Would you ever take a camera-free vacation?

recording the sunset
Public Domain MaxPixel

Fussing with a camera can mean you miss the actual moment you're trying to preserve.

My aunt and uncle travel a lot, both for pleasure and work. This year, for example, they did a month-long hike in the French Alps and spent a long weekend bicycling around the Niagara peninsula in Ontario. They're off for another two weeks on a sailboat before flying to Mumbai and Lagos on business. They're always on the move, pursuing yet another fascinating adventure.

What makes their travels all the more intriguing to me is the fact that they take almost no pictures. While they occasionally print a few to make a small photo album, there is no trace of their jet-setting journeys on Facebook or Instagram. It's not that they don't care about preserving memories; I think it's more that they travel only for themselves, not for an impression they're hoping to make on anyone else. All that remains is their travel tales -- and because we family members have not been following constant photographic documentation, those tales are even more entertaining and engaging.

I've come to think that there's really something to be said for leaving one's camera behind when traveling, or, at the very least, approaching photo-taking with much greater caution than most people do. In a day and age when we feel like something hasn't happened unless it's posted to social media, much of what we do can start to feel like a stunt, and a stressful one at that -- something that must be carefully staged in order to convey an impression that we're striving for.

That's not what travel should be about. Writer Zat Rana gets philosophical about the purpose of travel in an article for Medium:

"The point of travelling isn’t to find ourselves, and it’s also not to run away from our problems, but it’s to lose ourselves: to ignore the rigid stories about who we are that so strongly define our daily lives; to become unconditioned from the mono-culture so deeply infused in our psyche that we forget that there are more ways to live than one; and to step away from the false subjective perception that insists that we... are at the center of reality and that what’s right here, right now, is the only thing that matters — a fact that’s almost laughable when you realize how small and insignificant you and your desires are in every place outside of your closed, intimate world."

Taking photos obsessively while traveling inhibits one from entering a 'slow travel' state of mind -- this healthy feeling of loss that, once it registers, leaves one fully open to potential.

Now for some practical reasons for keeping the phone in your pocket, even when the sunset turns impossibly stunning or you're viewing a historic landmark for the first time ever:

1. It makes you less annoying to everyone else around.

I realize everyone is doing it, too, but there are few things as irritating as hundreds of hands holding cell phones in the air to capture the exact same scene. Usually when this happens, it's a key landmark that everyone wants proof of visiting, but I often remind myself that I can easily find a far more beautiful picture of the exact same site taken by a professional. Instead, stand back and LOOK. Take it in. Impress the moment on your mind.

Similarly, try not to objectify the places you visit. Remind yourself that these are the homes and communities of people around you -- people who may not want cameras waving in their faces at all times. Just think: would you want a horde of picture-snapping tourists clogging your hometown streets and parks? (Maybe you do have that and know how annoying it can be, in which case you're a perfect candidate for less picture taking.)

2. You will be less self-conscious.

Whether we like it or not, posting our lives on social media takes a mental toll. We feel pressure to look presentable, which is why we tend to primp and preen before the camera goes and often do retakes till it's just right. But if you never had to stand in front of a camera, how would that change the way you pack, dress, style your hair, wear makeup (or not), and which landmarks/natural sites you visit? When you stop traveling for the 'gram, what gives? Chances are, a lot. The trip becomes about you, not an impression you're trying to convey.

3. You'll be more mysterious.

Less is more, as they say. It's only a matter of time until withholding photographic evidence of a trip will be far cooler than sharing it wide and far. You'll have actual stories to tell, because you won't have told them all through your Instagram stories. People will ask "How was your trip?" and actually mean it because they don't feel like they were along for the ride. Meet with friends when you get home to chat about your trip. Have a real conversation. Share the funny encounters, the scary moments, the lessons learned.

4. It's less stressful.

Aside from the fuss about getting the perfect shots and feeling the need to turn your otherwise banal road trip into a mini documentary, putting away the phone means less digital clutter and less time spent transferring files to a computer, editing and fooling around with filters, deleting files, trying to find charging outlets, and fretting about data usage overseas (which can also incur shockingly high bills, as I've learned the hard way). If you're traveling in rougher places, you're not as much of a target if you don't have a fancy phone on you at all times.

This isn't to say you should never take pictures when traveling, but rather be judicious. Be aware of how your camera affects your vision, the experiences you pursue, even the conversations you have with fellow travellers.

To steal a great quote from a John Mayer song that Joshua Fields Millburn posted on his blog, The Minimalists,

"Didn’t have a camera by my side this time,
hoping I would see the world through both my eyes.
Today I finally overcame
Tryin' to fit the world inside a picture frame
You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life
You'll be with me next time I go outside
No more 3x5's" — John Mayer, “3×5”

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