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If You Don’t Take A Photo, Did It Even Happen?

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By Jessie Festa. This post on travel photography contains affiliate links to trusted partners.

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately, especially as more social media apps and sites dedicated to photo sharing pop up.

While I’m not into selfies — I’ll take the odd one when I’m traveling solo and I’d like a picture of myself with a certain background — I will fully admit I’m obsessed with documenting every moment of my life via photo.

I remember when I first started backpacking, how I would keep a very detailed journal. It had to be detailed because if I even forgot to mention a single moment of the day, I would become overwhelmed with anxiety.

I’m not joking that sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping as if waking from a nightmare as I realized I forgot to write down what I’d eaten for lunch, or a conversation I’d had with a local. Slinking as silently as possible through my hostel dorm to my backpack, I’d shimmy out my marble notebook and begin writing scribbling addendums in the margins furiously.

After 9 months of travel, I ultimately decided that journaling made me lose too much sleep, and gave up on journaling. Today, however, I turn my fascination with documenting my travels to blogging.

Taking the odd selfie on the Inca Trail. Photo courtesy of Jessie on a Journey (obviously!).

For those who read David Sedaris, I loved in “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” (which, by the way, is my favorite book by him) when he talks about his laptop being stolen. Sure, he was upset about the actual computer, but what really got him was that his hand-written journals had been transferred to the machine. Basically, years of his life were “stolen.”

I’d printed out my diary through September 21, but the eight weeks that followed were gone forever. “Two months of my life, erased!” I said to Hugh.

He reminded me that I had actually lived those two months. “The time wasn’t stolen,” he said, “just your record of it.”

This was a distinction that, after thirty-four years of diary keeping, I was no longer able to recognize. Fortunately, I still had my notebooks, and as soon as the police left, I bought a new laptop and sat down to recover my missing eight weeks. – David Sedaris

From there the passage, titled “Day In, Day Out,” ensues into knee-slapping, blue-in-the-face comedy as Sedaris attempts to decipher his chicken scratch and nonsensical notes, but you get the point.

While I’m sure many people read the above text and thought, “Wow! This guy needs professional help!” I completely identified with him. Memory can be a fragile thing. I put so much effort into making my life as full of enriching global experiences as possible. What if I forget one, or some — or all of these experiences? What if one day my memory ceases to be, and all that I have left are my notes and photos to prove to me that I actually was this particular person.

This is how I feel about photos.

Now, I don’t think most people are that neurotic — or maybe they are; however, I do feel as though people have grown more into taking photos, whether they be selfies, Instagram shots or just pictures to paste (or upload, as I guess it’s the 21st century) into their photo album.

This is especially true in travel.

While I do think some of this is part narcissism and some is part trying to make our friends jealous, I also feel people almost think if they haven’t taken a photo of an experience, whether that be a meal, a kitten sighting or jumping out of an airplane, it didn’t really happen.

Taking food photos helps take me back to delicious meals on the road. Here, we have farm-raised rattlesnake and cactus fries with prickly pear jelly in Sedona, Arizona. Photo courtesy of Jessie on a Journey.

For me, it’s also about re-discovery. You ever look at a photo from years ago, something from a really fun, unforgettable night… that you seemed to have forgotten all about? That is, until you found that photo that brings the rush of positive feelings back, the sights, smells and sounds of biking through Bogota, prom, football games, learning to make soba noodles in Japan, driving around in your friend’s conversion van, hiking in Taiwan, making up dances to Destiny’s Child, road tripping through Hawaii.

At times, I feel as though my neurotic photo-taking is a positive thing. Because I take so many pictures, chances are at least a few will come out great. Moreover, as a blogger, I’m always in need to images for posts. Plus, Instagram and Pinterest are my two favorite social media channels to use.

But there are cons, as well. When you spend so much time behind your lens, switching between your GoPro, your Nikon D5100 DSLR and the various apps on your iPhone, you miss out on certain moments. The moments that aren’t being captured on film. The small ones that may seem inconsequential on their own — the way a local orders their coffee, an artisan making a handicraft, the way a street artist squints at their work from across the street — but all together can help tell the story of a place.

Riding a mule along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of Jessie on a Journey.

Take just this morning for instance. I was at Arizona’s Grand Canyon, taking a mule ride around the rim. As I was opening my ProHDR app to capture a photo of the fog moving over the Canyon and over burnt pine branches, the group shouted in unison: “Coyote!”

“Where?!” I asked, popping my head up from my digital world.

It was gone.

There’s another side to this coin, however. The one I mentioned earlier. When entering the park the day prior, I had actually seen an enormous coyote crossing the road. I wasn’t quick enough with my camera, and by the time I had it ready, the animal was gone.

So, did I really see a coyote? Or does the experience become erased as quickly as my photo-less memory?

Is anyone else as neurotic about photo-taking or documenting as I am?

About Jessie Festa

Jessie Festa is a New York-based travel content creator who is passionate about empowering her audience to experience new places and live a life of adventure. She is the founder of the solo female travel blog, Jessie on a Journey, and is editor-in-chief of Epicure & Culture, an online conscious tourism magazine. Along with writing, Jessie is a professional photographer and is the owner of NYC Photo Journeys, which offers New York photo tours, photo shoots, and wedding photography. Her work has appeared in publications like USA Today, CNN, Business Insider, Thrillist, and WestJet Magazine.

Jessie Festa standing in front of grafitti wall

Hi, I’m Jessie on a journey!

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  1. Brittany McFee on at 3:32 pm

    I’ve been inspired by this blog. It’s true, it feels like when we take pictures while we travel is like capturing a moment and taking it with you through the years. You can go back to it and reminisce to it anytime.

    • Jessie Festa on at 12:56 pm

      @Brittany: So true. Looking back you almost FEEL like you’re back in that moment sometimes.

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