Recently I was asked to be interviewed for a unique podcast. The topic to be discussed was experiencing the moment vs. capturing the memory.
The producers knew that I’m a travel photographer and cultural tour leader, and that I bring groups of travelers and photography enthusiasts around the world. They were interested in my take on the endless struggle between being in the moment vs. being focused on photographing while in these amazing places.
This topic is certainly of interest to me as I’m always talking about the idea that “travel photography” is a term made up of two words, travel and photography, and I encourage the participants of my trips to spend an equal amount of time traveling, and being in the moment, and an equal amount of time photographing to preserve those memories.
So while I was in Southern California for a number of speaking engagements, I went to the Venice, California, studios of Radio Headspace, the podcast outlet for Headspace, a mindfulness meditation app based in the US and UK, and founded by Andy Puddicombe. Since launching in January 2015, Radio Headspace has regularly been featured in the iTunes Health Top 3 in the UK, US and Australia, so it’s obviously a popular show.
The Headspace website describes what they do in this simple snippet:
“At Headspace we believe there is nothing more important than looking after the health of the mind, so we’ve made it our mission to get people everywhere to look after this precious resource by sitting to meditate for a few minutes a day, everyday. When this simple activity is considered no more strange than taking a shower, we’ll have achieved our aim.”
Meditation is something that I’d like to find out more about, and so I was intrigued by this unique opportunity to talk about “the zen” of photography, a topic I’ve often pondered.
Sitting down with Radio Headspace host Georgie Okell, I was asked about how this idea of being in a place to photograph, vs. being in a place to actually experience it, affected the way I lead my tours. Great question.
On my trips we of course talk a lot about how to capture the essence of a place in order to bring back images of the experiences and memories we made while in the destination. My one aim in all I do is to help people bring back a more well-rounded set of images from their travels so that they can share what they saw and experienced with the people back home. This is the goal of both my books (Essence of a Place and Ralph Velasco On Travel Photography), as well as the iPhone app I created, which is called My Shot Lists for Travel.
However, I always end all the photography talk with one simple comment:
Put the camera down.
It’s so important to set down the camera and simply drink in the place, to smell the proverbial roses. Too often we get caught up in recording our experience and all we end up doing is seeing the place through the viewfinder of a camera, I mean, what kind of vacation is that? Sure we’ve got these very important photographs to look back on later, to stir up those memories of what we saw and did, but were we actually there?
My trips are a bit different than most I’ve encountered in that I always try to schedule in a half day of group activities and a half day of free time. This is by design, and I encourage my tour participants to put the camera down and go lounge in a cafe, get a haircut or shave, have their nails done, or simply sit on a bench in the local park and watch the world go by.
Church of San Juan de Chamula
In the podcast I mention an experience I had at a church in Chiapas, while on assignment to shoot the travel and cultural images for a cookbook on the regional cuisine of Mexico. We (me, the travel writer and videographer I was with on the assignment) covered more than 40 locations throughout the country in just 35 days. We stayed in 15 different hotels, had 13 intra-Mexico flights, and countless other trains, cars and other forms of transportation, so as you can imagine, we were moving quickly because of course we weren’t there on vacation, we were working and the publisher wasn’t paying us to sightsee.
We were told not to have our cameras out, not even cell phones, that it was illegal to photograph inside the church, and doing so could lead to arrest. Then and there I made a conscious decision to remember that experience in my mind’s eye, because I couldn’t rely on the camera to capture and record what I was seeing, which included people sacrificing chickens, a dark interior filled with thousands of candles and straw strewn all over the floor. We learned that the people there will actually drink Coca-Cola so that they can burp out the bad spirits. For additional pictures of the church, both inside and out, see this link at Google Images.
Needless to say, after more than four years has passed by, the memories of that interior are not so slowly fading away, and so I’d give anything to have been able to photographed inside that church, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Have a look at this blog post from right after that trip to get an idea of how I was forced to take my own advice:
Are you mindful of truly experiencing the places you’re traveling to, or are you just there to get the photos?
About the Author
Ralph Velasco is a U.S.-based travel photography instructor, author and international guide who has led tours to Egypt, Morocco, the Adriatic, Turkey, Central Europe, Iceland, Bhutan, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Spain, Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Romania, and other locations. He’s also organized and participated in over a dozen Humanitarian and People-to-People programs in Cuba.
Ralph is an award-winning travel photography blogger and President/CEO (Chief Experience Officer) of PhotoEnrichment Programs, Inc. He’s also the creator of the My Shot Lists for Travel app for iPhone, an organizational and tracking tool designed to help travelers of all photography skill levels to bring home a more well-rounded set of images of any destination or subject (available free on iTunes).