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The Undocumented

Even without writing my name on a place, be it with toes or with photos, these moments most certainly happened. And I don't have to prove it.

When I was younger, I loved to write my name in the sand whenever I went to the beach. It was a ballet performance of seashores and Mom-did-you-see-me’s. With one big toe, I’d scribble the A-S-H in childish cursive; I’d elegantly exaggerate the L-E to encapsulate miniature seashells in each; and with a final pointe I’d twirl the Y, tracing a heart around the whole. To the ocean’s ceaseless ovations I’d give a curtsy, and dash back to my towel, satisfied because my presence was officially declared permanent. There it was: my name, printed for all to see.

Everyone – the swimmers, walkers, and tanners alike – would know that on that day in history, I was there.

In other more popular vacation locations, harmless sandy graffiti becomes a massive tangle of tourist trails and trains, met with deforestation and pollution. Those of us who study environmental science are working to develop more sustainable tourism options, one idea being the use of virtual reality. Theoretically, individuals would be ‘taken’ to locations of their choice by use of the VR visual and sensual equipment, and thus not need to physically travel to a location to experience it. As much of a fan of eco-tourism as I am, I don’t believe this to be the future at all for the simple fact that we would return to reality with no proof that we were there. No souvenirs, no passport stamps. Nothing but pixeled memory, something you cannot show off back at home.

These ideas have brought a variety of questions to mind as I travel this Fall Break: How do we, in modern times of social media and travel sites, communicate “I Was Here”? And more importantly, why do we feel the need to do so?

The obsession with making the very contents of our existence known to others did not begin with social media, but its arrival sure has provided a perfectly accessible platform for our egos. Locations do not even need to market themselves anymore. We do it for them. To our public profiles, we post only the prettiest landscapes and our happiest smiles, and we do it for free. We’ve even started to expect everyone else to do the same. It is odd if we don’t promote places as dream destinations.

Since my arrival in late August, I haven’t posted a single photo of my travels on Facebook or Instagram. In fact, many of my ‘friends’ – the hundreds of faceless followers and half acquaintances and old classmates – do not even know that I am here in Berlin.

“Where are your travel photos?” they ask interrogatively, threatening the validity of my experience.

Sure, I’ve taken plenty (and sent a few over WhatsApp to bring the the ever-anxious Mom and Dad to a simmer) but I feel some sense of propriety over my time here. I want to keep the spaces that I’ve seen for myself, I want the moments to remain sacred. I don’t believe this is out of selfishness; rather it is a desperate attempt to cling to every real inch of this city before I am forced to trek back home. Key word: real.

Travel by means of social media seems to erase the truth, as is common with all use of technology. In his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, philosopher Walter Benjamin writes that the ability to make copies of a work of art for all to see, feel and own takes away from the original’s ‘aura’. I couldn’t help but apply his ideas to the photos we post on social media. While our intentions are to prove that we’ve seen or done wondrous things, to exemplify some sort of 'aura', the photo itself arguably disrespects the actual location and the journey we made to get there. Look at a recent travel photo that you’ve posted. What was deleted? What didn’t make the cut? The sweat and the stress; the last resort train station breakfast and below average to-go coffee; the pitiful realization that yesterday’s cheap Austrian hotel sat atop a remote mountain, only reachable by foot. The messiness is what goes undocumented – in fact, a great deal of the unpleasant aspects of travel cannot be captured in a photo at all. But these mishaps are all part of the personal feats that travel invites; an agglomeration of images and emojis and even words will never sufficiently capture this, whether through my writing, my iPhone camera or through some futuristic VR equipment.

I’m not quite sure what I would do if my Google results didn’t respond immediately with thousands of images for my travel deliberations. But what I do know is that the great bulk of my favorite moments have come outside the four corners of any photograph. Even without writing my name on a place, be it with toes or with photos, these moments most certainly happened. And I don't have to prove it.


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