If I Didn’t Photograph It, Did It Still Happen?

I’ve pondered this question many times during our travels – usually when something interesting crosses my path and my camera has been left behind.  The truth is, if I didn’t photograph it I usually don’t blog about it, and if I don’t blog about it, we might forget about it some day.  I say might because it’s not likely that all we’ll have left at the end of this journey is blog posts instead of memories, but with the number of memories being created daily, it becomes easy to forget one here and there if you aren’t reminded of it now and then.

Recently someone made mention to me that since they had read the stories on this blog they were all caught up with what is happening in my life.  I beg to differ.  While I put a lot of content on this blog, these posts probably only touch about 40% of our experiences.  There is so much content rattling around in my brain I couldn’t possibly post it all.  And many of our experiences don’t have any beautiful photographs to accompany them, which makes them easy to dismiss as blog posts.  Does that mean if I didn’t photograph something it’s as if we never experienced it?  I think I’d argue the opposite.

The thing about photography is that it can be wildly inconvenient.  I carry around a somewhat bulky DSLR camera with a heavy 24-70mm f/2.8 lens attached.  The camera is heavy and cumbersome, and there are times when I flat out refuse to carry it with me.  Like during the Mayan full moon ceremony on a cliff overlooking Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.  The view from high upon the cliff of the entire lake, surrounded by the twinkling lights from each village below, was fantastic, but the idea of carrying the extra weight of my camera (not to mention the worry about dropping or breaking the expensive lens) during a climb in which we needed to use our hands to scramble up to the top of the cliff was simply unimaginable.

Sometimes I don’t even know a photographic experience is happening until it’s too late, and my camera is at the hostel or buried too deep in my bag to pull out in time.  Or I can tell something would make a great photograph, but the bus driver isn’t stopping for my creative needs (see all of New Zealand.)

Many times the camera simply can’t do the scene justice.  Like New Year’s Eve in Sydney, where fireworks exploded from all around us, with the lights of the Opera House and the Harbor Bridge sparkling below.   In no way could my camera have captured the entirety of that experience, and I’m glad that I knew that before the show started.  It would have been a pity to spend the minutes after midnight with my face pressed to the back of my camera, viewing only the tiny part of the spectacle that could fit within the frame.  Instead, I watched the entire show with full attention, and laughed to myself at all the other people holding their iphones up to snap photos and missing the moment entirely while gazing down at their screens to see if they’d captured a good shot of what was going on.

But most of the stories that don’t end up on this blog are occasions that don’t lend themselves well to photography at all.  That includes dozens of interactions and cultural experiences that are simply better left for conversational storytelling, and heaps of views seen from moving vehicles that provide fascinating insight into a country but speed by too quickly to be captured.

A couple of nights ago we watched a spectacular sunset from the rooftop of our hotel in Istanbul, with midnight blue and soft pink providing a backdrop to the minarets of dozens of mosques and the sea just beyond.  It was stunning, but my camera wouldn’t have been able to see it.  While my eye could differentiate all the subtleties of the skyline, the camera simply wouldn’t see anything more than darkness with a few pops of light, and it would hardly be worth the effort to pull out my camera and try to capture something.  Instead I allowed myself to just enjoy the scene, and the experience, without trying to immortalize it on a memory card.  To illustrate my point, the photo above is the best shot I got from watching the sunset over the Pyramids of Giza last week.  Even if you didn’t witness it firsthand, I think its clear that this photo doesn’t come close to doing the scene justice.  (There will be more posts – with photos – from Egypt soon enough.)

If our goal in traveling was to take perfect photos of the world, we could have just purchased books full of them and called it a day.  We could have filled our house with photographs of the world’s iconic sights, taken by people who are far more talented and intrepid than I am, and scrapped the whole idea of traveling around the world.  But the point of our trip wasn’t just to collect pretty photos.  Yes, we’ll have some nice images to look at when we get back, but the point is to enjoy the experiences.  To make the memories.  To see the world through more than just a viewfinder.

So yes, if I didn’t photograph it, it still happened.  There won’t be a pretty picture to post on the blog, or a memento to hang on the wall of my future house.  I may not have photographed it, but I’ve seen it.  And I’ve lived it.  And if you’re interested in hearing the kinds of stories that don’t have good photography to back them up,  I’d gladly share them with you.  Just ask.


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