Photography’s Curse

I was at an office meeting one day where one of my old supervisors showed up.  She’s been known to be a frequent Hawaii traveler, and this time she came back with a fresh tattoo.  Someone asked “so … how was Hawaii?”  She said, “I don’t really remember.”  I’m like “What?!”  “Yeah, I was there, and now I’m not.  I feel like I should’ve just watched a video about Hawaii.”  She also added that one should never take children to Hawaii, “it’s a waste of money.”


That was a couple of years ago and it still has me wondering what it meant.  This is especially so after coming across websites dedicated to travel destinations that are disappointing, or “not as great as it looks.”  A lot of the places mentioned are really famous; the Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge, the Blarney Stone, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Pyramids of Giza, the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, and so on.  These sights became famous really because of iconic pictures, re-imagined and reproduced countless times in magazines, calendars, post cards and film.  It has made them tourist magnets while at the same time creating their own disappointment.


Try actually seeing Stonehenge and it’s not at all like the movies.  The sacred stones are protected behind a fence which protects them from the thousands of people rushing up to see it.  Even though you have seen the pictures, have the postcards, have the video, everyone feels compelled to whip out their own smart phones … to get one of their own crappy pictures to go along with it.  To be the personal photographer of Stonehenge, only this time joining hundreds of other people who all think they are special with their own personal photos too.  Only you can’t get the other people out of the frame either.  And that’s part of it too.  When we see the old iconic pictures, there aren’t crowds of people packed into the frame.  Just looking at these pictures you wouldn’t realize that the millions of bustling Cairo is just barely off camera from the Giza pyramid complex.  That great waterfall is only great when no one else is around.  Bring in a busload of children into the frame and it’s another wilted flower. 


The glamorous, really spectacle shots of the great places look great in the professional pictures because they are that – the perfect timing, with the perfect equipment, with a trained photographer, with no one else around.  It’s like all those car commercials that never show the new car model in traffic.  They are always on a country road somewhere cruising around happily.  In the commercial you won’t see that shiny new Lexus sport edition in bumper-to-bumper on the I-10.  Similarly, that hot looking outfit on that model in whatever magazine will definitely not look as good on us.   And the perfect juicy hamburger in the picture will always be superior to the sad limp burger on your fast food tray.  It won’t be, as the colloquialism put it best, “pretty as a picture.”  That prettiness is always a bit out of reach, tantalizing, never stopping us from trying to capture the perfect image.



In the case of travel, it amounts to a kind of pilgrimage to capture the perfect moment.  It’s as if what we seek is the experience of connection with these places and things, and to have that one best shot, that one best picture to connect us historically, geographically, aesthetically to the iconic place, constantly taking pictures as if to have the mana of the iconic place to rub off onto us so we can say, “I was there, that experience is a part of me.”  It’s a special place, as pretty as a picture and that makes me special too.  If only it was all the more special on account of having a professional photographer on board to create the souvenirs.  Because the perfect moment proves elusive, it seems, even in Hawaii.