#1274. Do photographers remember their travels better?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Mar 28

Are we more, or less, present in the moment because of our photography?

Hidden in the shadows

If my wife is to be trusted (she is a doctor specialized in congnitive disorders, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt 😉 ), my memory isn’t … top tier, to put it elegantly. I do forget a lot, and probably have too many distractions (work being the worst) for careful attention and memorisation of what I consider mundane stuff.

When we travel, she also tells me I should be more present and connected with my surroundings, instead of seeing the world through a lens.

Is that so true, though?

Shibuya River

Consider the first photo, above. I distinctly remember stopping a few meters after cycling past this with my family, backtracking, hesitating to drop the backpack, grab the camera, then considering the final print and deciding to go for it.

It doesn’t make me remember the location better, though. I’ve no idea how to go back to that house on Jersey. My wife would find it with her eyes closed … if she remembered the house at all. It was striking to me, as a photographer. In another light, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed it either.

Same thing with the Shibuya river, above. It was my first camera photograph (i.e. non smartphone) in Japan, after we exited the Sibuya train station on the wrong side for our hotel and this sight appeared in front of me, giving me my first gaijin culture shock. It has my signature wonky horizon, which I never corrected, because this is what it felt like at the moment. New and disorientating.

What’s to remember here?

Betteridge’s law of headlines dictates that the answer to my title is: NO, photographers do not remember their travels better than other tourists. And that probably corresponds to popular belief as well.

And yet, I know where those coloured pipes are, and who was with me when this shot was made.

And that the scene below, visited last summer with my son, his wife and infant child, instantly reminded me of Massimo Vitali. I believe my lens was a 30mm and that I removed the usual underexposure dialed in the camera to protect highlights. This was to be a bright image. We then had ice cream at a famous Italian shop, but the name of the shop eludes me 😉

In Cassis

There is no definitive answer in this post. The titular question was an honest one, and your personal experience is what I’m after, here. Do you feel you remember your trips better, as a photographer, compared to your non-photographer travel companions?

My naïve perspective is that we remember what we are attentive to.

It probably reflects very poorly on me that I forgot my kids in front of the school too many times to remember when they were young, ahem, but can tell you what settings were used on a photograph made months ago 😆 😆 But my work is arid and technical and creativity is what keeps me vaguely sane. So photography matters to me, and tends to occupy a lot of mental space when relaxing. Worry not: my kids are pretending to have forgotten me, and will get their own back soon enough.

B&W photograph of an owl at Harry Potter Studios in Watford, UK
All facts considered

But, to steer this back to the original question about travels, the reality is that I photograph moments. There is no theme to my photography, to my great dispair. Stuff turns up, in front of me, and some triggers the desire to trigger the shutter. I remember those moments.

And my guess is that if you photograph great light, you’ll remember all the times great light illuminated you. Or, if you photograph cemeteries with fisheyes, you’ll remember the idea, the gear, the location, …

We remember what we pay attention to, don’t we?

Golden light (sitting at the booth at my son’s house, about to munch on poppadoms, with a glass of Stellenboch Chardonnay from Waitrose. Howzat for details?)

So, does this make us remember travels better than others, or in more patchy, detail oriented manner? I have no idea, and would like to hear your experience on this subject. My impression is that those photographic moments are like dots in my memory that connect, and help me remember, the rest of the big picture. Maybe not in all its details, but the important feelings, the sort of thing you want to keep with you for a long time. Others will remember more of the details for which there is no room in my mind due to photographic details taking their place, I guess.

What does seem important to me, though, is that photography can make us mindful. To me, this is at least as important as good recollection. Mindfulness is the detox to many of our modern world’s woes. So, unless we photograph like maniacs, snapping away and hoping the camera will catch something worth keeping, the very act of recognizing something has drawn our attention, leading to a deliberate effort to capture that event/scene/moment/impression/theme …, is good enough for me.

But not everyone agrees. So how about you? What draws you to travel photography? What impact does it have on your memories?


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  • Michelle says:

    yes I agree! I remember the experience of taking the camera photos, and usually also the specifics of the scene itself. that doesn’t happen for me with iphone photos. but I like to print an album after a vacation using both, and the reality is that I take a lot more iphone photos these days because the best camera for the job is the one you actually have with you, etc etc. and the older i get the heavier my “real” cameras get!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Michelle, that’s exactly my experience. All my travel albums tend to have 80% of phone photographs these days. The phone is just easier to get out of the pocket. The files aren’t as good. But, in small prints, the difference is hardly noticeable. And viewing those little books, years after, makes me remember all those little moments. Everything comes back as if it was yesterday. Cheers.

  • Jack says:

    Oh, you are absolutely right on. My wife can remember most of my errors (her definition) but I remember where, when and how of 90% of my travel photos. Just as important, because I’m taking photos I tend to look more. After a day of traveling, over our first glass of wine I’ll ask her what she thought of the little boy sitting on the steps of the cathedral. She, “What little boy?”

  • Jaap Veldman says:

    You, photographing, are in a different flow than your wife at the same moment, on holidays.
    It can/could make her feel disconnected.
    But you must be a happy man.
    Your wife is very interested in disorders, this must be a mild one she can live with:-)
    Anyway, a photograph not only makes me remember having made the photograph, it also helps me remembering the whole setting.
    Does a photographer in general remember more?
    Maybe not. But his/her company will definitely remember other details!

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    That’s a wonderful question, Pascal! Personally, I remember most travel details, whether through the lens or not, simply because I see things in a rather photographic way. Meaning that I’m constantly framing and composing anything interesting in my view – whether walking, sitting or driving (!). Within this search & compose method of seeing I often find something worth photographing, but even if I don’t, I still vividly remember all the details of my travels. I won’t remember a travel companion’s details, but mine will be crystal clear. Of course this is only based on my perception, and will most likely include lots of “odd” or “strange” or “trying” details, since what one remembers from one’s travels is often only the bad (or, odd, strange, or trying) experiences. And strangely, those experiences don’t seem to dampen my urge and need to travel, but they do make fine travel stories in answer to the inevitable questions about “what did you do on your summer vacation”?

    • pascaljappy says:

      I can believe that, Nancee. Having been to the Golden Temple in Kyoto, and feeling quite smug about my non-postcard photographs, I then saw yours and my jaw dropped. It’s very obvious you have developped a very keen eye and a strong intuition.

      Your answer to that question must perplex a good few non-photogramhers 😉 Right before your photographs floor them 😉

  • Leonard Norwitz says:

    I think I’m with Nancee on this one. What I as a photographer remember about the circumstances of most every shot I took is just that: the business of taking the photograph and my attendant emotional and intellectual engagement. About the place itself, not so much. But that’s because my energies are focused, if you will, on my art, not the cultural context of the thing I’m photographing. If I did photography for a living I imagine I would be more interested in the thing — at the very least, I would have more time available to do so and doing so might enable me to market my photographs more effectively. Consider how many online photo galleries come with a blog describing everything related to the “thing” as if the photograph itself was insufficient.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Leonard, I imagine that there’s a significant difference between snapping along, and creating something in your own style, as with Pascal Ravach’s wall series. In one case you must remember the location more, and in the other, the process.

      As for the photos needing textual support, that seems to be a common issue these days. I remember reading an angry article written by a university professor chastising students who pompously presented vacuous photographs with long texts, used as crutches. Yes, every photograph should be able to stand alone, and text can provide additional context, but not compensate for a lack of substance.


  • Pascal Ravach says:

    I vote for the « I remember better », zero hesitation.
    Like you, I « wander and grab »… looking around intensively « prints » things in my memory.
    Even better: just looking back to a picture (let’s say my « walls ») brings back memory of the whole walk before and after too… so in my case it’s like photography puts me in a super receptive mood.
    When I walk without this mindset, I tend to simply « dream »… but that may simply reflect the fact that indeed I am a hopeless dreamer and that photography is my cure 😀

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Pascal, you bring up an interesting point. I was merely referring to snapping along the way, but your walls are a project that spans many trips, so it makes you receptive to something specific in various places. You must be able to see the similarities and the differences, based on those walls (among other things). That’s cool and probably very grounding. Cheers.

  • Imants says:

    One has to wonder what those guys who go out on holidays and take 5 to 10,000 photos remember about the places visited?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Indeed 😆 Thye must have much better memory than me, if they remember all of those moments.

      • Pascal Ravach says:

        Well, that brings to mind what is called the famous « photographic memory » 😀
        An uncle was like that: he could quickly « read » 10 pages of a phone book… and remember all the names and phones! Forever, really… he never noted any phone number of his hundreds customers!
        But then he also never took a photo in his life, though 🙂

        • pascaljappy says:

          Wow, I would a bit of that magic sauce 😉

        • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

          So was my grandfather – he would read three books after dinner each night and, 20 years later, he could tell you the11th word on the 29th line of any page of any book he’d ever read.

          • Ian Varkevisser says:

            Ah Pete but was facebook around to fact check him LOL

            • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

              Sadly, he only lived till 1932, and we didn’t have access to the internet for a while after that, Ian.

  • I feel that if you travel just to seek photos then you probably block out a lot, and remember the photos rather than the travel. But if you photograph as you travel then it can anchor your memories and help to keep the experience alive for many years. A subtle difference, not sure if I’ve expressed it well.

    Personally I think photography enhances my memories even of things I didn’t photograph. Hey, I can remember I photo I stupidly didn’t take in 2000 in New Zealand (an XPan frame) because I was sulking. Honestly, it would have been front cover in Nat Geo 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ouch! That’s tough. But I hadn’t thought of remembering something because of refusing to photograph it. It actually makes a lot of sense, because it is an intensely emotional moment.

      Yes, your point is very clear. It’s the difference between being a traveler who photographs and a photographer who travels, I guess. The two persons are in the same location but with a different focus and different intentions. So, yes, you’re right, it must make a huge different to their recollection of the location.

      Cheers 🙂

      • yes, and although it may seem self-deprecating, I’m really more of a “traveler who photographs”. I’m comfortable with that. Whenever I try to be a “photographer who travels” I am almost always very dissatisfied with the results. The only place I can truly photograph is on my “home patch” or a few places I am extremely familiar with.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Pascal, I think I reserve the analytical side of my brain for thinking, and my photography & music as my mental relaxation.

    That frees me up to sit back and leave it to you to do all the thinking for me.

    I could never keep up with the depth and breadth of your reflections on the art of photography!

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    Re-reading this.

    “instead of seeing the world through a lens” No – it’s not “instead of”. First you see it – then you think it over – and only THEN, can you point the camera at it. Yes you very well might spend a few minutes looking at the image in the viewfinder. But I don’t think you’d take too many photos without a great deal more looking than that provides, before you start taking the photo.

    “how to go back to that house” Sadly, I have this problem quite often – I don’t lug all my gear with me, wherever I go – I take “exploratory shots” with a smaller unit, plan the shoot, and go back for it. Most of the time it works Sometimes – I can never fin the blasted spot I’m looking for, no matter HOW hard I try. Close – but never quite there.

    “better than other tourists” Maybe – maybe not – but I DO remember mine. In fact right now I have three photos from my last trip to Europe, on the walls of this room. Two from Bordeaux, and one from Strasbourg.

    “non-photographer travel companions” Can’t answer this one – don’t have any – all my life, my travel companions have shared my interest in photography. (Including my wife – who expects me to post process her shots, before attending to my own)

    Why do I choose to photograph the things I do? The reasons vary, in one plane – but the basic reason is a lifelong love of photography, spanning more than 70 years now. The subject matter is what varies. Some is street. Some is “after dark, available light”. Some is pet portraiture. Some is travel. Some is landscape. Some architectural. All sorts of subjects, really. Macro. At one stage, steam trains. On and on. Trying different things – not just “snapshotting” at them.

    And one thing shines through. Ever since an encounter with the indigenous people who own and manage Kakadu, a large reservation in the Northern Territory of Australia, I see things more “their way” than the way europeans see things. That experience changed how I use my eyes, fundamentally and permanently. So long before I am ready to take a photo, my eyes have done my homework for me.

    Works beyond there too. Images stay in my mind afterwards. I can forget – like your wife accuses you of forgetting. But the things I forget are things my mind catalogues as “trivia”. Images stay. Names fall out. I still remember something I saw as a very small child – 10 months old, actually. Maybe that stuff crowds out the “trivia”. But those images do not fade.

  • Jon Maxim says:

    This post has brought up so many conflicting thoughts. Reviewing my travel photographs definitely brings back memories, visions, sounds and even smells. As I am “older” though, I think I may have travelled too much because it is difficult to separate some trips to the same locations from others.

    However, David Mantripp’s comment about what he didn’t photograph really resonates with me. I am plagued by memories of shots I regret not taking either because I didn’t have a camera or I didn’t stop the car to shoot as I sped to a destination.

    On the other hand I recently had a very disturbing experience. I have long had the desire to digitize my vast slide collection from the 70s and 80s, and started combing through it. It was a lovely trip down memory lane until I came across a Kodak Carousel tray full of shots of interesting houses which I could not recognize. I could not even recognize what town or country they are from. Not even the continent! It really disturbs me.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Jon, that’s indeed very strange. Have you digitized them? You could do a google image search to see whether anything similar is in their database. That might provide information. Or you are welcome to publish them on DearSusan. Some readers may have visited the location and might be able to help. Just a thought. Fascinating idea, actually, even if I underdant how it disturbs you. All the best.

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