Travel Photos: How Selfies Are Changing Travel



Sitting on a gorgeous beach in Phi Phi with the feeling of the white sand between our toes with the mounds of limestone towering overhead, it was surreal and a feat of nature. Although this place was a complete vision of paradise and often described as “Heaven on Earth”, everywhere we looked there was something we could not escape. Aside from the sky, there was nowhere you could look without seeing someone taking a selfie.


Selfie stick Phi Phi

Photo: people posing in the water at Maya Bay in the Phi Phi Islands all after the perfect shot 


What happened to being mindful?

“I’m busy living the moment and not taking pictures to save it”

Drake, The Resistance 

Enjoying the moment and being mindful has been repeatedly proven to enhance positivity and cognitive ability. But as the days go on, people are becoming more and more distracted by keeping up appearances. There have been scores of situations where we see travellers in front of incredible monuments and they hardly look at it with their own eyes, only through a screen. Witnessing a guy watch the sunrise at Angkor Wat and FaceTime the entire thing was the epitome of this trend. Not leaving a moment to be alone with his thoughts and not considering that for others around him, hearing “look man, it’s getting lighter – I can’t believe I’m at Angkor Wat” every 5 minutes was sort of messing with the serenity.

When you take a photo you can miss out on details from the moment. You frame the big things: getting in the Eiffel Tower, ensuring Angkor Wat fits in the photo, and checking that your hair is on point. But when we spend the whole time worrying about the photos, we forget to appreciate the full moment.

We don’t notice the intricate carvings on a wall.

We miss out on an interesting conversation we could have had with the guy next to us.

We forget the details of life. Not noticing the bird gliding through the sky, the autumn leaves floating to the ground, or the sound of your breath. Not stopping to think about how these moments are making us feel.

So much in travel, as in life, is based in the details. Seeing something for its full and true value. Focusing on getting an image is just focusing on a snapshot of what a place has to offer and you will never feel the emotive power of visiting a place so far from your every day reality. When we look at photos we see the location or the person featured, but you don’t often think of the person behind the lens, or what temperature it might be, or all the infinite things that are just outside of the frame.


Selfie Angkor Wat

Photo: We explored Angkor Archeological Park and actually got hit in the face by a selfie stick twice 


Surely photos aren’t all that bad?

Now, we are all for taking photos (honestly). Photos are a fantastic way to preserve a memory and tell stories, but when does it stop being a pleasant past-time and start interfering in your enjoyment? With the rise of Instagram and photo-based social media, some travellers will admit that they are only going to some places to get a new profile picture or post a killer Instagram. Honestly, it seems as though many people will travel thousands of miles, spend hundreds of dollars and crowd the most beautiful places, only to feel satisfied if they get a perfect selfie (that thousands of others have probably already taken), and negate fully taking in the location or scene. Travel is so much more than the sum of Instagram likes.

A great photographer spends a lot of time taking photos but they try to capture photos that tell a story. It will be about more than just a nice photo, it will be looking at the details of a face or talking to a subject and learning about a culture. We feel this is starkly different to holding out a 2-foot pole to capture your face in front of an icon. We’re guilty of this sometimes and it’s definitely something we are working on!

Obviously not all tourists are accomplished photographers, but they will still want to take some memorable snaps. So what’s the best way to go about it? Perhaps take a couple of photos when you see something genuinely interesting, but then make a concerted effort to enjoy the moment. After you take that photo, sit and reflect about why you took it. Look at the subject and appreciate the reasons why it made such a good image.


So why do we take travel photos?

– To preserve memories, especially to keep note of some of the smaller details that may be forgotten

– (Admittedly) to show off a little bit; yeah people have seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower but have they seen you in front of the Eiffel Tower

– To help explain the things you have seen and done to others

– To improve as photographers


Travel Imperialism

Photo: tourists crowding around a young monk to take their perfect photo 


Sometimes taking a photo can be rude

When you become obsessed with getting the perfect snap, politeness can sometimes cave and make way for travellers that forget about respect. This was solidified for us when we were in a monastery just outside of Mandalay in Myanmar. A young monk was lining up to get his lunch which is a pretty normal thing to do. We all eat lunch, right? But because this young monk was wearing robes and was a photo opportunity, people were going crazy. Hundreds of telephoto lenses surrounded the boy and people broke the rules (which were clearly repeated and signed) by stepping in the path of the monk and touching him. His master was telling us a message:


“Be mindful. One thing you will learn from this boy is that right now you are giving him one of life’s biggest distractions, but he remains mindful. Maybe you can implement this in your own lives”

The response?

Click. Click. Click.

Flash. Flash. Flash.


Don’t be that guy.


Taking photos of people

When taking photos of people, make sure you get permission! People are not in a zoo and it is so important to check that it is okay. Yeah, people around the world can be really interesting and different, but they are still people. When taking photos of others in markets or working at stalls, it is courtesy to buy something from their stall.


Travel Photos

Photo: a series of photographs by Ai Wei Wei featuring his finger at various destinations

So what is the solution?

Photos are a fantastic way to explore story-telling and collect memories from your travels. But what is the point going to all these places if you are not actually enjoying them? Just remember to sometimes put down the selfie stick or the telephoto lens and enjoy the moment. Travel is about enjoying other cultures and experiences, and it is always so much better when fully present.

Lucy Owens Travel Textbook


My name’s Lucy and I’m the junior doctor and travel writer behind the blog. If you’re a fan of scratching beneath the surface of travel, visiting interesting destinations, and exploring ethically, then you’re in the right place. Focusing on purposeful budget and solo travel, Travel Textbook hopes to inspire more young people to seek meaningful adventure.


NEXT UP: Melbourne



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