I don’t take photos. Ok, I do ever. But generally, I don’t. I’ve just checked, and in total on my computer, which is the only place they are, I have just over 6000 photos. And I’ve been alive for 36 years, and travelled to nearly 50 different countries. That’s roughly 300 photos per year of my (digital) adult life; less than one a day. In general, I don’t do photos.
I realise the irony of writing this in a blog post augmented by a photo. But this is precisely the topic of this blog; how does one publish and publicize, in the digital age, if one wishes to neither record nor photograph the journey? Surely this goes against the tide of advice from sponsored adventurers, bloggers, YouTube sensations and Instagram aficionados, who nail their alt text writing, and earn the cost of their next trip through followers, clicks and advertising?
I have been enjoying hiking, camping and wild swimming for years. My passion for these pursuits resides mainly in their freedom. I often go on my own, without a phone and I love it when I realise no-one knows where I am. Sure, I take sensible precautions and maybe share a rough itinerary with a couple of my nearest and dearest. But last week I sat down for an impromptu picnic on a hillside two days into a walk and luxuriated in the freedom and frisson that comes from knowing I am utterly off-grid. I also love not telling anyone about it afterwards too. To me there’s something delightful about sitting at my desk at work, secretly knowing that the soles of my feet are dusty from last night’s wild camping micro-adventure, or that my wet swimming costume is crumpled at the bottom of my bag, the smell of seasalt in my semi-dry hair detectable only to me. It makes me feel like this working world is only one aspect of my life; that I have a toe always in the wild; that my wild life is also true and a vivid part of my private self-identity.
Keeping the memory private is important to me. It seems to protect its integrity and maintain the moment as wild. I wouldn’t ordinarily dream of posting a photo of my wild camp/swim/hike on social media. And more than this, even having a photo of it for myself erases some of the wildness of the experience. It literally boxes it up, frames it, packages it as a ‘thing’ that happened on X date and Y time, in Z specific location. Would I not enjoy privately flicking through my albums reminiscing about such moments? I honestly don’t know. It feels like something I’d never sit down and do. Does anyone? Surely it is disingenuous to suggest that one’s photos are purely private and personal. Taking a photo is a commodification which is about the exterior; either showing the scene to someone, or positioning oneself as an observer of one’s life. In my opinion, photos remove us from moments within our lives and place us on the outside looking in, or looking to others for comment or approval.
My anti-photo attitude all began on my first independent travelling experience:
travelling with a camera
I went to Morocco in 2001 with a friend from university. We rode camels in the desert, bought rugs in Fez, drank mint tea in Marrakech and had a wonderful time. On the last day of the trip, my camera was stolen. It nearly ruined the trip. I was inconsolable. How would I remember the trip without my photos? How would I show my parents where I’d been? What was the point of it all without a record? This was in the pre-digital age, and I was crying over the loss of 24 grainy photos. As I eventually dried my eyes and regained my perspective, I decided not to bother with photos on my travels ever again. In the intervening years, my attitude on this has hardened, and I have amassed a great deal of experience which, via confirmation bias, I use to shore up my position.
travels without a camera
There was the unbelievable time in Laos, when my boyfriend and I, who were sitting next to a temple somewhere or other, enjoying a drink, were asked by a family of tourists to move, so that they could sit where we were and take a photo with the temple behind them. We moved, they posed, clicked, and left. I wondered what they would say as they showed that photo to friends; how they would rationalise that moment to themselves. Because they hadn’t been having a moment; we had, and they’d interrupted it to pretend that they were having the moment we’d been having!
Or the time on a diving holiday in Zanzibar when the instructor was pointing out to each of us in turn a tiny shrimp on a coral wall. Most of the group had underwater cameras, so when she pointed out where it was, they focused their lenses, snapped, and swam away. When it was my turn, camera-less, I hung in the water looking at the animal. The instructor was frustrated; couldn’t I see it? ‘There, on that rock’, her finger jabbed more urgently. There was no hand signal to say, ‘I know, I’m looking’, and it seemed there wasn’t really thought to be any point to my looking, unless to photograph.
Or on a cycling holiday in Cuba when a member of our group snapped at me for spending a few seconds sitting on the bench next to the John Lennon statue when no-one was taking a photo of me. Apparently, that experience was reserved for people who wished it to be photographed, and I’d better hurry up and clear out so that someone else could get their selfie sorted.
memory and regrets
There are many other examples. And I know I already sound self-righteous and supercilious, so I will stop going on about how I’m better than other people because I don’t take photos. Because the truth is, sometimes I wish I did. Sometimes I feel sad that I haven’t any photos in my house, not even of my family. Sometimes I worry that I will have nothing to look back at when I am (very) old and can no longer travel. Sometimes I am hugely grateful that other people do take photos, and that these days, what with WhatsApp and icloud and google drive, their photos get uploaded effortlessly onto my devices.
However, I have a theory that sometimes photographs replace memories. Do you know that delightful frisson you get when you are prompted to remember something you had not previously remembered; a memory that you know you have not ever replayed? Like when you say a word you know you have never said before. Well I love that feeling. And I have noticed that with the trips for which I do have a few photos, my remembering of those trips tends to become compartmentalised into a neat filing system, each memory attached to one of the photos. Until, after a few years, the whole trip is summarised by a handful of photos. I am less likely therefore to have a ‘surprise memory’; to be lying in bed and suddenly gasp or grin at the lightbulb that’s just fired off in my brain, illuminating an ancient unrecorded moment. And of course I also revel a little bit in the secret smugness of a totally private memory that no-one else can access.
I don’t like taking photos. I’m no good at it, but I also don’t like the way it interrupts occasions and orchestrates moments. I don’t like having to worry about expensive equipment, or spending evenings sorting through, deleting and editing. I dislike the way that photos are always just a little bit showy-offy. But most of all, I hate the way taking a photo takes you out of the moment, and projects you forwards into a future where you will show, or store, or print that photo. With the, albeit, skeuomorphic shutter-click, the immediacy of the present is shattered, and questions of intention, narration and communication arise. Even more so when the equipment is also a phone, with the omnipresent alerts, banners and beeps which make it all too tempting to ‘just …’
For me, the point of travel, especially when it’s outdoors and in nature, is to escape from technology, modernity and screen time; to switch off from social media; to stop recording, appearing or presenting, and simply to be.
When a view is so stupendous that I feel I need to do something to be able to take it in, I sometimes make a frame with my fingers, and make a concerted effort to really imprint that view on my retina. I remember doing that once in the Ngorongoro crater, when a Thomson’s gazelle paused in front of a rhino, which stood in front of a line of pink flamingos, which fringed a blue lake, which nestled under a rim of mountains, which loomed under a roiling grey sky. You see, it really worked!
And irony of ironies, here’s a photo my friend took of me doing just that on a snowy walk in Scotland last December!
Aside from the fact we all know that excessive screen time is damaging for mental health, my interest in the wilderness is primarily for its therapeutic value. Time spent outdoors on a prolonged journey creates emotional and psychological space which allows for freer expression, unclouded thought and the gentle unfurling of one’s psyche, in tune with the pace of natural world. For me, the wilderness is a healing space, and in a therapeutic setting, I think it is important not to have everything recorded. To be able to offer an idea up, to air a thought, to shoot the breeze and not have to stand by it and interrogate it.
walking and talking
The fluidity of a conversation held whilst walking is vastly different to one held indoors. On a walk, distractions are welcome, rather than rude. A topic can be dropped, looped or picked up at any point, members of the group can fall back, join in or branch off as they wish, and the passing landscape can serve as a moving inspiration; literally inviting us to breathe in, speak our truth, and move on with lightness. Walking, we roll with the landscape, moving at a slow and intimate pace. Through talking as we walk, we get to know the shape of our own psyche as we experience the lie of the land. Maybe we experience ourselves as wild and natural beings too, moving with freedom and simplicity across the surface of the earth.
Once, in a deep conversation on a long walk with friends, I was asked what I would do if I knew there’d be no judgement. I said I’d have a sex change. Later, when the conversation moved on to speaking of future goals, for each goal I mentioned they asked whether I would be a man or woman at that point. I was frustrated because I didn’t want everything I later said to be coloured by my earlier statement. I didn’t want to have to be held to it. I had just wanted to say it out loud, just once. For the record, I don’t want a sex change. But in that moment, I sort of felt like that might be something I’d do, if it were easier and the world would look upon it disinterestedly. To be able to speak freely, and to move through an emotion, and breathe, and speak again and change one’s mind is surely the essence of a healthy therapeutic practice. One’s life surely does not need to be coloured by every utterance. It would be unbearable for each moment to be captured, to be used as a reference point, a marker of progress.
pinned and wriggling
I am reminded of a stanza from my favourite poem, T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
How can we begin to get to the essence of our wild nature if we are always pinning a photo to our wall, checking in, noting down, posting up? We cannot just ‘be’ if we are always engaged in the process of narration, creating and curating our lives while we are meant to be living it.
As part of my work, I take groups of teenagers on expeditions to remote communities in Africa, and they are not allowed to bring their phones. Initially, they are horrified. By the time the trip is underway they relish the freedom and rediscover other ways of being with their friends. Afterwards, they are reluctant to get swept back into their digital lives and recognise the ill-effects of their prior addiction.
The addiction to social media which sees every experience recorded, liked, shared and commented on seems a weighty trapping to bear. We are weaving ourselves a burdensome web, under which many are suffering. Is it not better to live lightly on the surface of the earth; to be tethered and yet malleable; to live with a lightness of memory, rather than an attic of artefacts? As the anti-stuff movement gathers momentum, surely the day is to come when we realise that a post, a comment, a like, a photo, no matter its cyber credentials, is just another layer of stuff under which we are burying the real treasure.
For me, hiking the High Weald Way and taking photos of the views, updating my facebook page each day, writing a weekly blog post from my tent would be anathema and pointless. I would learn nothing about myself or the environment, because I would not be immersed. I would have one leg always in the projected, public, potential world. And my experience would be handicapped by the split.
However, these days, most of my walks are ‘work’, in the sense that I am doing a recce, leading an expedition or facilitating a journey for customers. And a large part of my work in these early days is necessarily telling people about what I do. In order to raise awareness, I need to start marketing, advertising and publicizing. In short, I am going to have to commodify my experience of the wilderness, which goes strongly against the grain.
I am realising that in order to publicize my work and spread the word about wilderness therapy, I really need to be taking photos, running a slick Instagram account, and posting regularly on social media. You might have noticed that I have started doing some of these things, under the guidance of some tech savvy millennials. But I want to tell you that it really sticks in my craw. It does not come naturally to me, and I have to make a conscious effort to remember to take a photo when I’m somewhere wild and beautiful. I don’t own a camera, I have never taken a tablet or laptop on a trip, and until this year, I didn’t used to take my phone either.
questions and apologies
So, how do I grow the profile of wilderness therapy in the UK so that more people can access such interventions without a heavy reliance on photos or technology? Will my blog posts and articles gather dust if not augmented by awe-inspiring pictures? Will I be welcomed to speak at any conferences without accompanying slides of appealing images? Is it possible to attract followers without an active Instagram profile? Will anyone believe I did an extreme hike if there are no tent-front selfies to prove it? Can I chart my progress without a social media presence? Is it worth having an experience if no record is produced? Is it even allowed, in these post-‘Wild’ days, to do a long-distance hike and not write about it?
I am sorry that my photo collection is growing, that my phone is now in the handiest of pockets in my rucksack, and that I am adding to the noise on social media with posts, pictures and even this blog article! I am truly sorry that I am snapping, grabbing and commodifying nature, and using it to try to attract customers. I am embarrassed by my posts and emails and updates. I hate that I have to advertise. Most of all I am sickened by the irony that since I became a ‘wilderness therapy facilitator’ I have spent more time in front of a screen than ever before.
In my defence, I really really believe in what I do, and what nature does to us when we do put down our phones and get out in it. And I hope that makes all this worthwhile. Maybe I haven’t got the balance right. Perhaps in time I can calm down on the social media and enjoy the natural rhythm of growth in the industry. Or maybe I should just suck it up and make my peace with it all like everyone else has had to do.
The one thing I won’t ever do is take a wild selfie in front of a beautiful landmark, I can promise you that!
Please comment below if you have any ideas or suggestions.