Selfies and selfie sticks are just as indispensable in everyday travel as insta-girls and their boyfriends. The shutter-release button is pressed and instructions are given until the look, hair, outfit and sight in the background are perfectly arranged and placed. I particularly noticed this in Thailand. And I was wondering whether the couples, because of sheer insta-perfectionism, could even see what was going on around them.
Ko Sichang, February 2020 – She smoothes out the green dotted dress. Turns. Turns again and comes dangerously close to the edge of the cliffs above the sea. The game starts all over: She turns right and left, this time holding her dress’ hem in one hand and her straw hat in the other. Laughing, the young woman runs towards her boyfriend, who is standing a few meters away with his smartphone, taking pictures of his girlfriend posing in the evening sun. She shakes her head, points to the display, straightens her hair and runs back to her spot on the edge of the cliffs. The sun continues to approach the horizon. The couple has meanwhile changed positions, is now sitting next to each other and is taking selfies. I wonder if they see how the sky turns orange, yellow and red, how the evening light makes the sea appear increasingly dark blue. Whether they feel the wind on their skin, taste the salt of the sea and hear the sound of the waves below them. When the sun finally kisses the horizon in a magical moment, the day turns into night on Ko Sichang, the two have long disappeared.
I think, no, I’m convinced that Instagram and the selfie culture have changed travelling. When visiting Morocco 2018, there were women in white, tight clothes, with big hats and bright red lips on smelly tooting camels at 30 degrees in the dusty Sahara Desert. To me, that sounds about as logical as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with full diving equipment. In my four-person tour group through Machu Picchu in Peru, we had to stand in line for 30 minutes so that a couple – like so many others – could take a selfie on one platform with a great view. In Chiang Rai, a woman blocked the only access to the white temple for about five minutes so that no one else could be seen in her photo.
Tooting camels in the desert
They can all say they were there. Can post their photos on social networks that look like so many others – only with other smiling faces in front of a famous background. They were “there” – physically, but also mentally? I wonder if they sensed the magic that makes all of these places, and it is very different from place to place – or if they just write it in captions, because all of these places just have to be magical somehow. I wonder if they can remember the feeling of what it was like to sit on the rocking and tooting camel, if they felt the sand on their faces or just the blurred makeup, if they also felt this tingling in the stomach area and had goose bumps when walking through Machu Picchu or only because they can finally prove to the world that they have ticked another item on their to-travel list.
As I sit there watching the couple in the sunset, these thoughts go through my mind and I wonder if I do it the same way. After all, I don’t often leave the hostel room without my camera, always keep an eye out for a special moment that is worth taking a picture of. But I don’t think I just discover the special, unique moment. Rather, I have to walk through the streets with much more open eyes, perceive my surroundings much more carefully, try out different angles and positions in order to capture the moment as I perceive it so that I can tell a story with my photo. To do this, I have to observe situations and people, communicate with them, immerse myself in my surroundings. And often I find it just exhausting to approach people, to always be friendly, to overcome language barriers with gestures, to look for the perfect motif. Then I sit down in a café, put the camera away, concentrate on myself for a while. Usually the camera stays in my bag for the rest of the day. But even then I still collect pictures. Those that I hold in my head for myself and that I can tell about later. I admit: I had to get there first.
Memories remain – even without a photo
One day, my Spanish teacher Alex in Chile onverted our lessons into an excursion. At our first stop near Puerto Montt, I was inattentive for a moment. The camera fell out of my hand, the focusing screen loosened from its anchor, taking pictures was impossible for the rest of the day. So I stamped my foot angrily when we discovered little foxes on the way up to the Osorno volcano. “Now I have no camera,” I told Alex, was saddened by my misfortune and that I wasn’t able to capture this beautiful moment. “Hey,” he said, looking at me encouragingly and putting his hand on his heart: “This memory always stays with you.” He is right. I can still see the little fox in front of me, laying there curled up into a ball in the sun and happily slumbering. This experience has shown me that I don’t have to photograph everything – even if it’s not an easy task for a photographer. It’s so nice to just watch people, animals, scenes. If I like the scenery, I can usually come back with the camera if I feel like it. And if not, then it just remains a memory in my head.
Tears of laughter
At the end of this text, here comes my favorite insta-girl story from Morocco, which I experienced together with my friend Sandra. When we talk about it today, she still laughs so much that she’s crying tears of laughter, she can barely breathe and cannot speak for a few minutes. So: Almost two years ago we were in Marrakech together – by the way, an Insta destination at its best. In the Jardin Majorelle, which was created by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, there are a number of photo motifs based solely on the colors, flowers and mosaics. The mosaics also drew the attention of an insta-girl. With a determined step she approached the stone bench set into the wall, placed her bag right in the middle so that no one else contested her photo space, and straightened her hair first. A scrutinizing look in her pocket mirror, a few instructions to her boyfriend, and zap, she moved herself into position. Her boyfriend was obviously trying to get a good photo. He walked one step to the side, one to the back, another to the back and… after the third step we could guess the inevitable… fell into the fish pond behind him with a loud splash, in which the goldfish were swimming excitedly back and forth. He was soaking wet, he heroically held up the camera during his fall and saved it from the water death.
We stood there petrified for a short second, then looked at each other with eyes wide open (I will probably never forget Sandra’s face at this moment), ran around the next corner and then started to laugh out loud. In the previous days we had made too much fun of insta-couples going extraordinary length to get the perfect photo. Incidentally, the insta-boyfriend was fine after his fall, no injuries, and people who were standing right next to the pond immediately helped him out. Just making sure that noone accuses us of failing to help here. But I admit: It is an unfortunate shame that I didn’t capture this moment in a photo…