Slave to the Camera

Trip Start Sep 08, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Saturday, October 23, 2010

My relationship with our camera is evolving. I started only wanting to capture 'composed images' - 'artworks'. That has long since gone out the window and for a while now I have been shooting from the hip, filling up memory cards willy-nilly. I am carrying the camera every day and we are visiting tourist spots which by their nature are visually stimulating and which I want to record. Then there is this whole Asian thing of taking pictures of certain prescribed vistas which I struggle with... and yet find myself taking the same picture nonetheless.
There is an element, which I wanted to avoid from the outset, that a tour of a particular site becomes consumed by the exercise of searching out the best views to photograph. Rather than immersing yourself in the experience of this World Heritage Site or that cultural icon, you find yourself composing shots in the mind's view-finder, seeking out the angles, obsessing about light levels - becoming utterly distracted from the very thing you have come to admire by breaking it down and objectifying it. This I resent.
On one level, I suppose, it requires a concentration that engages. But too often, when you are waving the camera around, you forget to see the bigger picture - you forget to smell & hear and absorb the specific atmosphere of the place.
I was particularly struck by this dilemma at the Zen rock garden in the Ryoanji Temple. This exquisite piece of design was conceived with the expressed desire for one to contemplate it. It is a garden of pure functionalism - it is the object of meditation - and whilst, yes, I took photos along with everyone else, I ensured I put the camera away for long enough to sit in front of the garden with no refracting lens between me and it and for brief periods I contemplated.
But I resented having to take the photos and I resented more the hordes of tourists there whose sole purpose of visit so it seemed was to take a photo. "This is a meditation garden!" I felt like shouting, knowing my shriek would not disturb the rhythmic chanting of the clicking shutters.
I thought the temple would do a great service if it banned photography outright. It could possibly have a library of images from which visitors could chose what they liked on their way out - take them for free (this is beginning to sound more and more like the Fascist prescribed mode of tourism I have been railing against but hey, indulge me) or you could follow the Russian example; if you wish to take a photo that's fine, but we will charge you an additional (steep) fee for the privilege.
It was with some delight then, the following day when we visited the Daitoku-ji temple complex to be told that photography was prohibited. It was a weight lifted and I could submerge myself completely in the wonders & complexities of this expression of human existence without the nagging guilt that I should be taking more photos, that I am letting things slip off the record. Instead I could contemplate and even - at times - meditate in peace and if at a future date I wish to see an image of this place I know I will be able to find within the pages of a book or online a photograph far better than the one (or twenty-one) that I would have taken, and at a far more attractive season, a far more profound light. Perhaps I am missing the point of travel photography but for that brief experience it was a joy not to have to be a photo-journalist - slave to the camera.
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