Travel + photography doesn’t fix everything

Do you travel to get away, or to get there?

Recently, Light Chaser and I have been corresponding about why we travel.

I was reminded of this post by Jodi at Legalnomads and sent the link to Light Chaser to remind her. The post by Jodi is about long term travel not being able to fix everything, and I thought, that sounds familiar. Years ago, I took some time off from work to travel Bali, thinking I needed to get away for some quiet time. Recently, I traveled to Bali again, but for different reasons–not to ‘get away’ but to be there.

Travel for me used to be a way to get inside my head and de-clutter; I wrote to a friend that I travel “to get away from my nine to five when it becomes too loud with worry that I can’t hear myself.”

I went away to listen, to remove the white noise that is other people’s needs, and find the voice that’s mine. Some of us need very little really, to be happy. For a few people, it’s just a lot of silence and space, time to make photographs and write. But sometimes in a default existence, I get caught up in work that is separate from my passion; more and more of this dislodges me from myself, and I float, an untethered balloon full of nothingness.

That’s when I want to get away. Being away brings a new reality. It reminds me of very early memories when every thing I learned seemed momentous, bright and shiny things I could gather and hold close to examine.

I’m not a sophisticated traveler. I don’t have the brave body of people who climb volcanoes or ride on rooftops of buses. Yes, I’ve been stuck in a European country because of an ashcloud from a volcano eruption, but hey, I was in Paris. Being stuck in Paris did not make me suffer. True, I was caught in a flash flood in the Philippines, an adventure full of floating refrigerators, and cars afloat above city streets, and ignorance about potential water born diseases. And yes, I lived in Bangkok, the center of several coups d’etat and colorful politics. But the closest I got to the burning of Bangkok was through Twitter apart from the days when the redshirts were still partying at Rachadamnoen Road. No, I’m not the Indiana Jones type of traveler.

What I did have, though, was a camera. Back in the days before mirrorless and light cameras, I lugged sixteen kilograms of equipment across all sorts of terrain, and I built my travel day around making photos. Light chasers understand this: that when I’m with my camera, composing images that tell stories of places, nothing can touch me. Words cease. You could speak a whole dissertation to me and think I am the rudest companion; the act of making an image fills me, engages me beyond any other experience.

This is flow, a state when a person is so engaged in something that time and space seem to disappear.

The problem is, you can’t stay in flow indefinitely. When I return to reality, I realize a few things.

Not everything is beautiful.

With the camera in front of your face, everything is a matter of design. The chaos of lines can be organized into a composition using other things, like point of view, values of light and dark, framing. As a photographer, you can move and things get a little bit more harmonious in the frame. Not so in life. Moving around a problem, I can’t recompose a better image, I only postpone dealing with a mess. I can’t freeze moments that are beautiful and take them out when things get ugly.

Broken car, Brodie California.

Light doesn’t change the way things are, just the way they look.

If the light is bad one day, a photographer can always pack up and go somewhere else, then go back to the landscape when the light is ‘right.’ But in life, things don’t always look better in the morning light, or at sundown. Sometimes things look the same for days, weeks.

You can’t Photoshop it out.

In Photoshop there’s a Clone tool, and it helps the photographer get rid of distracting spots and other things in the image. You just sample one area of the photo, then click over the area you want gone. If only it were that easy for the little things that distract us in our lives. Countless times I’ve wished for a clone tool to stamp out the little demands that keep me away from creative work.

The closest I’ve come to complete irresponsibility is traveling, especially alone. I love to wake up earlier than the sun, feel the nip of dawn air as I hurry out to Kusumba to catch the sun rising over the fishing village. There is no schedule, there are only images to make, people to study, expressions to savor through a viewfinder.

You can’t just crop stuff out of the frame.

Similarly, you can’t just crop. Things in my life crowd into my focal point and want to be in the line of sight. No matter how messy, how utterly unphotogenic something is, life doesn’t have selective framing. Unwanted elements seem to find their way into the experience, and I just have to deal with them.

Your batteries run out at some point.

Nothing frustrates a photographer more than being unprepared with extra batteries, and there are lots of pictures left to make. On very good days, one can shoot thousands of photos and have to change the camera battery once or twice (especially with the early digital Nikons, whose batteries lasted less than a thousand shutter clicks when I used a Vibration Reduction lens on them).

I work a lot, seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. I have to; if I don’t I can’t do this photography thing and the other things I have to do. So I plod along, and most of the time, I get enough sleep and have time to watch a movie or read a book from cover to cover, for pleasure.

Other times, I feel like I’m standing on a barbed wire fence, looking out over a vague landscape, and although my hands hurt from clinging to the barbed wire, I can’t let go or I’ll fall off.

It’s not that I’m into self-inflicted pain though others would argue; I just have obligations to fulfill, and I also have a passion that feeds my soul. I cannot run out of batteries, because I must always find strength for one or the other.

We can travel far, far away from where we once were. But we carry with us the same compositions of life, within. Travel isn’t really about escape. At times, it can be about facing the stark reality of our lives without the layers of noise. It can be a mirror to look at ourselves in a most real light.

When I wrote to a friend a week ago after we had wrapped up our Bali trip, and I said, “the Balinese are so talented at balance, and that was something you needed, and something I craved. So here you are again, ready for more surprises. I hope the basket stays on the head, even when you’re dancing.”

Maybe I was also talking to myself.

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