Photography: Experience Versus Expectation

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

I’m still six weeks or so away from my end-of-semester vacation to Budapest and I’ve already compiled a mental list of the must-haves. I’ll be packing a week’s worth of clothes, those 99-cent toiletries you find hidden in the back corner of a pharmacy, a few cynical books on media theory (yes, I read them for pleasure), my running sneaks, two iPods, a travel guide book, avocado flavored lip balm and, most, importantly, my camera. And all this got me thinking about the last few class discussions we’ve had in Mark Crispin Miller’s Media Criticism course.

After reading Daniel Boorstin and Susan Sontag, I’ve been reflecting on my own photographic pursuits. In the spirit of their arguments, I’ve asked myself whether photographing is, in fact, a narcissistic act. I’ve asked myself whether my emphasis on capturing the travel experience sullies the experience itself (or detaches me in some way). I’ve asked whether photography is or is not an art, meaning does it actually take talent to capture the images I capture? When someone tells me “you have an eye for photography,” what the hell do they mean? The short answer to all of these questions is: I don’t know.

However, a light bulb of another sort did go off. As we’ve continued to critique our culture of images, I’ve begun to realize why I’m particularly anxious about my upcoming trip: I have no memory of ever seeing an image of Budapest. In other words, this trip is clean slate and I have no expectations. Photography has a strange way of embedding preconceived notions about people and places. We expect things to look and act a certain way, and live up to a certain image. Isn’t that part of the appeal of online dating? You know what you’re getting into beforehand and you’re provided with a visual, an expectation. Essentially, I’m going on a blind date with Budapest, which is a rather foreign and mildly frightening thought.

When we visit somewhere new, regardless of whether we expect greatness or squalor, we harbor an expectation of some sort. Our experience in a new place is malleable; we mold the experience to suit the narrative of our expectations. We expect Italy to have great pizza, so we dine at the pizzerias. We expect New York City to have the most jaw-dropping skyline, so we take a tour to the top of the Empire State Building. When we go somewhere tropical, we conjure up images of crystal clear water, so we book the hotel by the ocean. What does one do when they have no images to go by?

Everywhere I’ve traveled to has either surpassed the expectation of the images or left me feeling disappointed. For example, when I saw Milan’s Cathedral (duomo) it failed to live up to the images. Standing before the gloomy structure, I couldn’t see much beyond scaffolding and rows of hideous pigeons. Sometimes seeing an image draws you to something that really holds little to no value. I remember walking 30 minutes out of my way in Brussels to see the tiny pissing mannequin everyone photographs. On the other hand, my image of London (foggy, dirty and rainy) had lowered my expectations to the point where I was enamored with the city after experiencing three sunny days, clean streets and polite people. While the photograph can make subjects look good, there are other times when it cannot do the subject justice. After returning from the Grand Canyon, I was disappointed with my photographs, rather than the experience. The images failed to capture the true expansiveness and awe of the National Park.

Without knowledge of an iconic structure, historic park or storied cathedral, I wonder how it will impact my experience of being there. I can’t picture a popular food or festival. And I have never met a Hungarian before. If I can resist images just a little while longer, I may have a more authentic experience there, with no neatly packaged narratives, no checklist of tourist traps to see and no expectations to benchmark. But is this authenticity or ignorance? Again, I’m not quite sure.