Travel Column | Store journeys in memory, not on SD cards
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Confession time. Taking a photo that gets thousands of likes and followers is no easy feat. After many efforts to learn to capture a decent image, I now stand at a cul-de-sac. The endeavour to master shutter speeds and ISO has long been relinquished. Now it’s all left to the automatic settings and luck, the latter being elusive most of the time.
“Hello, sir, could you please take a picture of me?” is a question often popped to strangers. An affirmative, and the camera is handed over and a pose struck while the person behind the lens shifts, changes angle, adjusts the frame and takes a picture. I hear the delightful click (and hope this time I’d get a great shot) and smile some more.
With rising hope I go back to check the results. But it soon fades as none of the pictures look good.
I am the Queen of bad pictures. As a result, I have a huge collection of pictures no one wants to see - including myself.
But people like to listen. Hence the focus is now on storytelling, where my real strength lies.
Building stories is my forte
Fortunately, when sitting around a campfire watching chicken turn crisp, no one wants to see pictures of my travels. They want to hear my stories. And I like to tell them (also glad no one is asking to see photo-mishaps) and as the chicken turns black on the grill, stories get more intense, vivid and even animated. People join in with opinions, suggestions and even good measure awe. This is when all the misgivings vanish and doubles my passion for storytelling. Imagine if I had gorgeous pictures on my camera or phone – all we’d be doing is huddling over it and ooh-aahing at the scenery without really knowing why that picture made it into the camera in the first place!
A journey’s soul is in the images that can never be captured through a lens. No moment has left a feeling of sorrow behind at not being caught on camera. Every one of them can be recreated in the mind.
For example, I do not have pictures of me at the top of Uhuru Peak – the first mountain I climbed in Tanzania. First of all, a trekker’s priority is to be alive and stay aware at a height of 5,895 metres amid snow and blizzard. Of course, I’d have loved to see a picture of myself at the top – but does that take away the thrill of having been up there? No.
But do I remember the peak? Yes. Everything from the exhausting crawl through blizzard to absolute loneliness, sickening headache, unusual snow, the eyes of my guide Siraji peering through the balaclava, to the hunger and the huge sense of fulfilment I experienced. I could never really have captured that in a photo-but then I am a terrible photographer anyway.
Seasoned photographers may disagree. A picture is worth a thousand words, they’d argue. I concede – they would be right. But because I cannot produce a picture that’d tell my story, I say it in a thousand words! I think- it is only fair to maintain the balance between speech and sight!
That argument however has its share of incertitude. Storytellers are not born overnight. It’s the wealth of their experiences from their past that makes a written word elegant. So let’s come clean on this.
But, I’ll be honest here. The only time I regret not having a good photo is when publishers ask me to substantiate my stories with them. I then embarrassingly produce a weak photo, dreading the look on their faces that reads - “but you were there, surely you have better pics?”
I nod shamefacedly and blush.
“How about letting readers visualize the setting? It’s a great mental exercise?”
“Today, what you see is what sells, baby.”
I hate that logic.
“Next time, I promise.”
How do I explain that I hold thoughts, moments and experiences close to my heart?
Because I am busy trying to revel in the experience, I fail to take photos or if I do, they are not nice enough to stand the critical eye. But I have never regretted coming back without one.
That does not mean that I never take photos. I do. I capture sights on camera – not experience. There is a big difference.
During my first visit to Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, I assured myself I was there to witness nature’s majesty, but deep down I was excited about pictures I could post on Facebook (and in later years Instagram). Fortunately my camera died and because of that I learnt a few valuable lessons on that trip.
I learnt to observe. I learned to listen. I learned to feel. My memory of Serengeti is associated with useful info I gathered. Today if I looked at a picture of (even a bad one) a Maasai child, I’d easily remember everything else associated with it.
And oh, I even got myself a ceremonial Maasai husband, and that is another story which I will tell you one day.
These memories don’t hinge on pictures. Years of travel later, it is easy for me to look at a photo and tell myself, “Congratulations, you done decently well. Maybe it’ll do great on Instagram because the latest trend seems to be landscapes that give you the understanding of perspective and magnitude.” But hey, where is the story? What happened along the way? How did I get there?
You see what I mean?
Memories are defined by thought
I have seen a whole new breed of photographers burst on the scene with fancy cameras snapping pictures of just about everything in sight. My curiosity once led me to ask one (with the fanciest camera) what he did with all the pictures he was shooting of a tree. His answer stunned me
He: I take multiple images; you never know which might be 'THE PICTURE'.
Me: Do you remember the way you came from? I asked him innocently.
He almost swung his camera at me. But that kind of sums up what I am trying to say.
A picture is worth a thousand words. A thousand words make a good story.
But a thousand pictures cannot tell a story…
I am still hopeful that one day I will have great picture, like the rest of the world, understand how photo editing software can smoothen my unruly hair, hide scars on my face, help with tummy tucks and such like, but until that happens, I am going to tell a story just by looking at the scars I have acquired through my travels…
that machete wielding kid in Port Moresby who nicked my arm when trying to cut if off because he wanted my watch…
that cut on my knee when I rolled down the ski-slope in Davos-Klosters…
that heart-wrenching pain when a 6 month old HIV-infected baby girl died in my arms in a Kenyan orphanage…
These are stories waiting to be told – and not necessarily around a campfire.