It’s my worst addiction. More pernicious than my attachment to caffeine, TV as background noise or squalid post-gym binges with a monster pack of Kettle Chips. My impulse to document every aspect of a holiday with my camera phone has become all-consuming. And my ability to enjoy travel in the moment is under threat.
On a recent trip to Colombia, I realised how bad things had got. I was out in the country’s hot, isolated plains with a small group of intrepid travellers. We had found shade under breadfruit trees. Our tour guide was roasting the haunch of a bull on an open fire. Local cowboys were playing the harp for us.
I was fixated with recording this wonderful experience on my camera phone. Only I’d run out of memory. Instead of just taking it all in, I spent the next five minutes with my nose in my phone, frantically deleting apps to free up space. I managed to get 10 feeble seconds of footage before the music ended. I then sat back down to eat my food. It had gone cold.
My behaviour on this front has been out of control for some time. You know those people who pre-visualise success before a speech? I don’t do that. I pre-visualise holiday outfits as social media posts. And you know it’s getting ridiculous when you and your friends take exactly the same group selfies on holiday, swapping between each others camera phones – then like each other’s identical Facebook posts. The result is this strange, self-affirming echo chamber of face spam; a hall of mirrors meets the EU Referendum.
I recall scoffing in history class at the ancient traditions of royal dinners; that nobody could eat until the king broke bread. Yet now when I’m on vacation, I never consume food before my camera phone. Even when it’s dark and the flash makes my soup look disgusting, I take photos. I’m indiscriminate.
That doesn’t stop others annoying me with their camera habits. Don’t get me started on smug couples. Yes, you’re having such a fabulously romantic moment together on your weekend break that you thought you’d pause it, pull in a passing stranger to take a picture then stamp it with #relationshipgoals, before pressing play again.
And what’s with those people who walk up to art in a gallery, take a photo, then immediately walk away without looking properly?
My childhood holidays could hardly have been more different. My sister and I would have a disposable camera each. They were so wonderfully goofy: the tiny square hole you had to squint through; the sullen, anticlimactic click that made you doubt for a moment that you’d really taken the shot. Until you got the photos developed, how they’d ‘come out’ was only a slightly interesting mystery – like how long your tan would last before it cracked, or what would be for tea.
With the rise of the digital camera, I took more photos, but with a fun, scattergun carelessness. My earliest Facebook travel albums – backpacking through the Middle East as a student – resemble catalogues for buildings with subsidence, what with all the wonky shots of monuments. The photos of people are no better; more blurry faces than an episode of Crime Watch.
And remember when we used to upload photos to Facebook in bulk without even bothering to go through them properly? I have an album from 2008 with 10 photos of the same Spanish church ceiling. Back then, there just wasn’t the pressure to make everything look professional.
So I wonder how I got to this point. How to describe the uniqueness of the social media era? Oneupmanship is too puff-chested a word. It’s a gentler, drippier pleasure that I’ve slowly become addicted to. Watching all those photo ‘likes’ flash on my screen has become one of the small self-affirming pleasures of being on holiday – like Bucks Fizz for breakfast or slowly watching my skin turn a deeper brown.
There’s a darker side though. Instagram has turned personal travel into something for public consumption. Our holidays only carry weight if we can crop, filter and airbrush them into hashtaggable art. One well-documented weekend break can buy us hundreds more followers. The most precious and interesting minutes and seconds of our life have become assets in an e-popularity contest.
We can’t heap all the blame on social media. I also think we’ve become so fixated with photos because our culture no longer values the power of memory. Cicero used to learn seven-hour speeches by heart. As a child, I kept all my friends’ telephone numbers in my head. These days my brain feels like a limp-muscled prima donna: yawning contempt for details; useless with map routes; hasn’t done a sum since 2006. Little surprise then that I just don’t trust myself to retain full technicolour memories of my most thrilling travel pursuits.
So what’s the answer? Brain exercises? Tours that ban camera phones? Or just deleting one’s social media accounts in a noble, belligerent act of online suicide? I’m not sure, so I’ve started small.
Yes, I can still waste time agonising over which photo filter to use for a picture and #nomnom all my holiday food. But I now also squirrel away secret travel moments. I write them down in a notebook. The emphasis is on the non-visual: the sound of the wind, like ripping silk, on my favourite cliff in Cornwall; the heavy, smutty fragrance of a jasmine garden in Hyderabad I recently visited.
I never photograph these moments. I savour them as they come with a full, wholesome deliberateness; it’s like very slowly chewing on delicious food. I then write them down at the end of the day. They are not tools to impress and dazzle with. They are just bits of my past, incoherent and gleaming, like fragments of glass. They are mine to share with nobody.