The Instagram age is rewarding but we need a repository for our treasures, writes Pamela Wade.
As with so many things that loom large in modern life — sushi, emojis, karaoke, cat cafes, bizarre game shows — the Japanese were also well ahead of us with travel photography. Back in the 70s I remember seeing them pouring out of coaches to take photos of each other in the Square in Christchurch, getting just a section of cathedral wall as the background behind them as they grinned and made V signs. Then they would climb back on the bus and be driven away, Christchurch ticked off, heading to the next photo stop.
I mocked them for that, secure and superior in the knowledge that when I travelled, I would do it properly and actually connect with the places I went. And that is what I did do, a few years later. I think. To be honest, after such a long time it's hard now to remember the details of what I did, or any of those supposed connections I made. I have albums of yellowing photos and they are, quite frankly, dead boring.
Relentlessly frugal, I was never able to forget that every time I clicked the shutter, it cost me money, first for the film and then for getting it developed and printed, so I was restrained in what I photographed. Not for me the quick snap of street life, or quirky signs, or beer bottle labels. My subjects were carefully-framed scenes of natural beauty or impressive architecture.
I even made a virtue of studying revolving stands of postcards as a short cut to finding the best angles for my shots, shamelessly plagiarising the professionals.
So what I have now, as a record of my OE, are images that are inferior in every way to those postcards I should have bought instead: dull, yellowed, blurry and, most disappointingly, impersonal. There are very few photos of people, especially of me, since I was always behind the camera. Yes, I have been to Mandalay and Moscow. Can I prove it? No.
Those Japanese tourists, though, they have the evidence, even if it might take some forensic work to identify that mock-Gothic stonework behind them, that section of bridge railing, that statue plinth. And today's tourists, liberated by the literal freedom of digital to snap away with abandon, are following their lead to place themselves front and centre everywhere they travel, supplying themselves and all their online followers with incontrovertible, real-time proof of where they've been.
This development has, incidentally, been accompanied by the complete disappearance of the concept of vanity as a bad thing. Time was, people pursed their lips and raised eyebrows at the sight of someone doing anything more self-promotional than stiffly smiling at a camera. Now, those lips and eyebrows are important features of the selfie which, so far from being a quick snap, is a work if not of art, then of concentrated effort. Wherever you go, you will see people blatantly posing, sucking up to their own lens, wrapping on a flattering smile that disappears the second the shutter clicks. Everyone is a model these days, and as calmly unselfconscious about it as Kate or Naomi.
So, that's just how it is. It's all part of the relentless self-documentation of our times, and the upside is that now we all, and especially travellers, have a record of everywhere we've been, everything we've seen and done, every meal and bottle of beer we've consumed.
Good cameras, and especially phones, are so unobtrusive and easy to use sneakily that even things and places that aren't meant to be photographed, are. I once went to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party but you'd never know, if I hadn't kept my invitation: cameras were banned. Now, separating people from their phones is so unthinkable — and unworkable — that the internet is full of Palace selfies of frocks and fascinators, and even brazen shots of the Queen herself, despite the no-photo instruction.
It's also a good thing that today everyone is a photographer so, where once you would have been ridiculed for eccentricity, now no one looks twice if you frame an arty shot of a door hinge or rubbish bin. Everything's valid as a subject.
Except, what's happening to all these images, which would be of such deep interest to future family members and social historians? Are they printed out and stuck in retro albums? Uploaded to photo books, for coffee table display? Rarely. Selected shots are entrusted to the ether, captioned and back-storied in a blog, hashtagged on Instagram, shared on Facebook.
Mainly, though, these bright moments so enthusiastically recorded are then lazily left in phone albums or on memory cards, vulnerable to loss, damage or technological redundancy. We need a quicker, safer system. It's time for Japan to show us the way again.