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retard 7

On a crisp spring night last month, seven girls, 15 bags, 12 cereal bars, and six digital cameras (including one rather hardcore Nikon SLR) embarked from JFK on a whirlwind two-week expedition. The madcap events that transpired have since been chronicled in upwards of 4,000 pictures, dozens of grainy digital videos, and, at last count, no fewer than 18 Facebook albums.

Were these intrepid, not-so-light-packing explorers actually photojournalists, you might rightly wonder. No? Anthropologists researching with great scrutiny the native cultures of faraway lands, perhaps? Hm… then a peripatetic posse of Japanese tourists, surely. Also wrong? Well, what kind of depraved people would journey across the globe simply to unleash upon unsuspecting locals a frenzy of flashes so furious that it could motivate the Hollywood paparazzi to step up their game?

Errr… To protect their privacy, I’ll dub them Buckistan, Princess from New York, Berber, Victoria Beckham, Brit, Miskeena, and Klutzy – just your average twentysomething female American tourists.

The digital camera has made taking, sharing, and broadcasting memories very simple, but some might argue it’s created a blinding monster in the process. These days, more attention is devoted to scoring the perfect picture in an enchanting locale than is spent actually enjoying it.

“Oh [click] my [click] God [click] check out the [click] stunning arches [click] in this [click] madrassa the details are [click] amazing [click]… Quick, Berber and Buckistan, go stand in front of that fountain and pretend you’re Charlie’s Angels!” [click, click, click, and… click]

Back in the day, you wouldn’t see your vacation shots until weeks after you’d returned. You’d impatiently rush to finish off the roll of film and dispatch it to CVS, then carefully peel open the envelope of glossy, freshly developed photographs, breathless with anticipation. You’d pore over them, savoring each memory, and let your friends duke it out over the doubles. You’d promise to make more copies, then lose the negatives…

Today, the Kodak moment has almost been rendered obsolete. Each picture is scrutinized in a three-inch window as soon as it’s clicked, then critiqued, edited, and retaken until a consensus of approval is reached. Exclamations of “Facebook picture!” punctuate shots, and despite awareness of the inevitable e-sharing that lies ahead, everyone insists on using their own camera. You know, just in case Princess shirks her uploading duties (like that would ever happen!). Everyone reviews the contents of their cameras so many times over the course of a trip that by the time they get back, every newly forwarded Picasa album brings with it a strong sense of déjà vu.

This particular itinerant group’s memory cards recorded for posterity breathtaking vistas, a handful of donkeys, ornate domes and minarets, Pizza Hut workers performing Bollywood numbers without understanding a lick of Hindi, curious sinus-clearing methods, the production of pigeon-poop-coated leather, several examples of drug-induced fantasy architecture, exquisite gourmet meals, Barack Obama’s long-lost African twin, luxurious bathrooms, piggyback rides at sacred sites, snake charmers, 4 a.m. naps in train stations, and more frightened children than they’d like to admit. That’s not including myriad follies too inappropriate to ever be shared with the masses. The photo flurry was so fervent that, by day three, Miskeena’s two-gig memory card was already at capacity. Now that’s impressive. (Or insane.)

Finally, Brit rose above the digital madness and put her foot down, refusing to appear in any more pictures. Sweet, the rest of them thought. They no longer had to perform a delicate dance each time they posed for group shots, trading off turns and cameras to strike just the right person-to-picture ratio. Brit then spent much of the final leg of her voyage having cameras thrust at her from all directions.

Be careful what you wish for.

But as frustrated as everyone invariably felt at one point of the journey or another (“Seriously, guys? Do we need 17 shots of Princess pretending to be fascinated by this historic relic?”), when they came back and let their blinded eyes recover from the incessant flashes they’d subjected them to, everyone realized they were grateful. Everything they experienced during those two weeks was documented in those albums: humiliation (Berber tripping over herself in a mosque), indignation (“Can you believe that kid stole my ice cream from my mouth?”), fatigue (open-mouthed naps on airplanes), friskiness (cuddling with Gaudí), sheer bliss (halal pepperoni Pizza Hut!), adrenaline (soccer game with kids in the streets of the medina), randomness (a Ballack jersey in the heart of ballackville? Seriously?), flirtation (“How YOU doin’, Victoria Beckham?”), confusion (Indiana? Jaya?), awkwardness (peek-a-boo showers), victory (bargained-down teacups), mischief (fun with keychains), deliciousness (Euro Cadbury), and nostalgia (rainbow, aww). And for every memory logged in digital form, there are hundreds that were near misses (Klutzy taking an ill-advised seat in the tannery); others they’d wished they’d thought to capture (the consumption of those aforementioned cereal bars); some that should only be committed to the recesses of memory (“Help!”); and at least one that is best forgotten (the train ride from hell).

As maddening as the camera craze may seem at times, someday, when you’re old and ugly, you’ll love looking back and appreciating it all the way it was. In the meantime, get out of my way. I’m ready for my closeup.

Yallah way to go!

**photograph courtesy of Priya Chandra © 2008**
Pictured, from left to right: Princess from New York, Victoria Beckham, Berber, Miskeena, Klutzy, Brit, Buckistan