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Out of focus: Glen Mutel

A camera is often the first thing we pack. But perhaps there’s something to be said for occasionally leaving it at home

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My favourite holiday snap is one taken of me in northern Thailand. For reasons I can’t explain, I’d just cycled several miles to see some hot springs — over a series of steep hills, in the midday sun, on an old-fashioned bike, complete with basket and no gears. It was an almighty struggle and to make matters worse, as I neared my destination, the bike’s chain snapped, forcing me to wheel the bloody thing for the last half-mile.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but when I finally reached the springs they were small and shallow, stank of sulphur and were too hot for bathing. The photograph captures my disappointment perfectly. It shows me stood limply at the side of the offending puddle of pungent water, with the look of a broken man.

It was a truly miserable experience, and yet for some reason I’ve always loved that picture. I think it’s the way it so eloquently shows the consequences of poor decision-making. When I look at it I see a confused young man grappling with his own idiocy, his expression a wondrous mixture of disbelief, dejection and rage.

There’s no doubt about it, photography can be pretty potent stuff. And yet, despite this, I’m considering something a little radical for my next trip: I’m thinking of leaving my camera at home.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good picture. It’s just sometimes it feels like the search for a photo opportunity can take some of the fun out of travelling. Whenever I find myself in exotic surroundings, I spend too much time wondering whether or not I should be trying to capture what I’m seeing. It’s become a source of pressure, and, as digital cameras never run out of film, this pressure is pretty relentless.

The obvious solution is to snap away constantly, to spend your travels looking at the world through an LCD screen, rather than experiencing it through your senses. After all, why take a minute to soak up a beautiful sunset or appreciate the silent majesty of a prowling tiger, when you could stare at your camera, fiddle with its settings, then see it all later on a computer screen in your bedroom?

If you ask me, cameras can make people behave oddly, and it’s even worse when camcorders are involved, as the temptation to keep them rolling is clearly too much for some people. I’ve seen tourists walk around castles, cathedrals, museums and medinas without once lifting their eyes up from the viewfinder.

But what’s more annoying is the way camera wielders often act as though the world belongs to them. They seem to think every tourist attraction on earth has been put there for their pleasure alone. If you happen to be standing there, just looking, they think it’s OK to push in front of you to get a better angle.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got it in for everyone I see with a camera. I’ve got nothing against genuine enthusiasts, with their backbreaking bags of equipment, or the inspired amateur, who’s been genuinely moved by something and is desperate for a fitting memento. But the more I see blank-eyed, sedated tourists trotting from one attraction to the next with their eyes glued to the little screen and their trigger-fingers twitching, the keener I am to not become one of them.

And I do sometimes wonder who these pictures are for anyway? For people back at home? But who’s really interested? Who actually wants to see their friends’ gormless, sunburnt faces staring back at them from in front of Notre Dame? Not me, that’s for certain. Other people’s photographs are nearly always dull, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re on Facebook, Flickr or being passed around at a dinner party. I even find my own pictures dull.

For every good one, 20 are truly awful — whether it’s a cack-handed landscape that makes an amazing place look bland, or a shot of an old girlfriend stood squinting in front of a blurred statue.

So, for all those reasons, I’m considering leaving my camera behind next time. But, if I’m honest, I’ll probably end up taking it. Because there’s a chance I just might do something stupid — like cycling for miles in the midday sun to see some hot springs. And when I do, I’ll want to always remember the expression on my face.

 

Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)