Taking photographs while traveling has the potential to distract from our experiences. Research has shown that taking photographs can limit our memories—that all we may remember is the photographic experience—not the places, activities, atmosphere or people we meet. As one who has taken photographs since childhood, I confess that there is very likely some truth in this. A significant portion of my life's memories are tied to images. But not all of them.
In fact, I believe the camera can also be a powerful tool for discovery. Used properly, it can help us see and experience more to begin with. It can open our eyes to places, people and moments we might otherwise miss. Even though my memory may fall short when it comes to names and history, I’d argue that my memory is quite strong when it comes to recalling a sense of a place. As a landscape photographer, I remember the light, color and textures of a place. The architectural styles, building materials and how they are used. The local vegetation, the various habitats, the lay of the land and its relationship to the sky. The differences in historic garden styles and simple home gardens, the plants grown, and the vegetables sold in local markets. The people, their clothing styles and gestures, their occupations, and their ways of moving about.
To get beyond classic picture postcards, family vacation photos and, now, the selfie, we must slow down and look more closely. We must be willing to remove the camera from our eye and set it aside for a while to observe and engage. And when we pick it back up, we must look through the lens with greater sensitivity, awareness and intention.
In a world that is becoming more homogenized, photographers can help capture a sense of place before those details that make a place unique disappear forever. One way to do this is to be more keenly aware of your first impressions. Another is asking yourself a series of questions: What are the characteristics that make this place unique? How does it make me feel? What are the colors of the earth and architecture? What words might I use to describe the essence or spirit of this place? How can I express that visually?
In addition to pictures of yourself and travel companions, consider portraits of the people you meet along the way. In addition to historic buildings, consider detailed shots of the graffiti-covered walls, worn paving and local construction materials that give it character. When shooting broad landscapes, try capturing them in early morning or late evening light, or perhaps in rain, snow or fog. Weather and light contribute to a sense of place. Seek out vignettes that show people at work, dining in outdoor cafes, or celebrating special occasions—whether a wedding, sporting event or community festival. Photograph the well-known sites, but also wander down side streets and unpaved back roads. Follow your sense of curiosity and see where it leads.
Do you have a favorite memory and/or photograph from a trip that you believe captures a sense of place? If so, I’d love to hear about it or even see your photograph.