The Best Travel Photo I Never Took

Speaker's Corner: His Facebook friends would have loved it, but Doug Mack has no regrets

09.04.09 | 11:20 AM ET


I heard him before I saw him. So did everyone on the bus, as an entrancing flurry of boogie-inducing beats broke our weekend-afternoon lethargy. Heads turned, straining for a glimpse of the drummer on the sidewalk, then settled for simply nodding in time, sharing the moment without knowing its origin. 

I reached for my camera, already framing the photo in my mind. In the foreground: the drummer, hands a blur. Maybe an adoring crowd surrounding him, each person bearing a wide grin and a brightly colored shopping bag loaded with a photogenic assortment of wares. Behind the drummer: the carved stone railing of the bridge we were on, then the deep blue of the Chicago River, and past that, filling the rest of the frame, the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago, their glass facades creating a fun house of warped reflections pierced with oh-so-dramatic light from the lowering sun.

The bus lurched through heavy traffic, each halting advance turning up the volume a bit. And finally, right outside my open window, there he was: a middle-aged African-American man with a shaved head and a half-smirk, his drumsticks like musical magic wands, flying with impossible speed and conjuring intricate rhythms from an overturned five-gallon plastic bucket. Postcard-perfect. I was already looking forward to showing my friends the photo, pre-emptively nostalgic for the scene playing out in front of me. I brought the viewfinder up to my eye, adjusted the angle of the camera a bit, and eased my finger to the shutter release button. 

The drummer looked up, meeting my technologically enhanced gaze with an intense stare. Perfect, I wanted to say. Now hold that pose for just a sec ...

His eyes narrowed, his half-smirk turned into a full scowl. The rhythm turned slower, less intricate. He shook his head ever so slightly. My finger twitched on the button as my heart sank to the depths of the river. I really wanted that shot—it was so evocative of the Chicago I’d come to love: culturally vibrant, always bustling, larger-than-life in so many ways.

But I willed my finger off the button and lowered the camera.

It was the best shot I’ve never taken.

I have no regrets. How could I? Subjects of photos have every right to be asked permission, to be respected as humans, not just props for drive-by voyeurs in search of a scenic tableau to document. 

Since that day in Chicago, I’ve upgraded to a fancier camera. I’ve also upgraded my thoughts on when to put the camera away.

There are the obvious places when it’s not appropriate, of course. I respect the “no photos” signs posted in many museums and places of worship. I don’t take close-up pictures of people without asking their permission. 

I’ve also become cautious about photographing even willing strangers. If I pull out my camera halfway through a conversation, or even before it begins, it automatically changes the dynamic of the interaction, reflexively fueling in my potential subject a litany of anxieties: Does my hair look okay? How about my outfit? Are these photos going to show up on the internet somewhere? Should I just pose now and get the shot out of the way? Should I be looking candid? Is there something stuck in my teeth?

Most of all, I’ve realized that there are moments too ineffably beautiful to even attempt to capture on film: the Grand Canyon, for example, or the spectacle at the Sunset Celebration in Key West ... or drummers on street corners, posed before an immaculate backdrop of skyscrapers. Of course, it’s these mesmerizing sights that we most want to shoot from every conceivable angle, multiple times—you know, just to be safe—in a vain attempt to perfectly replicate the moment later. The temptation grows with each new advance in digital photography, as it becomes ever easier to take as many shots as we like for virtually no cost.

Ansel Adams famously had just one fleeting opportunity to get his iconic photo, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. It was all he needed. We may not all have the talent of Adams, but perhaps we should be content with just one or two carefully composed shots.

Because I’m not sure that obsessive documentation actually leads to a better story. A photo may be worth a thousand words, but it seems that the more pictures we take of a particular place, the less we actually have to say about it later. By putting so much effort and attention into the big picture, quite literally, we miss out on the telling details and the full richness of the narrative: the scene outside the frame, the sounds, the smells, the precise sense of place. 

Case in point: in a recent New York Times article about visitors to the Louvre, Michael Kimmelman notes that many people dash through the museum, checking off the most famous works as fast as possible—there’s the Mona Lisa, there’s Winged Victory, let’s go get some lunch—but never slow down to look at them other than through the viewfinder. It’s all too easy, Kimmelman writes, to “imagine that because a reproduction of an image [is] safely squirreled away in a camera or cell phone, or because it [is] eternally available on the Web, dawdling before an original [is] a waste of time, especially with so much ground to cover.”

It’s an odd trade we make, one reflective of our reality-TV age: We give up the wonder of genuine discovery in exchange for the glee and self-satisfaction of knowing that our blog readers and friends back home are gonna love this shot. Our first reaction upon seeing something interesting or beautiful is often not to take it all in but to think, “Can’t wait to post this on Facebook!” and then to start worrying about light and composition and getting the focus just right.

I’m not endorsing a photography boycott. Not at all. I love taking photos and seeing images of friends’ journeys. I appreciate their ability—their occasional ability, which I naively hope for every time—to tell more than words ever could.

But I’ve also come to realize the benefits of keeping the camera tucked away in my bag and resisting my natural impulse to document everything. The world’s a lot more vibrant and nuanced when not seen through a viewfinder. People are more willing to talk to us, drummers more willing to drum. I’m sure, actually, that the drummer is captured more compellingly—with more drama, more color, better light—in my mind than he ever could have been on film.  I’m perfectly content with that. I’ve come to relish many of the shots I didn’t take—and, more to the point, the experiences surrounding them.

The best travel moments, it turns out, are not the Kodak ones.

16 Comments for The Best Travel Photo I Never Took

Audrey 09.04.09 | 1:04 PM ET

The more I’ve been traveling and taking photographs, the more this experience - the best photo I never took - occurs. Not that I’ve lost my love of photography and trying to share unknown parts of the world through it, but I’m appreciating more and more just putting the camera down and continuing the conversation about that unknown vegetable at the market or how many children the vendor has and what life is like for that family.

Thanks for expressing some of the thoughts that have been going through my head recently.

David 09.04.09 | 5:25 PM ET

I don’t want to be behind the camera.  I want to be in front of it with the people.  I don’t want a camera between us.  If I want to share what I saw with someone else, I will write about it.

Ana Denmark 09.04.09 | 6:37 PM ET

Maybe the word - for sights unable to be captured in a photo - should be inephable.

Near most tourist attractions in Peru, there are women in traditional dress (usually holding a baby lamb)  who hope you’ll pay them to take their picture. Of course, you’ll see women in traditional dress all over Peru who don’t pose for pictures professionally and it feels much more “authentic” to take their pictures.

However, in going through a friend’s pictures on Facebook, I saw that he had posed with one of these women. Trite! But in the next picture, he was holding the lamb. The picture doesn’t capture the conversation where he asks the elderly woman - who presumably did not own a digital camera - if he can hold her lamb and she can take his picture, but it is nonetheless evidence of that conversation and makes me laugh every time.

Cameras can definitely build walls, but -in the hands of the right person- they can also transcend them.

Christy 09.06.09 | 10:52 PM ET

This article really makes an important point! I have found that cameras in settings where people are just trying to live their lives and be themselves instantly put up a barrier… It becomes YOU and THEM with the camera in between. This is hard for me because I LOVE taking photos… It is just one of those things where you really have to read the situtation accurately or you can risk shutting yourself out as a “tourist” or “the one with the camera”. I love taking people’s portraits when they ask for them. The person is into it and the pictures come out great both as portraits and as a part of the story of your journey. Otherwise I often have to be satisfied with the pictures in my mind’s eye and if others want to see them they are going to have to do their own traveling and make their own! :-)

AndreyM 09.07.09 | 4:47 AM ET

After such story I am really really sorry that you couldn’t take that photo! But I believe that you will have much more chances to take even better photoes

Frank 09.08.09 | 10:21 AM ET

Nicely put, Doug.

Scott 09.09.09 | 4:02 PM ET

In “Travels with Charley”, reflecting on Yellowstone NP John Steinbeck wrote to the effect that he finds people travel not so much to see as they do to say they have been.  When I’m taking a picture, I ask myself why I’m taking it: is it just so I can show the picture to somebody else?  If that’s the case, I don’t take the picture, and I find I then have a better memory of the scene than if I had taken the picture.

Cate 09.10.09 | 12:05 PM ET

I’ve found this happens more when I’m thinking about candid shots of ethnic groups, children and eldery. I actually wrote a similar post on my blog recently about working with ethnic minorities.

It’s about respect.  When you take the shot, everyone remembers you but no one really thinks about the person in the picture—whether they wanted their picture taken or not.. I consider this change in thought part of maturing not just as a photographer, but as a traveller. You actually painted the picture of the scene vividly with your chose in words.

The Africa Travel Blog 09.10.09 | 2:03 PM ET

You described the exact feeling I have had several times while traveling. Sometimes I catch myself being more concerned about taking the perfect picture rather than just taking in the moment. And Im not even into photography at all!

Sabina 09.10.09 | 10:28 PM ET

Yes, sometimes the camera gets in the way of fully experiencing.  It can become too much about clicking at just the right time and angle and too little about allowing yourself to feel the moment.

probate advice 09.11.09 | 5:17 AM ET

I agree it is a shame when you have to look through a viewfinder to take a shot. Sometimes you actually miss what is going on. Photography is wonderful though.

Mary Arulanantham 09.12.09 | 4:27 PM ET

My friends often chide me because I tend not to take photos at important events or while on vacation. I just don’t think of it. “But you’ll want to see the pictures and remember later,” they say. My feeling is that my memory is in my mind; if I lose my mind someday, then the photos won’t mean much. I am, however, very verbose; I love to tell travel stories. Sometimes my storytelling gets the better of me, and those (usually my children) who were there to share the experience want to contradict. A picture captures a moment in time, but memory is fluid. Unless the photographer is truly gifted at capturing the perfect moment, most pictures are simply flipped through politely by those back home. If you do have the gift (which I don’t), a good picture can be exquisite, but in the meantime, the photographer has sacrificed a dozen other moments of being instead of watching and waiting. Not everyone is willing to make that sacrifice.

Best Family Vacation 09.13.09 | 5:31 AM ET

The best travel moments are those that are etched forever in a traveler’s heart. The best photos are those captured by the heart, not a lens.

World nomad 09.15.09 | 9:48 PM ET

I have so many pictures I never took, all of them because of different reasons. Can totally relate to this post! =)

Your Holiday Matters 09.16.09 | 9:57 AM ET

I loved this article; much as I also love photography, what you say is so true Doug; one can miss so much by being glued to a viewfinder. Was on holiday recently and found I had left my camera’s charger at home. The disappointment was soon replaced by a sense of liberation!

Chuck K 09.21.09 | 10:51 PM ET

“The best travel moments, it turns out, are not the Kodak ones.” 

I guess its all a matter of perspective, interest and the circumstances at hand.  As both a writer and photographer (probably more that latter than the former), there are times that I want to partake of an experience sans camera.  But there are other times when the camera is part of the connection with the scene or the experience.  And there are times when my skill as a photograpger allows me to create a visual memory far more powerful than the experience would have been without the camera.  For me, the best travel moments MAY be a Kodak (or Nikon) one; or may not.  It all depends on the moment.

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