Whenever I’m exploring a new place I’m torn between capturing every interesting thing I see in a photo, and just taking it in without constantly thinking about angles and framing.
You don’t want to experience a new place from the tiny screen on the back of your camera, but years from now, you’ll wish you had more photos. Especially *ahem* if some day you decide to start a little travel blog and realize you don’t have nice pictures to go with every story you want to tell.
Something about coming home and clicking back through everything you’ve seen is really enjoyable. And then showing your friends and family, and recounting your trip is so nice. So please, if your friend offers to show you their pictures from Italy, just let them, okay? Even if they’ve shown you before.
However, one of the pros of not taking pictures is that you don’t immediately out yourself as a tourist. I think this can definitely make a difference in your experience. Especially if it’s a very touristic city in the first place.
In Rome for example, if you look like a tourist you will constantly be approached people trying to sell you stuff, or offering to be your tour guide, or just panhandling. It’s super overwhelming, especially for us introverts. But if you look like you’re just going about your day you’ll mostly be left alone.
We all know the stereotype of the clueless tourist, blundering around and generally being in the way of the locals. If you can avoid that, you might find that people will be kinder to you.
When I was in Paris I made every effort to blend in. Parisians are just so cool. I wanted to be cool too. I ordered my cafe au lait in french. I set aside my comfy walking shoes in favor of trendy boots. When I took pictures I tried to be discreet. I did have some gratifying interactions with people who mistook me for a local, which, as a traveler is like, so exciting. But this is the only picture I have of the Eiffel tower when it’s doing that glittery thing it does once every hour.
But when I was in Thailand the pressure was off. Let’s be real, my blonde self wasn’t fooling anybody anyway. At first it kinda stressed me out, but then I just went with it and found it was actually kind of liberating. I felt free to walk around with a map in one hand, a cup of over priced pad thai in the other, and my big ass camera slung around my neck. And y’all, I took some beautiful photographs.
As much as I’ve thought about it, I can’t decide which way is better. But I’ll tell you what I do sometimes. I’m an adherent of slow travel. I don’t know if that’s technically a “thing”, but it’s what I do. Most places that I’ve been, I’ve stayed at for at least two weeks, sometimes more like two months, or even longer. Like Granada, I really got stuck there.
Anyway, what I do is, I get to a place and I just explore, without a camera. I take in the beauty and the newness just with my eyes and the rest of my senses. Then over time I develop a routine, I find my favorite places to return to. But the day before I leave, it dawns on me, “shit, I’ve taken hardly any pictures!” And I proceed to run around all day snapping photos of everything I love, and inevitably forgetting some things, or not having time for some things. There are just some moments that you can’t recreate. It’s not perfect.
So I will issue us a challenge. Make an effort to do the opposite of what you normally do. If you feel naked without your camera hanging around your neck, and the first thing you think of when you see something is “that would look great on Instagram” instead of “that’s beautiful,” leave your camera at home for a day. Be present. Do it. And when you see something truly spectacular, don’t worry about about not having a picture, you’ll have your memory, some feelings will never be able to be captured in a photograph anyway. I never took any pictures when I was stranded on the side of the road after accidentally hitch-hiking into Palestine and I sure as hell remember that.
If you rarely take pictures and then regret it afterwards, spend a whole day with your finger on the shutter release button, and who cares if people know you’re a tourist that day? That whole “be a traveler, not a tourist” thing is not real. Tourist shamers be damned. You’ve never been there, everything is new and exciting. It’s okay.
After all this I still don’t have an answer about which method is actually better, and perhaps I’ve overthought the whole thing. Pictures are really nice to have, but no mater how many you take you can never relive those moments. Let’s just agree to do what we feel like at the time, okay?