay, these experiences are indelibly printed, not in digital form, but in the visceral realm of memory.
Angela Smith’s essays and poetry have appeared in many publications, including the Australian, Meanjin, Overland, New Philosopher, Kill Your Darlings and The Best Australian Poems.