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TATE DEBATE: Do you think that photography stops you looking while painting makes you look? How do you record your holidays? A few key photos or snaps of everything? Watercolour? Video?
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Travel photography: escaping the tyranny of the camera

Not only does photography interrupt the emotional experience of discovering something exciting and new, it can also ruin the moment for others, says Nick Trend.

Travel photography: escaping the tyranny of the camera
Tourists use a camera to capture the moment they visit a famous sight, but wouldn't they be better off focusing their attention on what they have come to see?  
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How much do you rely on photographs to remember your holiday? I have always been very bad at taking them. For years I travelled without a camera, and I now have one only because it is part of my phone. Our family holidays are well documented because others took photographs, but I have virtually no pictures from the many trips I have undertaken on my own.
Do I miss anything as a result? Certainly, I'm very glad, through the efforts of others, to have pictures of children growing up, of tanned, happy faces and bright sunlit beaches. And I still enjoy occasionally going through them and relishing the memories. But, even though I have very few photographs of the places I have visited, I don't feel that I am missing much. I may be completely wrong about this (how could it ever be tested?) but my theory is that we remember things better if we haven't interrupted or compromised the experience by taking a photograph of it.

Here's one example. In 1990, when I went on safari to Kenya and Tanzania for the first time, what amazed and delighted me was how incredibly close we could get to the wildlife. I have vivid memories of stopping on a track while three lionesses padded past in the cold half-light just before dawn.
I can picture the dew on the long grasses, I can feel the lingering chill of the African night. I can still visualise the flicking tail of the last lioness as she passed the minibus. And I can remember the incessant clicks and the motorised whirrs as the other tourists desperately tried to capture the moment for posterity.
Did they see what I saw? I don't think so. How can you look properly if you are either squinting through a lens or always thinking of the next picture?
It seems I am not alone in this feeling. Recently Paul Theroux came into our offices for a web chat with readers and he was asked about photography. "I never bring a camera – because taking pictures, I've found, makes me less observant and interferes with my memory, though I realise this is not the case with everyone," he said.
Not only do they make the tourist-photographers less observant, but they can also spoil things for bystanders. I remember visiting the Taj Mahal some years ago. Not only did most visitors appear to be experiencing the site through a viewfinder, but they expected those of us who were not to be continually on our guard to make sure that we weren't getting in the way of their picture.
Meanwhile, it is bad enough when Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, in London, is dazzled by photographic flashes before the production starts, but the attendants have to be on their guard to intervene when members of the audience reach slyly for their cameras to take pictures during the play itself.
Of course, I have to concede that the photographers have a better formal record. They can have confidence in their images and videos. They know what they saw – or, at least, they know what they photographed. My memory might be playing tricks. Perhaps there were four lionesses. Maybe the flicking tail has been subconsciously elided with a memory of another occasion on the same trip. I can't be certain. Does that really matter?
Maybe the photographers' memories are also playing tricks on them. It's easy to think of photographs as an aide-mémoire, but do you remember taking each of them? I certainly don't. Many are capturing moments I have forgotten. I recognise the scene and the people, of course, but I'm not sure I really remember experiencing the moment itself.
I think photography stops you looking properly, and interrupts the emotional experience of seeing new and exciting things. The syndrome has been intensified by digital cameras. Now you don't even look through a lens at your subject; you look at an electronic display screen.
And when you have taken your picture, you have to keep looking at that screen to make sure the image has captured the memory in an acceptable way. Perhaps Sanjiv had his eyes closed at a crucial moment in front of the Taj Mahal. If he did, the whole process has to start again.
As for video cameras, they are even more problematical. Do you watch your daughter's first slalom race at the end of the ski holiday with your own eyes, or look at it through a lens? Many parents do the latter. The daughter does well, she gets a nice film of herself as well as an uninterrupted memory of winning/losing/falling over. But the photographer parent has missed the magic of the moment.
What has started me on this rant? The "Travel and Topography" section of an exhibition at Tate Britain on the history of watercolours, including many produced by people who, before photography was widespread, were trying to record what they saw as they toured Britain and Europe.
The scenes captured by these 18th- and 19th-century travellers are classic tourist sights. They range from J M W Turner's mysterious, mist-shrouded views of Mount Rigi, on the far side of Lake Lucerne, to paintings by less well-known artists: Thomas Girtin's account of Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland; Richard Dadd's seaview in Rhodes; Parkes Bonington's image of the Piazza dell'Erbe in Verona.
Like most watercolours, these are not painstakingly detailed accounts, but free, spontaneous works. Even so, the point about the creation of such pictures is the intense observation they require – and that process happens even before the painting starts. The painter has to decide on the view, set up the easel or pad and settle down to look.
Far from interrupting their experiences by recording them, these travellers were intensifying the moment and, presumably, therefore, their own memories. They had time, of course – too expensive an option for most of us in the 21st century. What's more, few of us can paint or sketch. But I wonder if we wouldn't see more, and forget less, if we tried to wean ourselves off the tyranny of the camera.
  • Watercolour continues at Tate Britain ( until August 21; admission £12.70

Travel View of the Week: should you take a camera on holiday?Tell us what you think for the chance to win two return flights courtesy of Flybe.


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