See more, snap less
This is Scotland, and I am tasting Scotch. I should be happy. Even giddy. But there’s a problem. I can’t even see, much less sip, the drams.
Smartphones and selfie sticks have suddenly sprouted like shiny bamboo shoots. People in my tour group are elbowing me out of the way. There’s a woman with two phones happily clicking. A man wearing tweed is hopping as he snaps, which blocks a taller man behind him.
I watch the tall guy drag over and begin shooting what has to be a hawk’s-eye view of the scene. Is the Duchess of Cambridge here, or someone equally famous? No, what the flashes are highlighting is, well, whisky. Images of whisky being poured. Pictures of whisky in a glass.
I grab my camera, check the settings, flip on the flash ... but, somehow, I’m not quite up for battle. I slink over to a plate of scones. The single-malt shot of the day will not be mine. Everyone else will snag much better images and grab those Facebook and Instagram likes the very second they post. I will drink my unrecorded whisky in disgrace.
I’ve started to think that snapping strings of holiday pictures is a kind of nervous tic. A way to box up travel, show it off and take it safely home. It seems the only convincing reason for a world that suddenly seems bored with plain old experience (yawn, another day in Rome) until the instant it is captured.
What makes a traveller hold up the screen of his picture-enabled iPad to block out a squadron of sun-bright parrots in Brazil?
What causes someone in a safari jacket to pose for a series of self-portraits when it’s sunset and it’s Kenya with a brush-fire tinting the sky and silhouetted giraffes mere metres away.
Why do people point lenses at unphotographable rain in rain forests? Or shadowless snow on top of ice on top of the Arctic Sea? Why do diners in a Hanoi noodle joint forget the slurp, the steam, the shrimp curled up inside their pho?
Everyone likes images that are sharp and evocative and good. But of every mouthful, at every meal?
I do get that hotshot photographers are proud. They can spot us amateurs coming and I know just what they’re thinking: no fire in our bellies, no decent equipment. And when push comes to shove, I realise they’re right.
That shot that caught the drama of an accident, in a dusty alley, deep in the medina in Fes? Not mine. I was engrossed in my couscous at a cafe lunch.
The image that made the Atlas Mountains look luminescent, and picked out a lantern moon? I didn’t take it. I was too busy skidding on pebbles, poring over a map, wiping my brow.
It may be simple jealousy, but lately I’ve felt giddy relief when I enter a place where pictures aren’t allowed. Is it a garden in Myanmar full of expansive blossoms and enormous trees? I might see a butterfly against a branch without the scene being backlit by a dozen flashes.
Is it an almost-famous restaurant in Madrid? I’ll be able to actually taste and digest without a tablemate photogenically rearranging my food.
Suddenly I’m free, not just from forests of clicking cellphones, but the temptation to pull out my own. I can concentrate, not on things that might be worth recording, but on those that aren’t.
When I get this gift of seconds that are very happily pointless, I remember what it was like in the days before devices, before everyone on Earth was “wired”. I have made up my mind to turn over a fresh new leaf next trip.
See more, snap less is the motto. Don’t be encumbered. Don’t be the tweed man or the tall man. Just go.
Peter Mandel is an author of children’s books, including Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan).
Selfie moment in the old town square of Riga, Latvia