As a photographer, chances are you’ve thought about doing some traveling, if you haven’t done so already. The journey might start out as a simple weekend getaway after a few rough days at the office. It might be an extended road trip through several states and time zones; car packed with camera and lenses, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, nothing but freedom and the open road stretching out to the horizon. Over time these journeys might involve airplanes, travel agents, passports, guides, and epic expeditions to the other side of the planet. Photographers, it seems, are particularly vulnerable to the lure of the exotic.
You might live within eyesight of a premier national park with hundreds of square miles of mountain wilderness, waterfalls, charismatic wildlife, pristine beaches, wildflowers in the spring, blazing foliage in the fall – this is the cosmic photo destination we’re talking about after all – and you would still feel as if you were missing out on something else somewhere else. It would be far too easy to dismiss this urge as a naive grass-is-always-greener impulse since the grass might really be greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. Maybe the other grass over there isn’t even green at all, but some other color you’ve never seen or even considered. Or maybe the other grass is wild and untamed, unlike the neatly manicured turf in your tidy neighborhood with which you’re accustomed. Then again, sticking with the working metaphor here, maybe it’s not really about the grass at all but the journey in getting there.
Or maybe not. You see, I personally consider the whole “it’s the journey not the destination” sentiment as just another feel-good, pop-culture pseudo-profundity that’s too easily taken at face value. For the weary traveler, the journey – despite the cheery saccharin-infused romanticism it conjures – actually sucks. If I could close my eyes, snap my fingers, and magically teleport myself to my destination while skipping the whole journey thing, I’d be happy as a clam. I’m guessing whoever penned this particular piece of bumper sticker philosophy never had their precious little journey take them through a major 21st century airport on a Friday afternoon. And yes, I do realize the phrase is a derivative of Emerson’s and a well-intentioned metaphor for how to negotiate life. Yet all too often it’s used literally as a marketing tool by slick travel brochures and hucksterish cruise operators. I, for one, am weary of the so-called virtues of the journey.
I do find it ironic that the most heavenly photogenic destinations in the world require you to first travel through Hell on Earth to get there; over-crowded airports, cancelled and delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage, fees for checked bags, lines at the check-in counter, security, passport control and customs, surly customer service representatives, invasive TSA agents, full-body x-rays, pat downs, no liquids or gels, removed shoes, cramped airplanes with no leg room, and truly tasteless airline food are just some of the indignities to be endured in order to reach our desired destination. And I’ve not even mentioned the repulsive edifices themselves. The English writer and humorist, Douglas Adams mused that there is no language that has ever produced the phrase as pretty as an airport.
But all the agony and pulverizing boredom of travel soon fade from memory once the destination is reached. So why do we bother to travel anyway? I suppose everyone has their personal reasons: capturing and seeing something new, exploration, adventure, enlightenment, different cultures and food, or running from the law, just to name a few. And while all of the preceding could apply to me as well – aside from the running from the law part – I should mention that it also happens to be my job. I haven’t quite mastered the art of keeping a straight face as I explain to friends and loved ones that I’m “going to work” as I pack my bags for some far-flung, exotic photography excursion. I should at least deserve a modicum of credit for not employing the smug rejoinder, “but somebody’s gotta do it” or something to that effect.
And while I understand “getting away from it all” is one justification for travel, it’s one that’s never resonated with me. I just don’t see my life or my work as anything from which I need, or want, to escape. But travel does take me away from everything that’s easy and familiar while razing the personal comfort zone to which I – and all of us – try to cling. I like that. I sometimes absolutely need that. Travel writer, Freyda Stark observed, “to awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world” and I could not agree more. When applied to photography, these strange new places and experiences act as powerful catalysts to help get my creative juices going and force me to see differently. After all, if I’ve never seen something before, what other choice do I have?
Then there are the places and experiences that are simply too beautiful for words, which is fortunate enough since photographers are paid to create photos where mere words alone are inadequate. The first time I laid eyes on the southern Andes of Patagonia or the aurora borealis in Greenland or a herd of mammoth elephants marching ceremoniously across the African plains, my sympathetic nervous system pulsed into overdrive and delivered a dose of chill bumps over my arms and shoulders, making the hair stand straight up on the back of my neck. The very best part of this sensation was that in each instance, I never saw it coming. Each and every time was like a thunderbolt from the blue. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why I travel.
And If I don’t screw things up too badly, I might even create something beautiful or meaningful that invites the viewer of the image to participate in this new experience with me, through the prism of my emotions and the artistic choices I make. I’m interpreting the experience emotionally and artistically and it’s still my experience but the viewer has traveled with me vicariously, without the burdens of modern day travel I described earlier.
Or I could forget to remove the lens cap and everyone will just have to take my word for it. At any rate, if I don’t make the journey in order to witness and photograph the experience, it will have never happened for any of us. So, the journey is necessary after all, if not a necessary evil. With the right attitude – and good set of noise-cancelling headphones – the journey itself might not be so intolerable after all. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s not about the destination.