As of three nights ago, I’ve begun the long-overdue process of posting my travel photos and sketches to flickr. While we were traveling, this seemed so irrelevant, I was considering not even bothering with flickr anymore. But now that I’ve started uploading, it feels so satisfying to be cataloguing and sharing my photos and artwork in yet another way.
At first I was thinking this reflects the big difference between an active, nomadic lifestyle and a reflective, stationary one. Then I realized it also has to do with finity (er, finiteness. Why does no one ever say finity, when we talk about infinity all the time?). As long as we were still traveling, I was still generating more photos, which meant the task of uploading them could potentially go on forever. Now, on the other hand, there is an end in sight — which is probably why I greet the task with enthusiasm, rather than dread.
I seem to remember that when I was very young, I asked my mom why we have to die, and she said it’s because we appreciate life more when we know it has to end. At the time I thought it a stupid answer, but now I agree.* On an obliquely related note, as Natalie Goldberg and Hemingway agreed in the piece I linked the other day, we can’t write about something when we’re in the middle of it.** And then on the other hand, there is the Zen attitude that nothing truly has a beginning or end; we are always in transition.
There are many different takes on beginnings, endings, and middles, but it’s undeniably true that the way I write/think/catalog our travels is completely different depending whether I am in the moment and on the spot, or at home and looking back. Certain things can only be done in the now: in the life and atmosphere of a place and its specific time, in my own self at that moment. Given that, I really regret that I did not spend every day of our travels out with my sketchbook, paints, and journal. I should have sat daily at sidewalks and drawn the passersby: the way they dressed, what they were carrying, the way they stood and conversed and shopped. I should have painted the storefronts, the table settings in restaurants, the street signs, the street cats. I should have made word pictures of the talk and traffic sounds and the smells in the air. I did try — as you know if you’ve read my posts — but I deeply regret that I did not do this more.
At the same time, however, I knew, even while we were traveling, that I was going to regret this. We visited nine countries and twice as many cities/regions; impossible for me not to regret, leaving each place, that I didn’t document it better. But I could not. Contrary to what I used to think, we do not simply see — do not simply blink, like a camera, and capture every detail of a scene. A camera doesn’t have to think about what it captures, but we do, and so, to avoid overwhelm, our brains pick and choose. This is how our senses can become deadened when we spend too much time among the familiar; with little to pick out, we stop really seeing what’s in front of us. When we go someplace new, our “travel eyes” pick up so much more, but it’s overpowering; we’re dazzled.
It takes time to know what we see. Is this amazing, or merely new to me? Will the freshness fade with time, or will I always find it remarkable? Why is this done the way it is, and would I find it as interesting if I knew the reason? When I first get to a place, I can record overarching impressions, but if I were to go around really trying to record every detail, I’d drown. Since I don’t know what I’m seeing, I don’t know what to leave out — and as all artists know, what we leave out is just as important (maybe more so) than what we include.*** So while I truly regret not documenting more, I’m also very aware that I couldn’t have done much more than I did. It is a bittersweet feeling.
Another sad thing is that I can’t just go back, either. I seem to remember Lisa Stowe and I had a conversation about this in the comments on one of my posts or hers. I could go back to where I visited, but I will not find the places of my memory. They will have changed, and I have changed. Even the San Francisco of my recent visit was not the SF of my 2011 IWL summer, or our other many day trips to the city. Of course that can be a pleasure too, especially when introducing places to friends (seeing things doubly afresh, through my new eyes and theirs for the first time), but it is not the same as the first time. That particular magic is, ultimately, not quite capturable, not quite holdable, just like the finity of life itself.
Kamogawa (Kamo River), Kyoto
*There’s also a fantastic story about this in David Eagleman’s wonderful book, Sum.
**Does that mean our best writing occurs posthumously? Discuss.
***This seems a very Japanese perspective as well.
Great thoughts and so true
Thanks very much, Carla. I’m trying to write out a lot of my travel thoughts these days, now that we’re home and I have a bit of perspective to do it. We leave for NYC on Saturday evening, though (only a two-week stay this time) — we’ll see if that changes my perspective yet again!
This is an interesting post and I especially like your comment about ” Since I don’t know what I’m seeing, I don’t know what to leave out — and as all artists know, what we leave out is just as important (maybe more so) than what we include.”
I was recently chatting with someone who doesn’t take many photos when travelling as he felt that you’re missing out on a whole lot more as you’re preoccupied with seeing just what is visible through the camera lens and you’re probably missing out on everything else around you (i.e. the full experience).
Thanks, Angelina! I agree on the photos, although I disagree as well. I find that taking photos while traveling is a balance as well as a choice of what to sacrifice. I can definitely be more “in the moment” when I leave my camera in my bag, and I’ve certainly used a camera to turn myself into a semi-distant observer rather than a participant (especially at parties where I didn’t feel like talking to anyone ;b ). But I also believe we shape our own memories (there’s neuroscience that backs this up too), and I’ve found that I remember the sans-camera outings less clearly, perhaps because I wasn’t observing things as sharply in the moment, taking note (via snapshots) of details and moments I wanted to recall in future. Then again, probably we all observe/remember/photograph differently, so we all have a different experience with photo-taking versus participating. 🙂
Hi Lisa, I fully empathise and agree with you. Especially using a camera to move away from being a participant – though in my case, it’s more to keep myself occupied instead of feeling awkward and out of place amongst a sea of strangers / acquaintances. One thing I appreciate about taking photos is that when I’m editing the images, I often notice / discover something interesting that didn’t catch my attention when I was standing in front of it. I’m also more of a visual person and I remember things better when I have an image tagged to it 🙂
Hi Angelina! Sorry for the super-late reply. I know what you mean about noticing things when editing photos, in spite of overlooking them in the moment. I also like photos for checking the accuracy of my memories (though of course sometimes it’s the opposite and the photos are misleading). And yes, I definitely also remember things better when I have images to refer to 🙂
Hi Lisa, no worries : ) I was just chatting with my boyfriend recently about the photos that I take and how sometimes I put too much emphasis on the form (as opposed to the content). So am going to try to be more conscious of the content element, maybe try to do a photo project!
Nice sketches in NYC by the way!
Thanks Angelina! Good luck with the content project. 🙂 It’s so good to have someone to bounce creative thoughts off of, no?
oh Lisa, such a beautiful and honest post. It really touched me. Your flickr page is absolutely amazing in so many ways. I love all that combination of memories, beautiful memories, your talent, great sketches and watercolors. Also I can see how much you have achieved, done and created. This is honestly amazing Lisa, I am so happy and proud of you.
Oh thank you, dear Aga! Your words touch me too — I’m filled with happiness and gratitude to know you. I’m glad we can follow each other’s journeys. 🙂 ❤
I must either really concentrate on photography or drawing and painting or writing poems. It is hard for me to get into the flow of more than one at a time.. How does this work for you?
It doesn’t really. If I’m really into my writing, trying to switch gears to something visual is like turning around a giant heavy truck (or making a turn on skis when you’re not good with them, ha!) — it’s just so difficult. And then once I’ve done it, I can’t switch back without the same level of difficulty. Even if I’m writing something illustrated I still do all the writing first and then the pictures after. I wish I could go back and forth but it just doesn’t seem possible. Sometimes if I’ve been doing visual art for a few hours I don’t even seem to remember how to use words anymore. I’m not a good conversationalist after painting. 😉
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