I have started taking photos of strangers – people I have never met or talked to but who are close by or surround me when I have been visiting some of the larger cultural landmarks during my recent visit to wintery Spain.
It doesn’t seem enough to take photos of the landmarks or art works anymore, they appear to be only a small part of my travel experience. A bigger part is crowd control – negotiating entry and exit through the tidal flow of people who float around and over me as I make my way through museums and iconic landmarks.
I lived in Spain some three decades ago. My memories are as faded as the old photographs that I took back then, and now can’t find. This past northern winter I went back to my past and to modern Spain.
The day I visit El Alhambra, I am told at the information counter, where I competed to have my booking confirmed, that I will be sharing the unique experience with 7,999 others on the same day. I went again the next day, and there were just as many people. I think the battles for control of the old Muslim fortress wouldn’t have pulled armies that big.
My decades-old memories of a previous visit to the El Alhambra were of being able to wander unsupervised around the old fortress. You had to pay to get in but there weren’t busloads arriving half-hourly to keep the queues long and thick. It was wide open and the main problem was the persistence of the gypsies who would float out of the shadows wanting to read your palm. Maybe time takes the shine off memories because I don’t remember the tiles having the wonderful sheen they have now. There was also less to see because the dilapidated state of much of the then ruins back then had led to large chunks being roped off. Now they have been renovated to how they were originally, or how it is imagined they were. Imagined history, so to speak.
Why take photos at all given Google omnipotence? As a personal souvenir, a memento.
Of course the veracity of my memories is questionable, particularly as I have no photos to even prove I was there.
I don’t pretend to be an especially good photographer. Occasionally my iPhone or camera set on automatic, flukes a good shot but nothing that competes with Google’s images. Google has the world covered visually, including the art works. If I wanted a hard copy reproduction of an art work, it is easier to find clearer images on the post cards in the museum gift store.
Postcards might offer better reproductions of art works, but they come with an innate storage problem. The diminishing number of post offices world wide makes finding a place to buy a stamp in a foreign city even harder than home. Postcards have also become outmoded as bookmarks now that Kindle has become the travelling reader’s best friend.
Taking photos in the El Alhambra palace felt redundant. So I found myself including strangers in my photos, to give my new experiences a perspective, to remind myself that I was not alone witnessing this extraordinary monument to history and the people who lived here and built it.
The prod of selfie sticks has become a constant irritant in the age of mass tourism.
Why take photos at all given Google omnipotence? – the most obvious reason seems to be as a personal souvenir, a memento of my time there. All the more reason why selfies are so important, you have to be in the photo to make them relevant. Otherwise you are better off downloading your visuals from Google.
The prod of selfie sticks has become a constant irritant in the age of mass tourism. They have become dangerous weapons that have to be dodged for fear of being stabbed or clubbed by someone swinging around for a better angle for their photo. In some of those tight spaces – on top of medieval towers, or in royal chambers – I feel the need to wear a helmet and a Kevlar jacket.
Obviously it was never like this back in the day. My memories visiting Barcelona last century are tattered at best. Probably not helped by my exhaustive search for cheap tapas in the long narrow streets full of bars which are all still there but not so cheap now. My photo albums from that time have been thrown out long ago when the photos curled and faded. I am reduced to the negatives, if I can find them. It is hard to judge the value of the negatives without seeing them printed, but where do you get photos printed now? Anyway, what would I do with the photos? Probably scan them so I can put them on my hard drive and load them onto the cloud.
Back then, Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia cathedral was already a big attraction, but more as dream than a reality. What I remember were the Cathedral’s dark, skinny spires, the beginning of Gaudi’s grand vision which had barely started in his lifetime, and then pretty much stalled after his passing in 1926. It was like they had been left behind, a relic of Gaudi’s Gothic modernist vision. They looked emaciated, which was probably the reason why I wasn’t competing for access with droves of people.
There wasn’t so much to visit anyway, given that the church hadn’t really taken shape. Certainly there were no major construction works in my memories of the place. No dizzingly-high cranes competing with the spires that there are now. At that time, the towers were stark, and what has been built over the last three decades was back then, mostly in Gaudi’s sketches, or sadly remained in his head.
The expansion of the La Sagrada Familia from the spindly spires I first saw into a sand castle-like fantasy deserves the massive crowds it draws today.
What I hadn’t remembered was that Gaudi’s will included the stipulation that his designs could only be built with donations. Back then donations tendered to be pesetas, pence and cents, whatever was thrown into the church collection and there was barely a church let alone a place for donations. So construction was slow, and it took some time for sufficient donations to accrue for the building to gain some momentum.
As Gaudi’s fame spread, the Sagrada Familia grew as an attraction, along with the photos and the donations, which led to increased construction, grander spaces for the tourists to see, which drew bigger crowds, more photos, even more donations, and an increase in construction which inspired more photos etc. …. A not-so-vicious cycle that received a massive boost with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics so that today there are long queues of people lining up even in the middle of winter. I was there early and there was already at least an hour wait in the blustery cold, and that was just to get the tickets.
The expansion of the La Sagrada Familia from the spindly spires I first saw into a giant sand castle-like fantasy beyond the collective imaginations of Pixar’s designers, fully deserves the massive crowds it draws today. Particularly as there is even a church that you can shuffle conga-like through. Still, I decided to pass on a visit inside. The challenge of jousting with all the selfie sticks fighting for a good pose was too much.
Clearly looking is not enough, it hasn’t been for a long time. To see is not to understand, perhaps even not to believe, in the digital age. The need to capture a ‘digital’ image has become like grabbing a brick from the Berlin Wall or in this case, El Alhambra or Sagrada Familia, to take home. An obvious difference being that the Berlin Wall brick is a little hard to upload into the cloud for storage.
I tried to imagine how many images were being loaded up onto the ‘cloud’ on just the one day I was visiting, and wondered what would happen if God accidentally hit the delete button – technologically challenged, older folk can do that pretty easily – could all the images in the cloud be deleted? Might have to go back and find the old negatives.