Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jan 25 2013

Traveling as One’s Self

I was re-reading what I consider Kirk Tuck’s best post ever today, in which he gets to the meat of things in a way few people have the guts to utter:

“I had always traveled with, first my parents, then my college girl friend and finally, with my wife. And in all those scenarios photography takes a back seat to the social appeasement of travelling with people and spending time with them. You might want to wander aimlessly but the other person or people you are travelling with might have an agenda. A list of museums to visit and stores to shop in. Try as they might they don’t really understand your desire to walk around, stop, turnaround, click the shutter, walk ten feet and then do it all over again. Friction arises.

If you want to do photography at a level that really satisfies your soul and your ego you’ll need to do it alone. Forget having the spouse or girlfriend or best friend or camera buddy tagging along. Forget the whole sorry concept of the “photo walk” which does nothing but engender homogenization and “group think.” Learn what makes your brain salivate and why. Make your decisions based on what your inner curator wants you to say.

None of your non-photographer friends will understand, and that’s okay. Your real photographer friends will either be jealous or nodding their heads in appreciative approval because they’ve been there. When you see the world unfold in front of you, unencumbered by the social construct of the group, you become freed to see differently and make different decisions about what you’ll photograph and why. In the end you’ll come home with intensely personal photographs.

Many of you will throw your hands up and complain that you have kids and obligations and can’t possibly get away by yourself. Others will whine that “their spouse would never let me go to Paris without them.” But you only get one life. If you have a spouse like that you might think about a quick divorce.”

Lately, as the group of (six!) people with whom I am going to be traveling next month make their plans and itineraries for the trip, I’ve been recalling vacations I’ve taken. Inevitably, the best parts have been stolen moments, little stretches of time when I managed somehow to get away from everyone else, to just Be. To look, without the weight of a schedule or obligations or the incessant “What’s next?”, “Wait up!”, “Hurry up!”, “Where’s so-and-so?”, “Where are we going?”, “What are we going to eat?” etc. To not have to act and interact and guess about niceties and other people’s expectations. To just Be:

1. Walking the streets of Sydney around the harbour and along the Yarra River in Melbourne in 2002.

2. Doing the same in Shanghai in 2006 before boarding an overnight train to Beijing. Eating breakfast in the dining car as the outskirts of the city flashed by.

3. On my Okinawa trip in 2007, getting off the ship and into town on my own, just wandering amongst the alleys and streams. Even when it started to rain, everything just shined, as if electricity were running through it.

4. Pretty much my entire trip to Tokyo in early 2008, still my best trip in memory. 12 days on my own in a completely unfamiliar city, knowing none of the language, even dealing with rain, sleet, and snow at times. My follow-up trip to Osaka and Kyoto later that year was also good, but somewhat lessened by personal issues.

3. In Paris, when my traveling companions decided to go into the Louvre, and I walked out along the Seine.

4. In Spain, driving from Madrid to Granada as they slept, and then in Sitges when we wandered independently for a time.

5. Taking a train from Tokyo to Yokohama in late 2009, a brilliant day, just as the leaves were turning.

6. In Malaysia, when I somehow managed to leave everyone else behind on a winding road in the highlands where the hills are covered with tea plants, on a brilliant afternoon. I stood alone on the empty road, just drinking in the sight, smell and feel of the place.

7. During my trip on Xiamen, going up on deck by myself as the ship left the port and watching the city slide by.

8. On my trip to the US, wandering around downtown San Francisco just after sunset, and also renting a car and driving from Lexington, Kentucky to Lexington, Virginia.

When I read my accounts of my travels, it seems that when I am with a group, my writing become even more boring (if that’s possible), full of “…and then we went____ and then we had____ and then we went…”, because I wasn’t open to what was going on around me. You could say it’s horribly self-centered of me, but in my defense, I think it’s because it wasn’t really me experiencing those things.

Let me explain: Though I get frustrated at not being able to be as open as I can to photographs when I am with a group (“like being guided through paradise with a blindfold on,” as Tuck says), I should note that this isn’t necessarily about photography; it’s less about how many pictures I get or meals I enjoy than it is about what satisfies me to the very core of my being. I don’t particularly like going somewhere specifically “to shoot”; I find it terribly limiting. And it isn’t even about exotic locations either; I had a similarly enjoyable walk just the other day after our company’s end-of-year dinner. I walked out of the Westin Hotel and took a series of alleys I’d never traversed, just a few blocks over to where David Chen was playing in a bar off Linsen North Road, but it was still a great walk.

I’m not sure exactly what it is inside me, that urge to go a certain way, to turn a certain corner, to explore certain places over other places, but it’s deep and strong and old. Are we not, after all, defined by our choices? It’s as if that path is me, a la the songlines of the Australian aborigines, a relic of the millions of years of walking that our ancestors did. Or perhaps it was simply a largely friendless childhood or having moved so many times that drove me towards such things, or even common frustration with being in an office all day. But this isn’t about denying myself such pleasures as the occasional donut; denying these compulsions feels like denying my own self, i.e., I’m not me when I don’t do those things, if that makes any sense. I’m not anyone. Paul Theroux hints at the same, though coming from the other direction: “You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back,” he writes in Dark Star Safari.

“Go this way,” this mysterious authority whispers, but only when I am alone does it enunciate; when I am with others it is most often silent or confusing in its signals, and at any rate I would be unable to explain it to anyone else’s satisfaction. “What are you looking for?” others may ask, but it’s not what I’m looking for, it’s that I am looking. It is as satisfying to follow it as it is frustrating to deny, or worse yet, to be deaf to. There is no logic to it. I may find myself taking photos, or not; it doesn’t matter. For as long as it lasts, I am there.

posted by Poagao at 5:22 pm  


  1. Very nicely written. feel this way when I do tai-chi on the river in Bitan. Being in the moment, to use a well flogged terminology, not grasping and not letting go.

    Comment by Rod Hill — January 25, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

  2. Only partially correct to say that your non-photographer friends can’t understand – at least this one can appreciate the unique perspective of solitude, free from distractions. Oddly enough, the more satisfactory my social relationships, the more comfortable I am spending large amounts of time alone, and certainly those are the conditions under which the best work is done.
    In the end, I suspect that understanding is all just a matter of degrees………..

    Comment by zhara — January 25, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

  3. Well, those were Kirk’s words, not mine. But I agree that the quality of social relations far outweighs the quantity as far as I’m concerned.

    Comment by Poagao — January 25, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

  4. Our trip to Matsu didn’t make your list?

    Comment by Prince Roy — February 13, 2013 @ 4:47 am

  5. That was different. I had a great time, but it wasn’t really the solitary wandering that I’m walking about here.

    Comment by Poagao — February 27, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

  6. Zhara, I think you are lucky enough to have the kind of friends who understand that aspect of you, particularly your husband. It can be horribly restrictive if that’s not the case, and there is literally no way to communicate this to the other party in a way they will understand without taking offense of some kind.

    Comment by Poagao — May 7, 2013 @ 11:12 am

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