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Put Down the iPhone and Feel the Sand in Your Toes

Photo by the author

PIctures of people taking pictures of pictures. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

(Craig Campbell)– Lately, my Facebook feed has been filled with reports from enthusiastic travelers on countries visited, monuments seen, and foreign food consumed. Long posts wax nostalgically about the planet’s many beautiful places, and it seems almost criminal not to post hundreds of photos from the trip.

I’ve been asking myself, in recent weeks, what distinguishes a journey from a vacation? The latter—travel for its own sake—is an inherently privileged activity, and it’s clear that our privileged society places an implicit premium on “well-traveled” as a personal descriptor. Given his or her experience in a foreign country, the “world-traveler” is perceived to have a superior understanding of culture and a heightened sense of international identity. In short, the well-traveled among us are better educated global citizens.

But how do we operationalize the process of ‘experiencing’ another culture? You’ll agree, I’m sure, that a four-hour layover in Heathrow does not count as the ‘experience’ of London. But what about an afternoon in the city? Or a week? What about a semester?

Last month, I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Despite the sublime, inspirational spirit of the Dutch master’s prolific collection of art, I found myself distracted by the hordes of visitors snapping iPhone photos of the paintings. As I wandered through the exhibit, I was consumed by one thought: why does this bother me so much?

This snapshot attitude toward travel—which can be observed at any major cultural attraction—flattens not only the image but also the experience of the image. By approaching novel visual stimuli through the lens of a camera, visitors allow the device to mediate their experience, distancing themselves from the actual object of focus. With photo editing (or, nowadays, filter-adding) the idiosyncrasies that define the original object disappear and the image is made the photographer’s own. The subtle textures emerging from the frame of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, the effect of the exhibit’s juxtaposition of paintings, the smell and feel of the museum—are all lost.

Mediating a mediation of a mediated image, at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

Mediating a mediation of a mediated image. Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, Berlin

Van Gogh’s body of work becomes a personal achievement, a token added to a sensory pocketbook. This ‘Gotta’ Catch ‘Em All’ mentality fuels a collector’s notion of travel. Coupled with the “Like” apparatus of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, this drives a commodification of experience. New places are no longer inhabited and experienced; they are accomplished, subdued, and archived to a hoarder’s trophy shelf. When someone approaches a scene—whether a city street, monument, or painting—with an eye toward its subsequent success on social media, one negates their presence in the place. With an increasing reliance on our virtual appendages (smart phones, tablets, GPS) we disappear, in degrees, from reality. While this phenomenon is also true of our use of consumer electronics and social media in general, it’s particularly conspicuous in travelers. When a tourist spends more time live-tweeting their visit, checking the number of likes on an Instagram photo, Google Mapping directions, and translating difficult phrases, they embody their digital avatars more than their actual person. Their presence, for all intents and purposes, is determined by its virtual representations.

Grindr Remembers the Holocaust

The boys of Grindr remember the Holocaust

Situated in the center of Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was conceived as an interactive monument by architect Peter Eisenman. In order to honor the memory of the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust, he devised an austere labyrinth defined by hundreds of rectilinear stone columns. Visitors should presumably lose themselves in the stone maze, proprioceptively immersing themselves in the memory of the tragedy to which it alludes. While I’m sure that this is the case for some, the exhibit also lends itself to play: when I visited in September, laughing teenagers were happily hopping from pillar to pillar, enjoying the maze from the view above. A clever blog, aptly titled “Grindr Remembers,” features a series of men on the gay meet-up app using photos of themselves in the memorial as profile pictures. In the context of this social media platform, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews is stripped of its memory, appropriated instead for its aesthetic appeal on that application.

I find that many students traveling abroad bring a similar mentality to the places they visit. For many, cultural attractions are relegated to convenient backdrops for photos. While the taste of Japanese sushi and the sight of Versailles are valuable in their own right, they remain at the level of mere visual and gustatory sensations. Mired in their one-dimensionality, these sensory snapshots fail to cross into the realm of true ‘experience.’

The key is interactivity, or experience that is constituted by multi-dimensional sensory engagement. Visual and gustatory, sure, but also olfactory, haptic, kinesthetic, magnetoceptic—the list goes on. The synthesis of these sensations allows for abstraction of sensory information. On physical, cognitive, and emotional levels, these impressions collect and build an experience, and are consequently integrated into a greater narrative. This is the process of discovery.

Photo by the author

“Masada’s Little Friends”

One morning last January when I was touring Israel, my dear travel companion and I woke up early to hike the cliffs of Masada, an ancient Judean fortress near the shores of the Dead Sea. After a beautiful mountaintop view of the sunrise, we returned to the base and turned our attention to the salty sand canyons below. We couldn’t find any discernable path and soon discovered that the cascading sand cliffs were surprisingly safe. With no pre-determined ‘script’ to our experience—no one and nothing telling how to perceive or navigate this phenomenal new space—we abandoned our shoes and phones and spent the afternoon playing in the sand. The endless canyons were visually exciting, but so too was the smell of the salty sea, the grains of sand exfoliating my dry skin, and the feeling of ludic buoyancy while skidding down fragile cliff walls. I’d never been anywhere like it and it’s likely that I’ll never return, but I experienced this place it in a way that was just my own. It remains, today, one of my fondest memories.

The process of discovery allows one to unmoor him or herself from the scripted memory and passive spectatorship that our socially mediated, hyper-visual culture encourages. When you are critical of your experience beyond the few facts spat at you by a museum exhibit, beyond photos of a monument or natural wonder that every other person who’s been there before you has also taken, you open yourself to a plurality of possibilities. With this genuine freedom of choice, your experience becomes your own. You cease to be a spectator and instead become a participant.

Interactivity implies interaction, some kind of exchange. When we take pictures, souvenirs, and culture from a foreign land, we must furnish something in return. Since we don’t have much else to offer, we should give our utmost attention, respect, and gratitude for the experience, for the awesome dizziness of being there.

About Craig Campbell

Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake.

4 comments on “Put Down the iPhone and Feel the Sand in Your Toes

  1. drperception
    November 5, 2013

    Craig, your point that, “The key is interactivity, or experience that is constituted by multi-dimensional sensory engagement,” is very well taken. You make it clear that in order
    to truly experiece a place, you have to give of yourself to that place. This means seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting with sensitivity and attention. So it makes sense that you worry about the iPhone lens distracting us from the due sensitivity and attention we ought to be opening ourselves up to.

    But just because we snap a photo with our iPhone or any other camera doesn’t in any way mean that we are automatically constructing a buffer between our consciousnesses and our current place. I too had the opportunity to visit the Van Gogh Museum (well “a” Van Gogh museum; the one I experienced was in France). The museum was housed in the old Assylum de Saint Paul de Mausole, the woodenplank-torture-chair-straight-jacket-ellenburstyn-evoking mental “hospital” in which Van Gogh “convalesced.” While in this horror of horrors looking at some of the most mystically beautiful brush strokes ever painted, I happened upon a frightening Dick Cheny-esque contraption used to restrain “patients” while bathing. It was this decrepit old bath tub, but you couldn’t see the bottom because over top of the tub was a thick sheet of wood with five small holes, evidently out of which the patient’s arms and legs were chained. Standing next to me and looking at this potential precursor to the modern water boarding station, was my art teacher (this was a school trip). Mr. Anderson shared my fascination that a man with such an expansive imagination had indeed been physically chained down in this cramped barbaric chamber. He suggested that I take a picture. So I took one; I took a “snapshot.” I was a tourist taking photos in a museum. But the reason I took the photo was because I wanted to try and capture that ridiculous juxtaposition of celestial post-romanticism and earthly barbarity present in the Assylum-museum. My point is that the photo can be a tool to capture the moment of engagement with art and place, it doesn’t have to be an impediment too such engagement. In fact, looking at the world through a photographic lens can offer a kaleidoscope of new perspectives on the visual composition of the world in front of you.

    The insistence that we make the most of our opportunities and engage with place is commendable, but automatically disparaging picture-taking museum goers is a gross oversimplification. Sure, there are some people whose experience is inhibited by an iPhone camera. But there is a substantial population that engages with place and wants to try and capture that engagement. You can’t ignore the beauty in that..

    • Craig Campbell
      November 5, 2013

      Thanks for your note–you make a good point. On occasion, I also make use of my iPhone’s camera in museums. I make broad, universal claims here to make my point, but I agree that a picture of a place (exhibit, attraction, whatever) is not necessarily an impediment to artistic, intellectual, emotional (etc.) engagement, but only that, with the increasing ease of use and access to such instant, social technology, it all too often is.

  2. Liya Rechtman
    November 13, 2013

    <3 from your "dear travel companion": I'm looking forward to more unscripted adventure with you in the coming weeks

  3. Pingback: (What they don’t tell you in) Steps to Study Abroad | AC VOICE

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