Why I Stopped Snapping Photographs

A few years ago, I stopped bringing a camera on vacation. It has been an amazing experiment and I haven’t regretted it once. Traveling to a foreign country without a camera feels like that reccurring nightmare of showing up to school with no shoes on. At first you feel unprepared, naked and as though you are missing some of the greatest photo opportunities in the world. It is scary but you have to be brave.

Soon, you relax and realize you are actually seeing the greatest photo opportunities in the world. And, instead of digging through your pack to grab a camera, turn it on, and unconsciously freeze all the light in front of you into a small digital file only to be dumped onto your computer then Flickr page, you are actually, well, thinking about what’s going on. (Ok, so my girlfriend/travel buddy is an amazing photographer and brings a camera or two which puts me at ease, but stay with me on this). Taking a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, for example, seems ridiculous. There are millions of photos of the Eiffel tower. If I were to take my own photo, I doubt I could pick it out from a crowd. By drawing though, I would spend about 25 minutes looking at the Eiffel tower, rather than 1/30 of a second, burning it into my brain rather than the digital sensor.

I know this sounds heavy-handed but I encourage everyone to try it on their vacations. I’ve substituted photograph making (like a smoker would use chewing gum) with a notebook and pens. Every time I feel the urge to take a photograph, I pull out my notebook and draw the scene. I’ve learned a lot more about the places I’ve been and, in every country I’ve traveled to, this method usually created a mob of children around us in any public park. These interactions have been some of the best cultural travel experiences I’ve had, beating any and all museums in the world.

Of course, I learned this method of substituting the pen for the camera from two of my heroes. Jason Polan, the amazing artist who you may know from his New York Post fame as the man who is trying to draw everyone in New York has been a huge influence on me. His ability to capture scenes in just a few lines is an obvious talent that lies not in his hands, but in his ability to see (more posts on Jason in the future). Maira Kalman is my favorite living artist. Her painted blog for The New York Times brings me to my knees and proves not only her amazing mind, but her ability to understand and communicate a message through a combination of words and painted images.

Below are some scenes from the sketchbook I took to Vietnam last summer—scenes I had a distinct urge to photograph but drew instead. Looking back at these drawings while planning our next trip, I’m flooded with memories and environments rather than accurate depictions of where I was. Of course, I also look at my girlfriend’s photos a lot, to remember what it actually looked like.

UPDATE: Just realized this entire post was an unconscious plug for Print’s Hand Drawn Competition. Submit!

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16 COMMENTS

  1. A terrific and satisfying article, thank you. It makes me burst with the need to mention my Hero with a Pen, Frederick Franck. Particularly “Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing” (1993). His gestural responses to passing humanity are sublime. That sounds like a small thing, but it is altogether exceptional.

  2. Thank you so much for the post! It was nice to read this now, in Hong Kond, as I try to resist the urge to take pictures of this wonderful city. Instead, I write down smells, record sounds and, of course, draw what can be seen beyond the camera frame.

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  4. i like what kristina said.  seeing as how my illustrative skills make the author of the article look like rembrandt i could stand to have a few well composed pictures as oppsed to the hundreds of snapshots that never get sorted unless the mrs. comes up with the motivation to do it for me.

  5. I disagree.  To take a true photograph you have to study all the same elements you would discover when sketching, and then manipulate your equipment to capture the light the way you choose to see it.  It is a true artform.
    Now, if you are just snapping away will-nilly, well that is something totally different, and I can see how sitting down and enjoying the world around you would make a difference.  But there is a huge difference between making a photograph, and snapping a snapshot.  
    Maybe next vacation you should bring your camera along, decide you can only take 3 or 4 pictures at each place or in each city, and then really compose and think about what you want to capture.  You’d probably be a lot more pleased with your photos, and you’d probably feel that same sentimentality looking back at your experiences in those places.

  6. Hi August – really good post.  I share a similar experience – but without the ability to draw!  I was a professional agency photographer travelling internationally for 14 years.  When I decide to concentrate on business management – I hung up my camera and consciously did not take pictures.  It was actually a fantastic experience to take in the moment – without feeling responsible to create a photographic record.  I can still remember my son taking his first steps – and not feeling the inclination to say “can you do that again – just one more!”.  During my time as a photographer I took pictures of amazing people and events – but I treasure the memories that I’ve consciously recorded in my minds eye.  These days, I am doing a little more photography … but enjoying recording some video (with my wife editing together). Thanks again for the post – it jogged some happy memories!

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  9. Wonderful to read your piece here and recognize deeply the value if seeing and looking and then drawing. An invaluable way to visit and document your travels and observations. See my blog if you get the chance. Drawingontheworld.blogspot.com. Douglas Wittnebel

  10. I love this idea! I would still take my camera if I decided to do this, even though that would defeat the whole purpose.

    A few months back, when I went to DC, I decided to take notes & photos to remember certain moments. Once I returned home, I turned my weekend vacation to DC into this 15-20 entry blog full of stories. That was pretty cool.

  11. Agree with Jamie. Really looking and feeling what surrounds you is just not the same. Since a few years I do not take my camera with me and try to be lucid… rembering what I saw and how I saw it. Indeed drawing is even better to acheive this! Which I could draw as fast as you ;) @ August: Great post!

  12. these are great drawings!! i agree, though i still take my camera…packing my sketchpad and mini travel watercolors are essential!! i find that being somewhere new is refreshing for my work and often gives birth to entirely fresh ideas! great post. i wish everyone could read this.

  13. The value of sketching is evident when I look back at an image. Even years later, I remember the sounds, smells and interactions because I ‘stopped’ and became immersed. I didn’t just snap and move on. Great post.