Yonah Lieberman: Get the perfect trip, not shot

By Yonah Lieberman, Columnist
Published September 6, 2012

I spent 10 days with my family traveling around London and Paris.

I wish I could tell you that I come from a family that goes to our château in Bordeaux to eat handmade crêpes every summer. That would have left me a hell of a lot more cultured that I am today.

Instead, I come from a simple family. I hail from D.C. — a paradise for camera-strapped travelers prone to getting lost — so I’ve had a fair number of run-ins with tourists. In London and Paris, I felt like Alice going through the looking glass.

Armed with maps, a camera and many, many granola bars, we set out each day in search of adventure. We lined up behind huge groups of people wearing neon-colored shirts just in case it wasn't already obvious to everyone that we were tourists. We waited in the hot sun for attractions our guidebooks assured us were worth seeing.

And then, as if on cue, all around us — the cameras came out.

Without the picture, there is no way to prove that they were there. They can’t upload 12 albums to Facebook with catchy titles, hang a photo in their office or use it as a Christmas card to make their friends say: “I want to go to there.”

Maybe I’m cynical actually, definitely cynical. Maybe I’m overly critical about these nice people with digital cameras.

There's no denying that the invention of digital cameras has completely revolutionized tourism. These days, there is literally nothing that is not worth capturing on camera.

That flower — beautiful colors! That rock — whoa, geology! That 15th shot of the Notre Dame — the perfect angle! That 28th family photo — this time smile, for God’s sake!

Their experiences aren't based off of the experience itself, but rather the quality of the pictures they come home with.

If I had gone to London and Paris 20 years ago, I would have had a completely different experience. It was a mysterious time, when you had to go to CVS — scratch that, real camera stores — to see how your pictures turned out.

Let me give you the primest of prime examples of a wasted touristic opportunity: The Mona Lisa.

This painting is one of the few attractions in Paris many know of before buying their guidebook. It’s probably the most famous piece of art in the world — even before a gelled-up Tom Hanks starred in "The Da Vinci Code." In the Louvre, the smiling lady is in company of wall-to-wall-to-wall paintings and sculptures.

The museum itself is actually fairly complicated. The audio-guide you can rent literally has a GPS built into it. But somehow everyone finds the Mona Lisa.

The moment you walk into the small hall with the painting, your senses are overwhelmed — it feels like a silent rock concert is happening in the corner of the room. People are violently pushing and shoving towards that part of the room as if the painting is about to disappear.

And once you get to the front? A quick click and then you’re done. Turn around and make your way out of the crowd. Average time spent looking at the painting itself? If I had to guess, 3.7 seconds.

I stood in front of the painting for a good 10 minutes, thinking about why it was so famous, trying to figure out what Mona was smiling about and reflecting on the people around me who only wanted to get close to her to prove that they were there.

Look, I understand why our generation enjoys taking gobs of pictures. In fact, I love that our era allows us to capture thousands of moments without concern of running out of film. And I know how easy it is to lose track and capture everything that moves; on my trip I took nearly 1,000 pictures.

Still, tourists should try to see the country through their own eyes rather than through the lens of a camera. I tried to enjoy the unique atmosphere and culture.

So I challenge all of us: Be self-aware when you travel. Don’t just take pictures for the sake of taking pictures. Do it because you want to remember how you felt at that moment. Do it because you see something special on your screen that you want to take back home.

Just, please, don’t do it for those Facebook albums.

Yonah Lieberman can be reached at yonahl@umich.edu.