It’s the Destination
As a photographer, chances are you’ve thought about doing some traveling, if you haven’t traveled extensively already. The journey might start out as a simple weekend getaway after a few rough days at the office or as an expansive road trip through several states and time zones: car packed with a camera and a few favorites lenses, wind in your hair, sun on your face, nothing but freedom and the open road in front of you. Over time this could lead to dealing with travel agents, passports, guides, and epic expeditions to the other side of the world involving multiple flights and a bone-jarring ride in the back of a rusted out Japanese pickup with a driver who speaks a different language than your own. Photographers are particularly susceptible to the lure of the exotic.
You could live right across the street from 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 – and you would still feel as if you were missing out on something somewhere.
It would be far too easy to dismiss this urge as a misguided grass-is-always-greener human impulse. After all, maybe the grass really is greener on the other side of the proverbial fence. Maybe the grass over there isn’t even green at all, but some other color you’ve never seen or even considered. Maybe the grass is wild and untamed, unlike the neatly manicured turf in your tidy neighborhood with which you’re so accustomed. Then again, sticking with the working theme here, maybe it’s not really about the grass at all but the journey.
I said, maybe. 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. The actual journey, for all the saccharin and nostalgia it conjures, actually sucks. If I could close my eyes, snap my fingers, and magically teleport myself to the destination instantaneously, while skipping the whole journey thing, I’d be happy as a clam. I’m guessing that whoever penned this particular piece of bumper sticker wisdom never had their precious little journey take them through a major 21st century airport. And yes I do realize the phrase is a derivative of Emerson’s and a well-intentioned metaphor for life. Yet all too often it’s used literally by slick travel brochures and cruise operators and I, for one, am tired of hearing about the journey’s so-called virtues.
I do find it ironic that the most blissful photogenic destinations on the planet require you to first travel through hell on Earth in order to reach them: canceled and delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage, fees for checked bags, long lines at the check-in counter, security, passport control, and customs, rude and surly customer service representatives, invasive TSA agents, full-body x-rays, pat downs, no liquids or gels, removed shoes, crowded airplanes, no leg room, airline food, and fights with attendants about your camera pack that won’t quite fit in the overhead bin but is too fragile to allow apathetic baggage handlers to throw from luggage cart onto mobile conveyor belt are just some of the indignities to be endured and we’ve not even mentioned the repulsive edifices themselves. The English writer and humorist, Douglas Adams observed 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 itself soon fade from memory once a destination is finally reached. So why do we photographers bother to travel anyway? I suppose everyone has their own 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” when I pack my bags for some far-flung, exotic photography trip but I do deserve at least some 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,” as a justification for some people’s travel bug, it’s one that’s never quite resonated with me. I just don’t see my life and work as anything from which I need, or want, to escape.
But more than any other reason, travel takes me away from everything that’s familiar and razes the personal comfort zone to which I – and all of us respectively, really – try to cling. I like that. Sometimes I need that. Travel writer, Freyda Stark once wrote, “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world” and I could not concur 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 think and see differently. After all, if I’ve never seen something before, what other choice do I have?
Then there are the places and scenes that are simply too beautiful for words, which is fortunate enough since we photographers are paid to create imagery where words alone are inadequate. The first time I laid my eyes on the southern Andes of Patagonia or the aurora borealis or a herd of mammoth elephants marching ceremoniously across the African plains, my sympathetic nervous system shot into overdrive and delivered a dose of goose bumps all 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.
If I don’t screw things up too badly, I might create something that invites the viewer of the image to participate in this new experience as well, through the prism of my emotional response and photographic technique. Since I am interpreting the experience artistically, it’s still my experience but the viewer has traveled with me vicariously, except without all 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. Either way, if I don’t make the journey in order to witness it myself, it never happened – for any of us. So the journey is necessary, if not a necessary evil. In fact, with the right attitude – and good set of noise-canceling headphones – the journey itself might not be so intolerable after all. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s not about the destination.
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Richard Bernabe is a landscape, wildlife, travel photographer and author as well as Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine. You can see more of Richard’s work at RichardBernabe.com\ and follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.