Opinion: Photography has ruined travel

Opinion: Photography has ruined travel

Our obsession with capturing every experience through our cameras is sabotaging our memories, not enhancing them

When concert pianist Krystian Zimerman stormed off stage this week because an audience member was recording him through a camera phone, he re-opened the debate on the pros and cons of camera-phone technology. Our senior producer wrote about this topic in 2011 -- here's the piece again. Let us know what you think in the comments.

There's an addiction that has passed unnoticed into modern society, threatening to ensnare the minds of everyone reading this article, and more.

It's creeping up on reasonable members of the civilized world, turning us all into beaming, giggling fools, our faces locked into clownish grins and our brains distracted at the slightest click.

The bane of 21st-century life is the phone camera, a product of such technological prowess and immediate convenience that no one would blame you for “just trying it.”

But one click leads to another; if you don’t like the first hit you delete and try again.

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Before you know it you have 300 pictures on your phone comprising beaming, giggling fools, plates of food and cats making funny faces and you have succumbed; you have been dragged in; your life is now defined by images on a handset and the same goes for all your friends.

A menace to memory

The real victims of this click-happy menace are travelers.

Not just the travelers who hope to see a spectacular waterfall in Chile only for the view to be blocked by hundreds of beaming addicts, but also those camera-phone addicts who are themselves travelers.

Because much like the wretch who drinks to be happy, the snappers are deluded: they think their photos are creating memories, when in fact they're sabotaging them.

I was one of them.

My junk was the real deal. Class-A stuff, the cocaine of the photography world -- the digital SLR.

With this oversized device I felt confident. I felt virile. It made me feel superior to the beaming, giggling amateurs fumbling about with their pathetic phones and small, flaccid point-and-shoots.

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It took an epiphany for me to kick the habit.

I was diving in Thailand, when a whale shark emerged from the gloom. I snapped away at the beast with my underwater apparatus for the few minutes of air I had left, then returned topside to high-five and celebrate this potentially once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As I scrolled through the 100-odd pictures I had, I realized: they were all I had.

My memories are framed by the 2x2-inch blurry screen of my camera. Not once did I look up to see the fish with my own eyes.

whale shark As the whale shark passed by, the only view I got was through my camera.

Trapped by technology

The problem runs much deeper than a small camera addiction too. The technological age has trapped us inside cotton-wool cages.

Just over a decade ago there was no Google to point you to the nearest café. No satellite technology connecting you, via your phone, to a computer to an ATM to the nearest hotel.

When people traveled, they got off the plane and explored. They asked people, real people, where to go for a great night out, not some kind of Stephen Hawking robot girl inside your phone.

Sorry, Siri, you’re not my type. Great fun for profound philosophical inquiries, but when it comes to places to get good dim sum, “25 alternatives within half a mile” is such a turn-off.

On the other hand: iPhone photos like you've never seen

Too often the Internet search is a first resort rather than a last, a shortcut that, at least for travelers, gets us to the end while bypassing the means. It's the destination without the journey.

So here’s a challenge: get lost. Seriously.

Next time you’re in a new town, ditch the phone. Disable your GPS. Close your eyes, point, then open them and walk. If you need to find somewhere, ask someone.

Even if the place recommended by Real Human is a dive, takes you for US$15 a beer and gives you an intestinal worm, at least you get a good story.

At least you’ve traveled and explored and discovered, for yourself.

But in fact the place recommended by Real Human is far less likely to be a disaster than one randomly suggested by an algorithm.

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Getting lost is something to be embraced, not feared.

That’s when you discover the cafe with the bubbling soup served by cats in bowler hats that somehow Lonely Planet (or even CNN Travel) managed to miss.

Far more fulfilling, I think, than the perfectly efficient evening of hotel-restaurant-hotel, courtesy Google Maps.

What do you think? Is technology enhancing or ruining travel? Leave a comment.

If you must take photos on your travels, check out these articles first:

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Durston.

First published November 2011, updated June 2013

As senior producer for CNN Travel, James commissions stories, writes for, edits and manages the homepage of the site. 

Follow his Twitterthing here: @jedurston

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