I took my parents on a favourite walk back in November, when we could still travel between local authority areas to see each other. It was a happy blur. Their faces from afar from the car, then less pixellated when we stopped metres from them, smiling. We followed the cobbles of my grandmother’s youth past the abbey, then across the fields to the old kirk.
The morning was muddy white, the only colour the berries in the hedgerows. We had a picnic, from a distance, perched on a ruined wall. The haar hadn’t yet lifted and it felt like the first real winter’s day. The chill slowly burnt through my bones and held me long after my parents had left.
That was only the fourth time, I think, that I’ve seen them since March — when the pandemic reached Scotland. And, unlike almost all other trips out of my house this year, I took my camera with me.
For years now I’ve been writing about slower travel and the commodification of places. A camera allows you to collect travel experiences like things, sharing your moments on social media for everyone to see. I’m abroad just now, somewhere scenic, somewhere exciting, somewhere else.
I had a strange relationship with my camera. I have a very old Nikon DSLR, which has salt crystals trapped in the viewfinder from the time I got caught by a wave on my way to the Isle of Staffa. I used to be constantly attached to it, taking photos of everything, that I would then edit and post to Instagram. I had to — I was a blogger, wasn’t I?
But as the years passed, and I noticed photogenic places around Scotland getting busier, I began to consider what that actually meant. For me, taking photos was becoming a barrier to experiencing places and moments more deeply.
Recently, though — the few times my dusty camera has come along with me — photography has felt different. This pandemic has reminded me that it wasn’t photography I was railing against before in the essays and comments I shared; it was taking photos for Instagram’s sake and Instagram’s only. Photography for the sake of likes, often at the expense of the moment itself. That’s what was making it so feel shallow; that’s what made me feel uncomfortable when I lifted my camera lens.
I still can’t seem to share much on Instagram any more. I don’t know why, perhaps a fear; perhaps because I worry that my moments are irrelevant and seem somewhat insensitive in a time of crisis; or because keeping those photos close to my heart and not selling them to Stories feels better, truer.
That day with my parents, under the thick sea fog of Scotland’s east coast, my camera accompanied me like an old friend. I didn’t want to forget a moment. I only lifted the lens a dozen or so times, but those pixels bring back the memories of that morning so vividly. A favourite is a short series of my parents together at the abbey, backed by burnt orange leaves.
I haven’t shared any of these photos on Instagram. My relationship with social media will remain a love-hate one; it is me doing the unforgiveable ghosting. But this lack of communication, this withdrawal from being on social media and sharing most of my moments, feels more me. It seems like I am holding more of myself sacred, keeping my small space on this earth safe and secret.
On the table beside the sofa, all of my memories from this year sit printed on photo paper, for my eyes only. My most precious moments, with the people I love most on this earth. They’re not there to be commodified but to be cherished.
This is what the pandemic has taught me about photography.
Have you had any similar realisations?