You Can't Download This - When You Absolutely, Positively Have to be There

Years ago I was in the Dallas airport making a connecting flight when I saw an ad for American Airlines depicting a couple watching a dance performance. The ad did not say where the dancers were, but they looked exotic; if I had to guess I would say they were in Asia somewhere. Underneath the picture was a simple caption: “You Can’t Download This.”

The ad’s implication is clear: if you want to experience a beautiful dance performance in an exotic, far-away place (or anything else), you have to get off your butt and go there (preferably by flying American). In a world where information, images and videos of almost anything are easily accessible, humans have not been able to recreate the experience of actually being somewhere else, let alone the ability to photograph something and experience it at the same time. In that sense travel photography is very retro, very 18th Century.

George Ball, a former president of the American Horticultural Society, recently wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal about celebrating the arrival of spring by working on his garden. Like travel in general or travel photography in particular, the best way to experience spring is by physically being there.

You cannot access the season’s magic on your laptop or smartphone; you cannot watch it on TV or simply read about it. If you wish to apprehend spring in its ineffable splendor, you have to show up in person, with every one of your senses engaged, and personally participate in this annual miracle.”

The same applies to travel photography. Despite the hassles and frustrations and (sometimes) indignities we must endure when we travel, the only way to capture and experience a subject is to be there. There are no shortcuts, no apps, no pill, no downloads.

 Couple amid trees and flower displays, Keukenhof Gardens, near Lisse, Holland

The media-dependent world in which we live may offer convenience, efficiency, and instant connectivity; but it does not offer the best stuff. Let’s go back to Mr. Ball:

What’s lacking in this man-made galaxy is everything that matters: beauty, love, magic, mystery, grandeur, rapture, the miraculous. Not to forget poetry, delicacy, refinement, purity, splendor, intimacy, innocence, fulfillment, inspiration. And then there’s nuance, drama, poignancy, integrity, harmony.”

I could not have put it better myself.

Now get out and shoot something.