I’ve stopped taking pictures.
This all started when I was traveling in Thailand. It’s very hard for me to be present in my everyday life, but in Thailand, I found myself doing it naturally. I was experiencing a world vastly different than my own. I was meeting fascinating people from all over the globe. I was trying to learn enough language to survive. I had to figure out train and subway schedules. I was eating things we normally throw away. “Wait, what the fuck are visa requirements?”
In short, I was living for the now. I was experiencing my life rather than planning for the next 3-12 months into the future.
There was no time for pictures. Not planned, orchestrated, composed pictures. That would have detracted from my experience. From the moment I was living.
You simply cannot pause a moment of laughter while sharing a meal with people from China, Australia, Czech Republic, Thailand, and Argentina after a long day of climbing just to setup a camera. I could not ask the boatman to stop the longtail and go around the other side of the island because the lighting was better. You cannot stand behind a lens, and in the moment at the same time.
I have close to 1,000 or more pictures from the 3.5 months I spent in Thailand. In the beginning, I wanted to document everything. Blog post this, e-book that, Instagram fame there. It all became overwhelming. Cluttered. Distracting.
And then I had the moment where I realized: Just Stop!
That’s why, if you scroll through my feed during those months, there aren’t a lot of pictures. Not as many as you’d expect from a traveling blogger with ambitions that hinge on the success of my online reach. The pictures I did take weren’t ‘good enough’ for social media, nor did I want to give people the opportunity to criticize the photos. Those photos are not for them, or for you, or for anyone. They are for me, and they don’t need to be spectacular. They just need to be ‘good enough’ to remind me where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with.
The same can be said for my climbing trip to Potrero Chico in Hidalgo, Mexico.
Sure, I published close to one picture per day that I knew would receive high engagement, but I did not take many more than that. In fact, I spent the last two days frantically taking point-and-shoot photos of the landscape to have proof I was there and just in case I needed them for a freelance article in the future.
The things I value most while traveling are the uncaptured memories with the amazing people I spend my time with. No amount of Instagram likes, Facebook comments, or page views per month can replace the bonds made, even fleeting and temporary during a simple walk to the crag, with people you know may only become another profile picture on social media. You may intend to nurture that friendship far into the future, but life gets in the way and people have their own plans. What if you would have ruined a smile, interrupted a deep conversation, or distracted someone else’s view of the clouds as it passes in front of the full moon just to get a picture?
This is not to say I still don’t enjoy photography and taking beautiful pictures of where I am. Sometimes the process of taking the picture is the experience in and of itself. But when humans are involved, every moment is temporary. Picturesque mountain landscapes will be here for the next several millennia; however, seeing your friend’s face light up as they share the day’s climbing story is something you have to cherish as it happens. Because it will be gone in a couple of minutes.
Sean Penn states it perfectly in a discussion with Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:
Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it? [the picture of the Snow Leopard]
Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O’Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.
And to not stay in a moment, to be distracted by a camera, to not be ‘right there, right here,’ is a moment I would truly regret.