The Best Kind of Travel Photography

What effect does photography have on our enjoyment, appreciation, and memory?

Posted Nov 11, 2014

Recently, I was fortunate enough to travel to New England at the peak of autumn. This meant a week of leaf-peeping and lobster-eating, lakeside hikes, and morning runs that doubled as quick tours of idyllic New England towns. On one particular morning, I was running along the quiet, solitary waterfront of Portland, Maine and saw the most incredible sunrise over the water. Sailboats dotted the landscape, the sky was pink, and the light was reflecting on the rippling water. It was the kind of scene that would grace the cover of a magazine or travel guide. It was the stuff vacations are built around. However, as I took it in, my wonder and gratitude was dampened by a sense of sadness and annoyance with myself, because, horror of horrors, I'd forgotten my phone. I wouldn't be able to snap a picture - no, multiple pictures! - to later be fancied up with various filters. I wouldn't be able to revisit the scene later, or, more importantly, post it to Facebook and wait for the "likes" to start pouring in. This loss nagged at me for the rest of the morning.

Why did I frame this lovely moment as a loss? What real value is there in capturing these moments, compared to just being present and taking them in as they unfold?

I believe we have a deep need to preserve beautiful but fleeting moments such as these, because the fact that they exist only in time is just too sad to face. Isn't this what drives a tourist in Paris to videotape his visit to Notre Dame, take selfies in front of the Arc de Triomphe, and buy a miniature Eiffel Tower to put on his knick-knack shelf back home? It’s a means of coping: "No, this experience isn't really over! Look at all the reminders I'm going to have!" But at what cost? That guy filming Notre Dame - is he really seeing it, or is he missing it even as he preserves it? Is there a downside to turning away from the Arc de Triomphe to take that selfie - photographic evidence that you were there - as opposed to just standing before it and taking it in? Does preserving the moment for the future detract from it in the present?

In some respects, yes. One recent study found that those who took photographs of the works they viewed in an art museum showed poorer recall of those works compared to people who didn't take photographs. Essentially, a camera can serve as an external hard drive for our memories.

But we're interested in more than just accurate recall of an experience. What about appreciation and enjoyment? Certainly, careless snap-snap-snapping can detract from that. But, done differently, the process of taking pictures can also propel us into the moment. Looking at the world as a photographer might - with an eye out for meaning or beauty – actually seems like a nice way to teach ourselves to be mindful and appreciative. "What in this moment is worth capturing?" one might ask. Indeed, in the study mentioned above, those who took pictures of specific details of an artwork – a brushstroke, or a specific part of an object – showed enhanced recall of the work, presumably because they were processing it more deeply.

Maybe the answer, then, is to engage in mindful photography, using the camera as a tool that helps us hone in on what around us is worth noting. I've actually done several experiments instructing college students to take mindful photographs in their everyday lives. I found that these students reported higher levels of appreciation, motivation, and energy than those who were asked to take more neutral, informative photographs. They also enjoyed the activity more.

Some suggestions for trying this out: Go to a local spot - a park, a charming street in your town, even your own backyard or a room in your home, and simply look around. What are some of the notable features of the scene before you? The landscaping, the architecture, the decor? Then, start honing in on details: colors, textures, architectural features. Ask yourself, is there anything surprising about the scene before you? Is there anything personally meaningful? If you were to never be in this place again, what would you most like to remember? Don't be surprised if you find things you've never fully noticed before. We so often have blinders on, and this activity can open your eyes to what we tend to miss. Then, take just a few photos that really capture the scene in a way that is beautiful or meaningful to you.

Virtually all of us carry cameras, in the form of smartphones, with us constantly, so it's certainly worth considering how their use impacts our lives and whether we can use them in a positive way. I say don't leave your camera behind while traveling, but use it thoughtfully. Don't let it be your eyes. Really look around, see what lies before you, mindfully capture it, and relish looking back over your photos in the future.

References

Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science, 25, 396-402.

Kurtz, J. L. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Using mindful photography to increase positive emotion and appreciation. In J. J. Froh & A. C. Parks (Eds.). Positive psychology in higher education: A practical workbook for the classroom. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Zhang, T., Kim, T., Brooks, A. W., Gino, F., Norton, M. I. (2014). A “present” for the future. The unexpected value of rediscovery. Psychological Science. 25, 1851-1860.