Travel, Photography, and the Meaning of Life


November 29, 2012 by LeVoyageur

In the garden of the Centre des monuments nationaux, Paris.

I recently received a wonderful note via email from a friend who had returned home after traveling. She had been visiting her daughter who is studying abroad, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Rebecca’s letter to me was not particularly long, but a good page. What makes her message so noteworthy is that by describing her visit to the Hermitage rather than showing me photos of Baroque masterpieces, by contrasting the trip to another one she took to Rome, by reflecting on her impressions of the people and the city as a whole, she helped me understand a place I’ve never been and may never see.

She developed the atmosphere in a way that was vivid and colorful. She shared her experience not by sending me an album of photographs of monuments, but by describing her interactions and observations. I had actually asked for photos, I admit. It seems like the thing to do when someone travels. It is a quick way of sharing an experience – a way to engage a friend by sharing a bit of the beauty of the world as you see it. It’s not a bad thing.

But photography has its limitations. Because the means of photography are so widely accessible, and the dissemination of images so immediate, instead of being treated to a well-curated set of photos frequently we are faced with a deluge of vacation shots, just as we are faced with a nonstop stream of images in the rest of life. When confronted with the choice of sharing everything or self-editing, people increasingly opt to share everything.

People travel for many reasons today. Gone are the days when travel meant the Grand Tour or Summer hitchhiking around Europe or India, activities of the well-heeled whose adventures frequently became fodder for middling novels and a whole range of travel literature. Travel is an option for so many more people today than it was even 20 or 30 years ago. One result is that people learn more about the world and often begin to see their lives from a new perspective.

But another result may be the dilution of meaning, the end of getting something out of travel beyond a few souvenirs and snapshots. Yes, going on vacation is and should be fun and exciting or relaxing, whatever you prefer, but is it such a big deal anymore to travel across an ocean? In a highly mobile world, does encountering another culture seem all that impressive? When every small town has a Thai restaurant and access to worldwide cable TV, what difference does one person’s travel experience make?

I ask all of these questions knowing that the answer is obviously, yes: getting out of your comfort zone makes a difference. Travel still changes people. Exploring a foreign city can tell you as much or more about yourself or your hometown as it does the place you’re visiting. Traveling can help you understand your place in the world. Travel still broadens our horizons, literally and figuratively.

And when a person like my friend responds to travel by extracting ideas of what a place is all about and shares it in a message filled with evocative descriptions of her experience, I find it to be truly a gift. Conversely, if I am faced with someone’s travel recollections that are a large body of unfiltered, repetitious images, I wonder what they could have experienced that was interesting. One photo is worth a thousand words, but a hundred photos of Jerusalem or Paris or the Yucatan is just overwhelming, the raw material of a story waiting to be told.

Some travelers now produce photo travel blogs filled with images created with digital filters that seem to place their experience in another place or time. Rather than allowing themselves, the traveler, to experience, integrate, and only later share fond memories of their time abroad, they immediately interpret by means of trendy technology. What they produce is nostalgia for the just faded moment.  Even worse, it is nostalgia for a time and place never even experienced – a trip they wish they had, in a decade passed before they were born.

As a society, we are obsessed with the visual, and even more so with visual representations that make us seem cool and legitimate as we relate to them. And in what seems to be an increasingly dominant form of expression, through technology (such as Instagram) there is actually a closing off, a shutting down to a variety of experience and viewpoint. Instead of personal transformation, many opt instead to transform the narrative of their experiences to fit a pre-conceived notion of reality.

There is nothing wrong with being a novice. Bypassing experiences for fear of seeming naive is a loss. If we allow ourselves to be open to that, then the experiences we have might be transformative. We might find what we are looking for by engaging with the world as we find it, rather than preemptively arranging for a safe, comfortable ride that takes us from one sure thing to the next.

3 thoughts on “Travel, Photography, and the Meaning of Life

  1. All that you have written here rings so true to me. My friend Anne taught me to never bring a camera on vacation, and I no longer do, because, as she so aptly put it “I don’t want to see things through a lens, I want to really be present, experiencing them.” It shouldn’t be about the camera, but about the journey. Not that I don’t love creative photography as a hobby, and I do sneak a couple of phone pix on trips! Thanks for these lovely reflections here.

    • Thank you Lisa. I also enjoy photography a great deal, I just find that it is one of those things that people currently over-rely on. I have a friend who does a great blog where she posts one photo at a time ( with a little commentary. It’s a great website.

      Quick story – I was in Paris one day last Spring sitting in a park. At some point, two tourists came running by and both had their cameras out: In front of them as they were running! Basically they were running around looking at this lovely park through the lens of a digital camera. They looked like characters out of a Jacques Tati movie

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