“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” – Cyril Connolly
Generation Y, Millennials, the MTV generation – whatever you want to call it, I refer to the increasingly not-so-young ones who grew up with the age of the internet and continue to fully embrace the ways of the future while holding on to a perceived sense of superiority over those who came before us (and definitely over those who come after). Digital natives who, when it comes to communication, know better than our parents, and are proud members of the we-were-here-first club, perhaps not realising that this ‘back in my day when there was dial-up’ sentiment makes us more like our parents than we’re prepared to admit.
Growing up in pre-Internet times, today’s late 20- and 30-somethings well remember a time of postcards and written letters, licking stamps and having an actual address book filled with the homes of our family and our closest friends. We remember waiting a day or two for our photos to be developed, and slotting our photos – glossy or matte – into the complimentary photo albums they came with. It is because of this that we know the value of receiving something in the mail, or holding something in our hands. It is perhaps in spite of this that we fail to hold on to the traditions of our earlier years and instead dedicate ourselves obsessively to the present, and to the future.
When I studied photojournalism in polytechnic, our lecturer insisted on SLRs – there was no room for digital in his class. Acknowledging it was the way of the present and the future, he also insisted that a true photographer needed to know the struggles and joy of working with prints. You didn’t always get infinite chances, you had to frame your photos before you took them, and you had to keep in mind your meagre student budget when printing your photos. You didn’t know if your photo would come out as intended, and even then, you had to choose carefully. There was beauty in the hands-on process of developing your negatives and your prints, hanging them up to dry, and being proud of the work you had captured and created from start to finish. It wasn’t instant; it took time, and you had to make it worth that time with your effort and your ambition. We were the last cohort who would learn photography that way; this was in 2006, and by 2007 the school had gone entirely digital.
Today, the average person’s photography is less art and more documentation of a moment. Moments, really. Many, many moments. We barely send emails and we dread phone calls, never mind taking the time to write and send postcards or letters. Documenting our travels comes down to a caption, a tweet, a Facebook post. Older generations are suspicious of our frequent and seemingly insincere oversharing, younger generations fortunately distracted with SnapChat or whatever those crazy kids get up to these days.
Looking back through years of adventures and stories thoroughly captured on social media, it’s easy to only remember what we see in the photos, and to get in touch with posts instead of postcards. Too easily forgotten are the misadventures, the bad days, the scandalous stories we don’t want or need our parents and friends to see, the hard lessons learnt, the grit and grime that might be swiftly scrolled past amid the stunning scenery of everyone else. Is there room for authentic travel and storytelling in today’s social media sphere?
MAKE IT FAST, MAKE IT LAST
Lest we forget what it is to live in a new land without thought or concern for how good our Instagram photos look or to know and to learn the history behind it, I’ve begun to practice some hopefully productive ways that allow both real-time capturing of moments while adding to long-term memory making and meaningful travel.
Rather than the usual #POTD #blessed #wanderlust travel photos, take a bit of time to learn about the place you’ve captured, and tell your audience what you know. Instead of just #NeverForget, share useful facts or details with your Auschwitz photos. It isn’t just the iconic divide between Europe and Asia in Istanbul, it’s a site with no shortage of geographic facts and cultural differences available for you to share. Heading to a rural province in China? Plenty of Did-You-Know opportunities to gather and share.
Your fantastic and thoroughly filtered Instagram shots don’t have to be just pretty or creative photos; they can be a diary of information and experiences that you’ve acquired along the way. Perhaps to the handful of followers you have who care about more than the aesthetic value of your account, there’s something to be learnt, too.
If you are in fact too dedicated to the pleasure of your audience – and for this I hold no judgement – consider a private or secondary digital account for your eyes only. I’d like to think a physical travel journal or diary could come in handy, but the realities of today have so drastically changed how we operate, it might be worth starting out working with what we know and already love to do so that one day, we’ll have more than perfectly edited photos to remember our trips by.
And isn’t that the point of travel – that long after we’ve returned, our experiences are available to us as long as we, or in this case our social media profiles, may last. The beauty of being alive today is that we have the power of the internet to help us capture the moments easily forgotten, the facts that hit home hard, the knowledge we acquire and are then obliged to pass on and to share.
And while you’re at it, grab a couple of addresses on your way out. Everyone loves a good postcard.