Captured: Why a single travel picture can represent an entire journey

Canadian Rockies


Ice-pale rapids cascade over smooth stones, separating a forest of sunlit pines. The tall slender trees seem to go on forever as they slowly shrink into the sun-baked Canadian Rockies. It’s sweatshirt and track pants temperature at elevation, though only small valleys approaching the peaks still sport snow, denied the August rays by a cruel shade. My first solo trip away from Australia is nearing a close, and I’m considering university in Canada. At nineteen years old, the future feels as open as standing in the mountains, holding my three-month-old Nikon D60. The sky is cloudless except for the gentlest wisp of white, swaying between the peaks and trees as if an artist has tickled a feather over their completed wet canvas. Thanks to dual citizenship, this could be my new home.

I close the image on my laptop and search for another. Six years in Canada and an undergraduate degree have shot by since I stood in the mountains. Usually left with little free time to procrastinate, a hangover-less Sunday has caught me off guard. I sway left, right, and back in the black leather computer chair by my bedroom desk. A week out from Halloween, the late October sky drizzles gently outside, flirting with Victoria, B.C.’s wet kiss of winter. After playing basketball games Friday night and Saturday afternoon, my only athletic ambitions remaining are to leap out of a bruised and battered body and be taken away. Lyrics from an Aussie hip-hop artist, Illy, fill my head as I sift through old travel pictures. What more can a young man ask for? Good mates and stamps in a passport.

North Shore

A small swell sweeps over footprints in the damp Hawaiian sand. I had planned to stay in Waikiki a whole week, but the deafening bustle of tourism took its toll on me after three days. I breathe in, eyes locked on lush grass that meets the beach, spreading towards dense mossy hills that grow into a softly clouded sky. My short bus ride to a new hostel and a Danish girl’s rental car provided access to beaches out of bicycle distance. A bristly tree branch with battered bark hangs from the top right corner, draped in colourful oddities. A sky blue plastic bottle protrudes from a nub beside some plain rope and a pink flip-flop. Frayed turquoise twine dangles from another. A white water bottle juts out of a twig as does a yellow one, and red ribbon wraps around a stick, twirling into a bow. Ziggy Marlee’s song Beach in Hawaii – which played on repeat at the Waikiki hostel – echoes inside me, and I smile. The bright colours of each recycled item contrast perfectly with a backdrop filled by paradise.

I lean into a pillow placed upright on the computer chair and shuffle my fingers on the cheap Walmart desk. It was my second winter in Victoria when I escaped to Hawaii for reading break. Growing up in a drought hadn’t prepared me for eight months of British Columbian rain each year. But looking at the photo of that litter-strewn tree doesn’t remind me of warmth or escaping winter; it brings a sense of independence. I had moved across the Pacific for university and become settled enough to holiday away from my new home. I was an adult.

I wonder about the symbolism of travel photos. Why do these selected images generate such strong emotional reactions, yet almost all others taken from the same day, event, or trip bring me nothing? When first filtering through holiday snaps, the obvious aesthetic elements jump out. Is there beautiful scenery? Has the subject been accentuated by the rule of thirds or a focal point? Do the colours within the frame contrast? But once a favourite has been selected aesthetically, we invest in it emotionally. Our chosen image can now solely represent a significant landmark in our lives.

Australia’s South Coast

Sharp ochre cliffs jag up from the shoreline, topped with dried green gum trees, and drenched in a setting sun. I’ve just returned to Australia for three months of Canadian summer and am road tripping with Mum and Dad to visit friends on the New South Wales South Coast. The surf is flat, and a retreating tide leaves a thin film of water on the sand like smooth glass to reflect the cliff’s aura. Minutes before dusk, the regular orange of those South Coast cliffs evolves to a shimmering gold. I rush ahead of my parents, iPhone in hand, and snap pictures of the water, the sand, and the sunset with the excitement of a child discovering new shells. We hadn’t been to that beach before, and I haven’t been back. Despite growing up in the city, I have never felt so at home.

It’s now likely my last year in Canada and I’m torn between two continents. I have my life back in Australia, an extension of 19-year-old me with small chunks tacked on each holiday home like the North Shore litter tree. I also have good friends, adopted families, and the beginnings of a sports journalism career in Canada. I’m deep enough into a life in both countries that I can look at my three photos and tell you how it all pans out.

I come travelling, see the Rockies, fall in love, and move to Canada eight months later. Unsure whether I can tolerate Canadian winters enough to stay more than two years, I head to Hawaii. Despite being “settled” in what was meant to be my adventurous new home of Canada, I still possess the power to meet strangers and share adventures. Approaching the end of my undergrad, the daunting choice of which country to choose looms, and I head to Australia for longer than my usual six weeks. I convince myself three months is enough time to dictate whether I will move home. The South Coast beach reminds me how beautiful Australia is and the importance of being with family. In six months, my life will shift back to the Southern Hemisphere.

Spending time with each photo forces me to delve past the initial emotions associated with the image. I realize that while we group memories and associate them with a photo, we often become nostalgic, remembering situations as greater than they were. Looking at that stream in the Rockies, I don’t immediately remember my iPod playing Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” on repeat. The travelers’ tour bus was an empty escape after leaving behind my first love. Seeing the North Shore tree now, I forget my scorched skin after skipping sunscreen the previous day and snorkeling with turtles. Looking at my photo of Australia’s South Coast, I choose to forget my Mum’s fresh Alzheimer’s diagnosis – the reason I was home. These are the memories we omit, to match and preserve the aesthetics of our favourite snaps.

I make a computer album titled “Favourite Photos I’ve Taken” – creative title, I know – and vow to have some printed and framed around the house. The aches in my body return, and I swivel in the black leather computer chair. The Aussie hip-hop lyrics drift back, and I consider the next photo I want to look at in five years: South America, Europe, or South East Asia – maybe one from each. I wonder which memories, songs, and friendships will attach themselves to those framed fragments of time. How will they capture my life at that moment?
I hit “play” on iTunes to hear Illy sing it. We're young, we're live. Chasin’ the memories, not enough time.


Author Bio: 

Lachlan grew up on stories of a Canadian mother who backpacked to Australia with her guitar in the mid 80’s and never left. There was no doubt he was going to travel. After six years exploring North America and studying writing at the University of Victoria, BC, he has recently returned home to Canberra, Australia. With passport and backpack awaiting, new continents beckon.

Twitter: @LachlanRoss89