Direct travel experience versus photography storytelling

Being a photographer, researcher, and keen traveller at the same time, often puts me in a difficult situation. Seeing an exciting scene, my natural instinct stubbornly prompts me to take my camera out and start shooting. But then afterwards I realize, that it makes me poorer in fully experiencing the event. Even the widest camera lens considerably limits one’s scope. By focusing my attention on the camera’s viewfinder, I put myself on ‘the other side of the camera’ – like the future spectators of my work. By doing this, I deprive myself of the direct, fresh and instant encounter with the situation I choose to document. How far is it possible to create an engaging series of photographs and at the same time fully experience the situation? Or is it always about some kind of compromise?

How do we experience a situation of a travel, a visit to a new place? We do it by our five senses: we see what is around, we hear the sounds, we smell, we can taste (if we decide to eat or drink something) and we feel through our skin: if we touch, if we feel the heat or the cold, or the humidity, or tiredness, or the breeze, or the sunshine etc. When I travel, what I remember most is what I feel in my skin. I lie on the beach on a sunny day, squeezing warm sand in my hands, feeling the sunshine on my face and a slight breeze on my skin. This is the memory I want to ‘freeze’, capture and re-use once I am back in cold, rainy London’s morning, waiting for a train on my way to work. These elements are obviously combined into complex interrelationships. The variations are endless. And it all combines into dynamic sequences, as these experiences are happening over period of time, with fluctuating conditions, and constantly changing impression and interpretation of what is going on.

Whenever we use any of the technologies to capture this experience, we start to ‘translate’ it into different language, and it always is a huge simplification. Having thought about it, especially having visited so many wonderful places, I felt completely impotent when it comes to sharing this experience with my family and friends. As a result of this realization, I started to collect a growing number of non-existing images. Situations of amazement, so often experienced when traveling, deeply engraved in my head, but without an attempt of any physical ‘translation’. Situations I might speak about, and try to give some justice to the complexity of the experience, describing not only what I have seen, but how I felt, if it was a pleasant experience or not, what was the most intense sensation.

Sometimes taking a photo might be simply impossible for various reasons, even if we are willing to take one. In September/October 2012, I was in the Colombian jungle, climbing Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on my way to the Ciudad Perdida, Lost City from the extinct Tayrona culture. On my way, I was interviewing some Kogi people, who live in the mountains. Kogis and Arhuacos are descendants of Tayrona, they both wear traditional white clothes and beautiful, dark, long hair. As I was there, there were many situations which I wanted to photograph, but I did not. Sometimes, because I was too slow to take out my camera. Sometimes, because I was too amazed seeing what I could see, which paralyzed me from doing anything else. Other time – and this is the most common reason I regularly collect non-existing photographs – because I was too intimidated to take the picture. Sometimes it was a question of protecting my camera in extreme weather conditions. Sometimes, it was a combination of all the reasons.

An example: I climb the mountain, sweating more than I could ever imagine I would, feeling really tired, and wondering why my backpack weighs more and more with every step I make. It is the same morning when two people get bitten by a scorpion, and an elderly Kogi man I interviewed warns me about the number of snakes in the area. I got into the trans of the walk, not feeling much more but the monotonous rhythm of my steps: left, right, left, right. I am surrounded by a tropical forest, a very dense flora of the jungle. Suddenly I am thrown out of my meditation by an unexpected scene: a Kogi family, parents and two kids, all dressed in white and all barefoot, cheerfully run down the hill to energetic rhythms of bachata, flowing from a small transistor radio the father of the family carries on his shoulder. I stop in amazement to watch that. The bachata and the barefoot jog was so surreal, that I didn’t even reach for my camera.

Non existing photographs are very personal and very subjective. We all know people who build up on their memories so much, that the imaginary parts melt into the real memories to the point, that after a while it’s impossible to tell them apart. That’s how the legends of one’s past emerge. We become stronger/weaker, older, more or less resistant, and a long walk might seem a short stroll after a while, or a five day trek in a jungle – an impossible physical task. Also, the question of objectivity and subjectivity comes into importance here. What might seem a lovely place for me, for example a great adventure of climbing in the jungle, admiring the abundance of nature, for some of my friends might seem a nightmare full of snakes and unnecessary physical exhaustion. Also – a regular trip to Colombia, a beautiful and welcoming place, for someone fearing the dangers of so-called third world, might be a synonym of insecurity and threat. These subjective emotions are also part of the non-existing photos, but you cannot include them in the real images. Or at least it’s a very hard task.

I would argue there is no way of creating satisfactory translation of the richness of travel experience in any known medium. It might well serve as a memory preserved in the image, but it will never replace the complexity of all senses of the direct experience.

Agata Lulkowska is a photographer, filmmaker, and Researcher of Indigenous Cultures of Colombia, pursuing her practice-based PhD at Birkbeck, University of London and regularly exhibiting her photographs in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bologna and other places in Europe. Central point of her research is the power of the visual media to create meaning.


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