#108: In fear of forgetting
A vacation sickness
Recently I took a trip and became so disturbed by my attempt to document it that I came home and thought about it for days. Naturally this is about that.
My camera roll
I bought plastic pouches with airtight seals so we could take our phones into the Mediterranean. I told myself it was to protect our devices from water damage or from getting stolen if we left them on the beach. The prospect of not bringing our phones to the beach at all was irrelevant—what if we got lost? What if there was an emergency? Later in the trip, when those possibilities waned, I continued to bring my phone everywhere anyway.
The pouch hung from my wrist by a cord I’d removed from my hat and tied in a square knot. I held it while I swam through the clear blue water, too afraid to test the knot’s strength. It was easier to swim with than you might expect, and felt discordant in a fun way, like reading a book in a bathtub. When I could manage to see the screen in the blinding sun and poke the buttons through the wet plastic, I took photos of the salty Turkish Steps, of Avi bobbing in the water smiling, of myself squinting in a red bathing suit. Occasionally I checked the time.
Avi didn’t take to the pouch. Whenever we swam, he left his phone wrapped in a t-shirt on the beach, or on the bedside table of our bed & breakfast. I had a stronger constitution, prepared in case we saw something beautiful, or looked beautiful ourselves, or something special happened and we needed proof. The proof part was important. Throughout the trip, the imperative to capture what I saw, and especially what I loved, was almost subconscious, as if my memory had slipped out of my brain and into my hand.
I took 501 iPhone photos over the six days Avi and I spent in Sicily, plus 30 on film. That’s about six photos per waking hour. Looking at my camera roll now, the primary story it tells about the trip is that I’d been terrified of forgetting it. And that was true. I was also terrified of not having the best time of my entire life, which is a good way to siphon the joy out of your vacation like it’s an air mattress you’re trying to fold and store for later use. Fortunately there was joy to spare. Sicily is one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited. But looking at my photos doesn’t really feel like being there, which is something I might have considered before taking so many.
“It would not be wrong to speak of people having a compulsion to photograph: to turn experience itself into a way of seeing,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, 30 years before the invention of the iPhone. Even when I wanted to stop taking photos, I couldn’t. I had no plans to post on social media—I had no plans for the photos at all. It was more that taking them became an expression of emotion I didn’t otherwise know what to do with: affection rendered desperate, like hugging someone so they can’t get away. “The very activity of taking pictures is soothing,” Sontag continued, “and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.”
One morning, Avi and I sat outside a cafe in Ortigia, across from a famous natural fountain called Arethusa Spring. I watched as a family approached in an open-air cart driven by a local tour guide. He stopped in front of the fountain so they could take a look. Without leaving the car, the family stood up, craning their arms over their heads so their cameras could see it, then sat back down, and the driver sped off. Their camera lenses had seen the fountain, but had they? “Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it,” wrote Sontag. I tried to see things. I really did. But I wanted more than that. I wanted to remember.
Framing and timing a photo are the first steps we take in deluding our future selves. I cropped out the stuff that didn’t serve the narrative—the dumpsters on the left, the dorky tourists to the right, the storefront that was just a little too plain. I failed to pull my camera out when I was annoyed or lost, or whenever I was fully present. I disregarded the photos where I looked bad, or just a touch too much like myself. “In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects,” Sontag wrote. Like tourism itself, I imposed my perspective upon Sicily, capturing what I loved and leaving behind the rest.
It’s easy to forget that my photos, then, are an entirely different medium than my memories. One heavily informed, however subconsciously, by media I’ve consumed over the course of my life: social feeds, photo books, movies filmed in beautiful places. I had to laugh at how often I felt compelled to take a photo just because I’d seen others photos just like it: the sparkling horseshoe-shaped beach at Isola Bella, the sprawling baroque rooftops in Noto, the column of smoke rising out of a distant Mount Etna. All photos I’d seen on tourism websites while planning the trip. I told myself I was doing it right. Taking a place in before I pulled out my phone, never pretending something happened that didn’t, like sitting on a rock looking wistful just for the shot. My fear is I did no better than that family, arms held stiff over their heads like they were Krumm from Ah! Real Monsters, reaching aloft just to see.
My strongest counter-argument are the photos I took for reasons of delight versus paranoia or compulsion: A rat swimming hurriedly across Arethusa Spring. Avi and me standing wet-haired and sunburned in front of a bar called Clandestino, sent to my brother as a joke. A photo of a cranky French teen stuck on a boat with us and his parents. A tiny Italian cheese fork, held up like a deity before the setting sun. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Sontag wrote. Occasionally, it pays off.
For the rest though—for all the beauty I cherished and wanted to trap eternally on a hard drive—what would it mean to let it go? To revere it via mental capacity alone? In an old essay for Rookie, Tavi Gevinson experimented with reflecting less upon her life for a period, and noted that it got easier with time, to “trust that I’ll retain what I need to later, and if not, accept the price of a life fully lived.” That notion has stuck with me for years. And I never even wrote it down.
Studies have shown that when you remember something, you’re likely remembering the last time you recalled it. Meaning that every time we look back, our present ever so slightly alters the past. Photos charge into this process as if to offer irrefutable evidence of what was, but they’re just as fallible. No matter how beautiful, evocative, or sentimental to look at, they exist parallel to reality in important ways. My strongest memories from Sicily—what I thought, heard, smelled, felt—couldn’t be captured in photos. Luckily, I’m still alive to remember them, in whatever ways emerge as meaningful over the course of my life. Photos can never fulfill the burden we place on them to stop time, to save moments we love from slipping away.
On the last day of the trip, plastic-encased phone in hand, I stood on the edge of a cliff in my bathing suit, the bright blue water rippling below me. “Okay I’m going to jump, but I’m very scared!” I say in the video. Avi is treading water below, shouting reassurance: “You get one second in the air, plenty of time to take a big breath, and then—it’s just water!” I laugh nervously, then pause, then leap, and as soon as I hit the water, the video cuts out, the rest left to my imagination.
My favorite thing I consumed last week was this video essay by Jonas Čeika about The Simpsons and the death of parody, which was more interesting than it sounds. Friday’s 15 things also included a wild 1992 interview, some housekeeping propaganda, my favorite new store downtown, and more. The rec of the week was toothbrushes…I need a new one and I want to be obsessed.
Tuesday’s podcast is about the tricks we play on ourselves to feel less insecure, and why they don’t work. Subscribe to listen!
Thanks for reading, I hope you have a nice Sunday,
p.s. for posterity, the last photo I took in Sicily: