Photographs capture your memories. They’re how you share moments with people who weren’t in them. They give you something to keep.
But as I think of my favourite photos, I realise this isn’t quite true. There’s that photo of my mum as a child buried in the sand, the one of me as a toddler in the sink, the one of my great grandparents outside their house… They’re a way of sharing, but those will never be memories for me. Only images and whatever imagination has added. Whatever they meant at the time is lost on me now.
As for the places I’ve been…I like the photos of me with the people I’ve met. But the photos of the landmarks can be found online. And the photos of my discoveries miss the act of discovery.
You can’t photograph smell or taste. You can’t photograph the way your legs feel after running up steps and you can’t photograph that feeling inside when a view opens up that you weren’t expecting.
I’m thinking of Prague. The steps I’m thinking of lead up to the gothic cathedral. When I reached the top, the city opened up beneath me. One of the reasons I remember this moment so well is because I remember thinking: If only I had a camera.
The truth is, I don’t remember exactly what I saw, even though I remember looking for a long time, trying to absorb every detail. What I do remember though, is being glad that I was there.
If I had a photo, I wouldn’t have had that moment. I wouldn’t have thought so much about all that I was getting from that moment that a camera couldn’t. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much at the time.
When I have a camera, I often notice something, take a picture and move on. Without my camera, I was under no illusion that I could keep those places.
The funny thing is, I remember that trip so much more visually than any other, because I was so aware of each sight I couldn't capture. I remember how the life ring with the ropes perfectly framed that museum in Berlin. I remember the blue and pink pipes that looked like they were from a Roald Dahl story. I remember Dresden at night and the lampposts that looked like they were made from icicles. I remember the graffiti on the wall outside the hostel in Prague – the Mobius loop of trucks and tanks that spoke of the city’s continuous cycle through destruction and rebirth.
I remember the mirror at the bottom of the stairs in the Kafka museum that makes you feel like you’re falling upwards.
This is where I stop and see that by remembering, rather than looking, I have to access these images through the chain of memories surrounding them. That mirror in the Kafka museum wouldn't have been half as unnerving if the city outside had been bathed in sunshine.
Instead I’d spent the whole day walking through pouring rain with a heavy bag, no umbrella, nowhere to stay, and not a penny of the national currency. In this state, the strange architecture looked like it was clawing the sky and at last the twisted workings of Kafka’s stories made sense.
Other moments, like sitting on plastic chairs on an ugly concrete balcony outside a large hostel in Berlin, would never have made a photo at all. And yet drinking cheap red wine with Israelis and a German as he decided to raise the somewhat sensitive issue of genocide, was so much more memorable than sections of the Berlin wall arranged like postcards near Checkpoint Charlie.
So will I go without a camera again? Maybe in a year or two as my memories fade I’ll change my mind, but for now, no regrets. A diary is far more important.