Travels without my camera - San Francisco

Spend all your time looking through the lens of a digital camera and you may as well be anywhere. Besides, your photos are probably rubbish

As I finished my shambolic, chaotic last-minute packing for San Francisco, I heard an amused 'forgotten something?' from behind me and turned to see my wife dangling my SLR by its strap with the wry look of a woman who is about to watch an entire suitcase repacked. But I shrugged nonchalantly and replied that, no, I hadn't. She gave me a very odd look - and with good reason.

When it comes to being a camera-toting, binge-snapping shutterbug, I'm a regular David Bailey without the looks, talent, lovers or money. I've dragged a series of long-suffering cameras from the depths of New Guinea's jungles to 20,000 feet up in the Himalayas and from the Western Ghats to Easter Island, taking just-about-passable photos wherever I tread. I have shoeboxes and CDs and hard drives and websites full of pictures. And why? Because somewhere, deep down in my subconscious I believe that you hadn't really experienced something unless you'd taken a goofy picture of it.

But, living in London, you see a stream of camera toting tourists posing for endless dopey Thameside set pieces and you start to think...that, seen through the eyes of a resident of New York or Bangkok or Buenos Aires, that tubby mid-westerner blocking the pavement on the South Bank is you. So, like any self-respecting addict who's had a moment of clarity, I decided to try a spot of cold turkey. Next time I went away, I resolved, I'd leave my camera at home.

I selected a trip to San Francisco for my digital detox for a number of reasons. Firstly I wasn't there for that long. It was a work trip and I'd tacked three days' holiday on the end. So, if life without a lens was a living hell, it wouldn't be a long one. And, secondly, I wanted a true test of my mettle, a beautiful, photogenic city. That is, it's not much of a challenge if you leave your camera behind and go to, say, Tulsa or Middlesbrough.

Once stateside, I soon realised, SF was a tougher challenge than I could have imagined. From the straight-up grandeur of the Golden Gate to the calligraphic chaos of Chinatown, from the Tex-Mex melee of Mission, to the venerable Victoriana of Nob Hill, California's hipster capital is a very lonely place without your digital camera. And it's not just the beautiful stuff that begs to be photographed either, it's the crassness and kitsch too: the pirate themed cutlery shop called 'Here be knives,' the hick tourists posing for their obligatory Golden-Gate-in-the-background shot and trying so hard not to be discomfited by the adjacent gay couple...Believe me, when you've just quit smoking, you can smell tobacco everywhere.

Moreover, I started to notice how many other people were taking photos really badly - dammit, I was just itching to jump in and say 'No, you don't want to do that...' For instance there was this guy desperately trying to take that perfect but perfectly dull-photo of Alcatraz. Yet just to his left a grossly obese couple were walking a pair of greyhounds in front of no less than three fast food outlets. It was a great all American shot, yet it was also quintessentially SF (for they were lesbians). And here my man with the flashy Olympus was, squandering his energies on replicating a postcard.

Worse still, for someone trying to get the photographic monkey off his back, temptation was everywhere. DIGITIAL CAMERAS - ONLY $39! screamed a sign; I have to admit, I was tempted... Or how about a disposable camera? Just the one, go on. Or even the camera in my phone? I found myself reaching for that several times. But the pictures are so awful it's no substitute - a bit like drinking cough syrup when you really want heroin.

So, as you can imagine, by the time I reached the cheesy (yet, like everything else, beguilingly photogenic) tourist trap that is Fisherman's Wharf I was twitching and sweating like a 70s rock star after a few days in Saudi Arabia. But then a funny thing happened. I walked up to one of the crab stands where a tiny Vietnamese woman was scooping her bodyweight in steaming red crustacea out of a giant kettle with a wire net. Mentally I framed her and…stopped.

Then, I went and bought a tub of claws from her and we had a bit of chat about how cold water crabs are the tastiest. That was it; she was really nice. I'm sure if I'd jammed my camera in her face she'd have been just as nice, but this way, well it was just an ordinary transaction. I mean, I know that tourism is now the biggest industry on the planet and that we're all to some extent providers and consumers. But nothing turns you into an oafish comedy tourist like a camera. Taking photos of people might not steal their souls, but it does take the soul out any human interaction.

The next day I headed over to Angel Island state Park, a glorious spot 30 minutes out in the bay, yet totally wild. After yesterday's apercu, I expected an easy ride. But no. When I asked directions to the island's peak, Mt Livermore, the park ranger replied, 'Continue straight up for a couple of hours. It's real pretty up there - great views if you've got a camera.'

Maybe she had a point. Maybe (Socratically speaking) the unphotographed scene is not worth seeing. Yet, when I got to the top of Mt Livermore quite the reverse was true. A pair of golden eagles were wheeling on the thermals over the bay. Unless you have a £2000 zoom lens, there is no point whatsoever in trying to take a picture of a bird. Fact. So while those around me clicked away madly for photos that would only ever be black dots, I enjoyed the eagles for what they really were.

On my last day, I went for my final and toughest test. I would cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge and then get the ferry back. Well, by now it was easy. I barely thought about my camera, not even when others were 'using' all around me. On the ferry, a girl asked if I'd take her picture. I dithered (after all, wasn't this like smoking a stranger's cigarette?) but then I realised no, it was more like lighting it.

When she asked if I wanted her to return the favour, I replied that I didn't have a digital camera. So, this being California, she gave me a sympathetic look and said that if I gave her my email address she'd snap one with hers and send it to me. At this point, I gave myself over to a higher power and told her: 'No, really it's OK. I haven't bought one because I'm trying to remember things the way they are.'
    'Oh wow, that's a really cool idea,' she replied in that cute and endearingly guileless American way that makes you think the British sometimes mistake sarcasm for sophistication.

But is breaking the cycle of digital dependency really a cool idea? Is it really OK to pooh-pooh a harmless pastime that brings so much pleasure to millions? On balance, I think it is. As we've already seen, when it comes to people, the second you whip out your camera, you relegate someone you've been talking with on equal terms to the status of a tourist attraction. And that's not nice. However, rather annoyingly, people usually make far more interesting photos than scenery. Does anyone not know what the Grand Canyon looks like? And what more will your twelve dozen near-identical snaps tell them?

Which brings us to a couple of post-point and shoot points. Without the cost constraints imposed on them by film, people take many more photos than they used to; they have lost the ability to discriminate and churn out a stream a stream of indistinguishable jpegs. Yet thanks to the ubiquity of digital retouching software, nobody takes really amusingly awful photos anymore. Instead, almost everything looks a bit like the out-takes from that ad campaign no-one quite remembers.

Worse, unlike their predecessors, these 'precious' memories don't languish forgotten and mouldering in shoeboxes in the attic. Rather, thanks to sites like flckr people feel obliged to send out endless barely-distinguishable-from-spam emails inviting everyone they've ever met to gawp at pictures which look just like everyone else's; it's as if the boring home slide shows of the 70s have moved into cyberspace.

Anyhow, a few days later I arrived home. Friends asked me if I had any pictures - this being the polite, modern way to express interest - and looked curiously relieved when I said no. But when they asked me about my trip, I noticed how much more vivid my recollections were, how more I had to say and how much more interesting it all seemed; unencumbered by a camera, my memory had become, well, almost photographic.

The old proverb that 'a picture is worth a thousand words' is thought come from a 1920s advertising slogan. And, back then, when pictures were far harder to come by it was probably true. But nowadays there is nothing that hasn't been photographed a thousand times. Next time you go on holiday try taking fewer pictures and bringing back more words.

    

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