Snap less, see more: overcoming cellphone photo mania

  • Article by: PETER MANDEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2014 - 3:57 PM

With the mania of cellphone photo-taking on the rise, one traveler chooses to power down.

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This is Scotland, and I am tasting Scotches. Very fine ones, in fact. I should be happy. Even giddy. But there’s a problem. I can’t even see the drams — much less sip any.

Smartphones have suddenly sprouted like shiny bamboo shoots. People in my tour group are elbowing me out of the way.

A man wearing tweed is hopping as he snaps, which blocks a taller man behind him. I watch the tall guy drag over a chair and begin shooting what has to be a hawk’s-eye view of the scene. There’s a woman with not one but two phones happily clicking away.

Is the Duchess of Cambridge here? No, what the flashes are highlighting is, well, whiskey. Images of a desk clerk pouring. Pictures of a drink.

As quickly as I can, I grab my camera, set the settings, flip on the flash, and — for reasons I’m not sure of — something makes me stop. Just this once, I’m not up for battle. I slink over to a plate of scones.

What’s going on? The single-malt shot: It will not be mine.

Everyone else will snag much better images than I will. They’ll be grabbing Facebook traffic the very second they post them.

I will drink my unrecorded whiskey in obscurity.

When it comes to taking photos, I almost always try hard. I dance a samba the minute I’m lucky enough to reel in a good shot. But every once in a while, I have an intrusive thought: How many tidbits from a vacation does a traveler need?

I’ve started to think that snapping strings of 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’s captured.

What makes a man hold up his picture-enabled iPad to block out his real-life view of a squadron of sun-bright parrots in Brazil? What causes a woman in a safari jacket to pose for a series of self-portraits? When it’s sunset. In Kenya. When a brushfire tints the sky. When there are giraffes — softly bending — only a few yards away?

Why do people point lenses at unphotographable rain in rain forests? Or snow on top of ice on top of the Arctic Sea?

I’m the first to admit: Whether it’s a Facebook post or a blog, words look a lot more polished when they mix with pictures. Colors are a fast and fashionable crowd. A sentence skulks around in horn-rimmed glasses. So I get that hotshot photographers are proud. They can spot us amateurs coming, and they suppress a smirk. I know just what they’re thinking: No fire in our bellies. No guts. No decent equipment. No game.

And when push comes to shove, I realize that they’re right. That 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. Too busy poring over a map. Too busy wiping my brow.

It might be simple jealousy, but lately I’ve felt a secret, giddy relief when I enter a place where pictures aren’t allowed. Is it a tropical garden in Burma 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. Unruly lakes of gravy, hills of mashed potatoes? Do not sculpt. Here comes my knife.

Can you find flavor in a photo? Can you sniff it? Roll it around on your tongue? In these moments, I no longer want to try.

Suddenly I’m free — not just from forests of clicking cellphones — but from the temptation to pull out my own. I can concentrate, not on things that might be worth recording, but on the things that aren’t.

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