Many Snap, But Few Ever Really Focus
Call it a lack of time, poor planning, or simply a desire to tick off as many destinations as possible in a given amount of time, but too few of us are Cambodia, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat temple spending quality time with our chosen destinations. While we may feel as if we've "done it all" and "seen it all" rarely is that ever the case. Sure, our full to capacity SD cards and hard drives will beg to differ, but there's a lot more to see and experience in the world than can be captured through the lens of your digital camera.
As travel has become more available and affordable for the average world citizen, so has a certain mindset of acquiring destinations as opposed to communing with them. This rekindles a perennial question: What exactly are we looking for when we roam as tourists and photographers around foreign cities and countries? As with so many things right in front of us, the answer may be no less useful for being familiar.
On some level, traveling has always been about self-improvement. Partly we seem to go to seek out something we already recognize, something that gives us our bearings: think of the gaggle of tourists invariably gathered around the Mona Lisa or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. At one time a highly educated Westerner read perhaps 100 books, all of them closely. Today we read hundreds of books, or maybe none, but rarely any with the same intensity. Travelers who took the Grand Tour across Europe during the 18th century spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint — to record their memories and help them see better.
Peru, Machu Picchu, young woman takes a photograph overlooking the ancient lost city of the Inca. Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look. But it's our emotional connection to a place that makes it truly memorable. The adjectives are still there - amazing, beautiful, inspiring - but not the feeling. It's like going to a zoo and saying you've been on safari.
These days we tourists and photographers now wander through museums, cities, and countrysides, seeking to fulfill our curiosity of other cultures in a day, a week or fortnight, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of passport stamps rather than the quality of the experience we choose to focus upon to determine whether we have “done” the Louvre or "seen" the Eiffel Tower. It’s self-improvement on the fly.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you devote several months of your time to peering intently at Michelangelo's David or seeing how the leafs change as autumn returns to the Alps, but slow looking, like slow cooking, may yet become the new radical chic.
Watercolor sketch of Angkor Wat Siem Reap, Cambodia Recently, I bought a sketchbook to draw in while traveling Southeast Asia, just for the fun of it, not because I'm any good, but to help me look more slowly and carefully at what I discovered rather than quickly capturing the object of my fascination with my DSLR. Crowds occasionally gathered around as if I were doing something totally strange and novel, as opposed to something normal, like looking at an LCD display a foot in front of my face while figuring out an angle to a shot.
I found that just being alone with my scribbles and looking hard instead of hardly looking opened up a deeper and richer world for me. Not one where I waited for a tourist to get out of my viewfinder, but one where I invited the possibilities and captured the essence of the experience. It's akin to lingering with your cup of café au lait at an outdoor Parisian café as opposed to ordering a Venti in a paper cup.
Art, whether it be on paper, canvas, or digital form fortunately reminds us that there is in fact no correct way to look at any single location, save for with an open mind and patience.
What is true and spiritual about traveling is being able, as often as possible, to turn from the familiar to the unfamiliar; it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor. If we take our minds away from what we expect traveling to be, and allow traveling to actually just be, that's when it all comes into focus.
I love seeing nice view and sketch but sad sad to I don't have a talent for that! You have a nice art! Keep it up!
Michael I really connected with your words. I completely agree with what you are saying and loved the way you handled this sensitive topic. By using excerpts from the past it really nulls the 'occasional travellers' argument about "not having enough time" and "only having one holiday a year so I have to see it all!!" I am looking forward to reading more of your writing.
Really well written - thank you for sharing these ideas. I must confess that I am guilty of rushing through things I should take my time appreciating, after all, chances are I'll never be back. Your post reminds me to live life to the fullest whilst indulging in "slow-looking" (great line BTW).
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