Why I Prefer Words to Cameras

When my friends go on trips for fun, they spend most of their time taking photographs. Cheaters, I say. Why go anywhere new if my camera is going to do my observing for me?

Cameras are indifferent observers. At most, they capture shadows. They are blind the full tapestry of experience, which includes not just sights and sounds, but temperatures, scents, and textures. A camera can never grasp my thoughts and feelings either. I prefer journals.

I have journals that go back decades. The year after I graduated from college, I took serial vacations to Myrtle Beach with my brother. While walking along the pier, I would write in my head. As soon as I got back to the hotel, I would record my observations in my journal. I wanted to describe everything from the foaming wave tips to the cigarette embers left glowing in the sand.

Maybe someday I would need an ocean scene for a story. If so, I wanted to remember the beach exactly as it was, the jellyfish strewn along the shore, the hotel lights shimmering on the ocean, or the chill in the air as I ate a blueberry ice cream cone. If I ever forgot those details, I would just consult my old journals, my reservoirs of experience that I hoped would inspire me whenever I needed them.

A couple of weeks ago, however, when I went to New York, I tried to write in my head the way I used to. But this time, words failed me.

I felt so bombarded by cars honking, vendors yelling, and pedestrians screaming into their cellphones that parts of my brain went offline. Writing in my head was impossible. It was all I could do to get from one place to another. I felt like I was missing most of what was going on around me.

I needed a separate pair of eyes to look at the city while I navigated the crowds. I wondered whether I should re-examine my aversion to cameras.

A camera is never afflicted with sensory overload. It is fast and easy to use, whereas word-wrangling can take hours. A camera can clone reality whereas my memory is prone to hazy distortion.

A camera reproduces the most intricate tableaus in an instant. Yet it never has to worry that its audience will lose interest. A viewer can easily absorb every visual detail without a thought. Unlike reading a novel, watching a video requires almost no work.

A camera never “marries the fly” either—a common writing error according to Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. Writers who “marry the fly” emphasize all of the wrong things. They focus on boring, irrelevant details and distract from the content that really matters.

For example, a writer who is describing a wedding might suddenly lurch into a wild digression about a housefly that lands on her drinking glass. The writer tells everything she knows about the fly: its wingspan, its weight, its early history, its anatomy, and its food preferences. Her pen unfurls reams of text about the fly. All the while, the story has come to a standstill, and the bride has been relegated to a footnote.

A camera would never marry a fly. But if it did, it would get away with it. No matter how many superfluous details a photograph presents, the viewer is rarely—if ever—annoyed by them.

Given all of the advantages of using a camera, I wonder how many travel writers still use words alone. Mark Twain did. He wrote voluptuous descriptions of his life as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. Maybe a present-day Mark Twain would have just made a YouTube video.

What would a YouTube video by Mark Twain be like? Would it convey his humor, his wit, and his biting narrative voice? One way or the other, it would not be the same. His memoirs allow me to read his mind in a way that a camera never could. His prose traces the contours of his unique perceptions, revealing a Mississippi River that was his alone. Through no other eyes—including the lens of a camera—would it have looked exactly the same.

Art is more than showing reality as it is. Otherwise, why go to the trouble of painting or drawing? You could just snap a photograph and get the same results. Art is art because it expresses the artist.

This goes for writing, too. Writing captures more than its subject. It simulates thoughts. It reveals a personality. It expresses a point of view. Thus, reading fiction by other writers lets me escape my narrow vision to explore thousands of perspectives from people who are different from me.

I will admit, though, that cameras have their place. Photos can be—and often are—art. Sometimes they even inspire me to write. They are also an excellent resource for research and a way to verify the accuracy of my memory.

But when I visit interesting places, I am still inclined to keep my camera in my purse. I want to enjoy exploring a shore or a park, which is hard to do if I am fretting over what to record. If a point of interest becomes just another place to aim a camera, I am not really engaged.

Snapping photographs might be efficient but it is a poor substitute for seeing. To experience the world in its unframed glory, I have to lower my lens and just look.