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.