During my white middle-class young-adult rite of passage backpacking through Europe, I had the fortune of passing through Bucharest, Romania, where I spent a night on the floor of a complete stranger’s apartment.
He wasn’t the first complete stranger I had stayed with and he wouldn’t be the last. – In our rigidly deliberate modern world of reservations, tours, and itineraries, there is something refreshingly antiquated about passing through the life of a stranger whom I will never see again, as if while we drink and converse through when evening turns to night, we are living out a moment in the Times of Yore, playing the Innkeeper and the Horseman as the world of schedules and automobiles rages on apathetically around us.
“I no longer bring my camera when I go places,” he told me. “I find that when you bring a camera, you spend more time thinking about how your pictures will look than you do simply enjoying where you are.”
Four years ago, I got my first digital camera, and from that point on, I would take hundreds of pictures everywhere I went. Perhaps the need for pictures was something I picked up from my father, who, on a ten day road-trip in the Great Plains, took eleven rolls of corn fields and grain silos. Yet, two weeks ago, I went on a week-long road trip through the American South. I took four pictures – more out of principle than desire, perhaps to pacify my mother if she were to ask me about my trip. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my surroundings; I just simply didn’t care to photograph them. Perhaps without pictures to look at, I will feel obligated to go back there someday to get a second look.
Sometimes I think the need for pictures indicates a certain level of emotional dependence on the approval of society. There’s something about publicly displayed photo albums that shouts out “Look! I’ve been there and done that!” as if the value of going there and doing that is lost if people don’t know about it. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Perhaps it’s an assertion of travelers’ credibility, or perhaps it’s fighting the perception that all we do in life is sit around and refresh the browser. In any case, I often wonder if our photos reveal more about our insecurities than they do our hobbies.
This goes beyond pictures. Milan Kundera has some great prose on the subject of narcissism in his novel, Immortality, suggesting that perhaps for most, we are more emotionally moved by the self-reflective image of us being emotionally moved than we are by whatever it is that’s supposed to be moving us (I’d quote his prose, but I’m lazy. Read the book – it’s superb). That is to say – if I’m crying at a funeral, perhaps my tears are more affected by the image of themselves than they are by being bereaved. Or perhaps I enjoy hiking because I enjoy watching myself enjoy hiking.
If we envision our lives as if on a stage, and we display it for the world (or to ourselves, even), then are we not mere actors in a fictional adaptation of reality? If we are consumed with acting out what we want our lives to look like, then how can we actually claim to be genuinely living life? We would only be living a representation of life.
More and more I look at people’s photo albums and I wonder to myself: did they really enjoy doing this? – or did they only enjoy watching themselves enjoy doing this? I realize this is an unfair judgement on my part, although I often ask myself the same question, and I find my answer is usually directly related to how much I want the moment immortalized in a photograph.
I see my diminishing need to photograph everything as an indication that I’m slowly becoming a more independent person – that I’m comfortable with who I am and what I do – that I don’t necessarily need other people to stroke my ego and provide me with a sense of self-worth.
…the irony of course being: blogging is perhaps the most narcissistic activity of all time. Perhaps I’ve only replaced one egocentric vice with another.
Or maybe I’m subconsciously enjoying watching myself not taking photographs. “Look at me, World! I’m not being a self-centered egomaniac attention whore! Look at me removing myself from the fabricated display of self-promoted awesomeness! Me! Me! Me! I! I! I! Look at how humble I am!”