Thoughts on Adventure, Over-Documentation and Disconnecting

As someone who has been doing adventure photography for a few years now, one of the most significant trends I’ve seen is the increasing external pressure to document. Everything. Everywhere.

Everything. Everywhere.

“You really need to start doing video.”

“Why aren’t you on (insert social media platform here)?”

“You should really do some more behind-the-scenes.”

“With this new device, you can update from way out in the backcountry.”

I appreciate it when an audience shows interest in whatever goes into the images, and the lifestyle that surrounds it. I can also appreciate the desire to see things documented; that’s what got me into photography in the first place.

So, why am I not doing all those things I could be doing?

Part of it, I think, is that I simply have a single-track mind and can only focus on one thing at a time. That one thing consumes me and I quickly forget about the rest. And part of it arises from a conflict that instantly materializes when your work relies on having an experience with the wilderness. Pulling out the iPhone every few minutes detracts from that. So does the documentation of what is in the gear bag, or setting up a product placement in the field. So does checking for cell signal a few hours from the road to see if I can update Hootsuite.

 Nancy Ruiz on top of Ha Ling. This is actually a shoot we did for her new venture, but I thought it summed up my thoughts here.

Nancy Ruiz on top of Ha Ling. This is actually a shoot we did for her new venture, but I thought it summed up my thoughts here.

It’s very easy to quickly turn a wilderness experience into a marketing experience. The “making of” becomes more memorable than the result. I’ve been occasionally guilty of that and I know the images show it when my mind is focused on the cyber world.

Ultimately, I don’t think I can have it all. If focus leans too heavily on capturing the “making of” and an online presence, then the wilderness experience is compromised and adventures are limited to roadside stops. If I focus exclusively on the experience, then I have no cyber presence, which makes it impossible to make ends meet.

It is a delicate balance, and ultimately it comes down to priorities. I’ve found that putting the experience first has been the only way to keep this journey psychologically sustainable and truly enjoyable. And I like to think that, for me, it leads to a more genuine and heartfelt body of work. And then, let the rest fall into place. Whatever time and energy that remain (if any) can go towards sharing a little bit about the lifestyle surrounding the images, what goes into making them, and trying to get a few people to enjoy them online.

How do you strike a balance between enjoying the moment and documenting the experience?

Feel free to use the Comments below to answer!


17 Responses to “Thoughts on Adventure, Over-Documentation and Disconnecting”

  1. hmunro

    Thank you for this thoughtful and beautifully written piece. I’ve had the same struggle in my own travels, and I’ve come to the exact same conclusion: It’s all about purpose and priorities. We all develop habits over time, and mine had become to automatically “document and record.” But lately I’ve been trying to be more mindful of that default and to focus instead on savoring the experience. That doesn’t mean I won’t take a photo or two; but it certainly means that I won’t take photos at the expense of being present and enjoying the moment.

    Best wishes to you on many more happy journeys!

  2. paula graham

    Yea, I understand fully what you are saying..If I leave my camera at home, I stop looking for the perfect shot, and feel able to enjoy the given a bit more!! I am guilty of going to places in order to take photos , it is often the only reason for going, as travel , to me getting older, is not so much fun anymore!! A balance is not something I seem to be able to is ‘all or nothing for me!! I wonder if anyone can relate to that.

  3. wmcintoshphoto

    Couldn’t agree more, Paul. Even more so when you are shooting around the Canadian Rockies. Last October, it was all I could do to keep shooting when we reached the Opabin Plateau or when the sun was rising over Maligne. For me, the story telling happens after I get home and start uploading my shots. If I were to try to start telling the story WHILE I was experiencing it, that moment when I could have been just soaking it in would be gone forever. I guess each person has their own priorities, but for me, it’s important to take a moment between shots and just be thankful for what you are experiencing at that moment. I save the narrative for after I get back home…wishing I was back in Canada.

    • leennascreativebox

      Well said. I find that a good story can’t be told until you have the overview of it and a little space:) If you’re focusing only on the shots, you lose the emotion and connection to what you’re attempting to document.

  4. Cuckoo Zhiyou

    A great picture! By the way, when traveling I have this dilemma too as to whether I should enjoy more of the scenery or take time to shoot more pictures.

  5. Scott Allan

    BINGO! Granted I’m not making a living doing this, nor do I plan to, but I feel like the more of all that stuff outside just a super awesome photograph that’s included, the less mystery… and I love the mystery. I also don’t want it to be “work” which removes more of the “fun” for me. If one can combine all of that, then great. I cannot. Nor quite honestly do I care to.
    I follow a lot of great photographers (your work is right up there at the top) and love those ooh and awe moments of an epic shot – it’s how I learn. I do not get that feeling from an e-book.
    Keep up the amazing work, Paul.

  6. Sherry Lynn Felix

    Each one of us must follow our own muse. Galleries try to influence what an artist does all the time. I rebelled and that is why I don’t sell my art, though l’d like to.

  7. Eliza Waters

    Glad to hear that I’m not the only one with this problem! While I enjoy documenting the beauty I see, it does take away from being fully present in the moment, to feel the awe that inspired the journey in the first place. Sometimes, I leave the camera at home in order to focus solely on being absorbed by nature and benefit from the peace I find there. It would be ideal if I could be disciplined enough to bring the camera, but take it up only for those truly exceptional, now or never shots. However, unlike you, my livelihood doesn’t depend on my camera work.

  8. docugraphy

    It happens quite often that I let my camera, where it is: in the backpack. It´s the same with foreign culture & people as it is with the wilderness. Too much distraction can destroy everything, the genuine experience, the genuine contact, genuine insights…

  9. atiredheart

    When I was younger, I believed it to be cumbersome to try to document every wonderful moment. Now that I’m older, broken down, and facing death, I’d give all my worldly possessions to have paid more attention to documenting events in my life.

  10. rampenkar

    This is actually super interesting and relevant.
    I’ve taken on a personal challenge, going on 1000 trips and finishing on the summit of Everest, and was hoping that social media will eventually allow me to do only that and not be confined to an office.
    Reading this makes me think maybe I’m concentrating too much on building a social profile over actually going on the trips.
    but then again I literally have no money to go on trip and buy the gear I need haha.

    on this note I’d love, if you get a chance, to talk to you in person, and also if you would visit my blog and give me your expert opinion on things.

  11. Debra Garside

    There are certainly two sides to this which is why I am sure you chose to post it. For me (shooting mainly wild horses and other wildlife), the experience is paramount, and my priorities fall easily into place behind that. a) be ready to capture the best photos possible b) when the light is compromised, or behavior is redundant – shoot video c) post on social media whenever it suits me which might be same day or a year from now.

    When I first started shooting video it was because a certain important photo contest demanded it to make the top cut and I was not prepared. I was a bit annoyed at first of having to split my time and energy to this different medium, but now I have come to love this aspect of it. I am sure that when I am too old to lug all this gear into remote places I will be even more grateful for the footage I have shot. DG

  12. Barb White

    I am very happy to see your article and your conclusions. I am one who prefers t see the end product and be wowed by that. Although it might be interesting to know the processes and difficulties overcome to make a shot or to tell a story. I prefer that “the curtain stays closed on the Great Oz”
    Keep up the great work and go where your heart takes you. We will still be there to suck in our breath as we view your takes on our environment.

  13. Sapy

    Nicely said! I also think that iti is batter to do one thing good than to faid on a lot of other. Also, as you said, there is an important moment of enjoyment and too keep away from pressure that take away first idea.

  14. Ian Swarbrick

    You`ve enviably found a niche in outdoor photography Paul, with your “figure in a dramatic landscape” stills. This presumably allows you to be fairly minimal on the gear you carry around the hills. In your shoes I`d keep up this approach for as long as you can. You`ll enjoy the moment a lot more than many a Tom Lowe wanabee (I put myself a bit in that category) who feels compelled to lug around much more than just a tripod, camera and light. It`s all relative. Just my 2 cents.


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