Photography is not always the best way to capture the world
Before I took up photography 20 years ago, I used a journal to record my impressions of the faraway places I visited on business: Rio, Singapore, Taipei, Caracas. But like many of us, since then I’ve succumbed to the immediate gratification of a snapshot taken with a phone.
On a recent trip to India I was reminded that pictures don’t always do the real world justice. They may convey the shimmering colors of women’s silk saris, or the deep azures, vermillions and magentas of ceremonial powders displayed in such perfect cones that one doesn’t dare disturb them through a mere purchase.
But pictures can’t convey the constant honking of cars, cabs, trucks, buses, motorcycles, scooters, and the ubiquitous yellow-and-green autos (aka tuktuks, everywhere else) as they all jockey for better positions on crowded boulevards or as they wind their way through streets so narrow that pedestrians have to escape into store entryways to make room.
Photographs don’t transmit the shouts and hawks of vendors in the market as they invite attention to their wares with melodic bellowing or urge buyers to make up their mind with the staccato-like hectoring of ‘balla-balla-balla-balla’.
Images can’t portray the close proximity of people, the constant brushes against others as you try to pass on too-narrow sidewalks or enter too-narrow doorways.
Pictures don’t let you smell the mix of spices, rotting fruit, exhaust fumes and wet asphalt, the fragrance of burnt nuts and corn-on-the-cob wafting in clouds above the rolling food carts that meander through traffic, the aroma of fresh flowers being weighed using hand-held brass scales, the occasional whiff of cow manure, the bouquet of spicy coffee served in paper espresso cups from corner stalls no bigger than a coat closet.
Photographs don’t let you feel the invisible dust that covers your skin as soon as you step outside, or the cool air wafting out of stores fortunate enough to have a fan, or the heat that stings your skin as soon as the sun breaks through the monsoon clouds.
Snapshots don’t convey the drizzle that threatens to turn into a monsoon downpour that never comes, or the screech of a bird that is so jarring because it is so rare, or the dogs slinking through the throngs of people looking for scraps of food and getting no affection, or the thousands of smiles flashed at you in the hope of a bit of charity.
Pictures don’t let you feel the flakyness of a barota dipped in masala sauce, or the crispness of a roti served with an assortment of chutneys, or the softness of a slightly charred naan combined with butter chicken.
Photographs don’t convey the near-misses between cars inches apart in heavy traffic, or the flow of traffic around pedestrians crossing the street without any sign of hurry or panic, or of commuters boarding a bus that has already pulled away from its stop, its doors left open to allow stragglers to jump aboard before picking up speed, or the haggling that precedes the boarding of any conveyance.
All that is lost with photography. What’s also lost is our attention span — we see something, we snap a picture, we move on. Gone are the days of quiet contemplation triggered by a desire to ‘remember the moment.’ Our memory has been outsourced to photo storage in the cloud. I don’t recall the few pictures I took so many years ago in Rio, Buenos Aires or Provence, but my recollections are nevertheless vivid, indelibly stored in my mind through the act of writing them down. So if you want lasting memories of your travels, maybe it’s time to put down the camera and pick up a pen?