Following a week experimenting with Mental Photography, I’m here to deliver the inconvenient truth: we spend too much time with chunks of plastic and glass in front of our faces. Forget the imminent threats of environmental catastrophe and economic meltdown, it’s the camera we should be worried about. For while our backs have been turned, attending to more important events, the humble compact camera has cemented itself as the 21st century mask through which we filter life’s most important sights, and I think it’s high time someone stood up and made a fuss about it before the photo zombies take over.

Generation Photo

A few months back I, along with many tourists, found myself gazing into the Grand Canyon at sunset. Brilliant, stunning, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Yet the one thing that detracted from the inexplicable natural beauty and awe of the place, bathed as it was in the last rays of the day, was the dusk-chorus of camera shutters. I expect everyone has a similar anecdote they could share about important events being dominated by camera play. Cameras are everywhere, and their influence is still on the rise. How long before we experience every new or significant sight from the comfort of a viewfinder or LCD screen? Isn’t anyone else worried that our brains are going quietly to mush as the shutters on our cameras whir and our memory cards begin to replace our actual memories? Like it or not, we are becoming photo zombies.

As the years slip by, science fiction fusing with science fact, modern technology quietly superseding more and more of our human functions, we should be less concerned about sentient robots or computers taking over and more worried about the rise of the camera army, a silent – save for the mechanical shutter noises – but deadly force intent on stealing our vision, our memories and, who knows, eventually our souls.

Mental Photography

A few weeks ago I decided to let the camera mask slip, putting my devices down and challenging my brain to do the work instead. I was about to become a Mental Photographer, or, as you pedants would have it, a bloke with eyes, brain and a curious nature. It was a fulfilling experience, and eye-opening in the literal sense. Here are my favourite mental photographs from the week.

Independence

I began in Bolivia’s main city, La Paz, doing a little sightseeing during the Bolivian Independence Day celebrations:

The main plaza, surrounded by tall colonial government buildings and decorated with Bolivian-blue skies. In front of the presidential palace sits a dais draped in Bolivian flags and groaning under the weight of army-uniformed dignitaries. A marching band approaches the dais, stamping down the side of the plaza, led by a keen young man holding a baton aloft in salute, his band mimicking the signal with raised drumsticks and spare arms. Atop the dais, the general stands, uncomfortable in his starchy uniform, sweating in the midday heat, his arm raised in weary recognition, his head turned backwards towards a minion who is shuffling out of the shadows with a glass of water. I stand opposite the dais, behind railings, my foreground partially obscured by jostling Bolivian ladies, decked in bowler hats and bright striped wraps.

Jacob’s Ladder

The following day, after the celebrations are over, I take a walk through the famous La Paz witches market:

A steep and busy city road, swimming in dirty bus fumes as the traffic chugs by, with colourful shops providing a supporting tapestry as their produce spills out onto the street. Looking closer, each shop has a female shopkeeper who hovers in the doorway or lurks further back in the shadows, silently watching the passers-by, who are mainly tourists. Each shop has a similar layout, with trestle tables out front, groaning under the weight of almost-identical trinkets, but it is not the trinkets which catch the eye, for hung above each shop door are a string of small, white stuffed animals. Closer inspection of the nearest shop’s animal string reveals a more grizzly truth. Hanging down, limbs tumbling over bodies, mangy fur bleaching in the sunshine, hangs a jacob’s ladder of llama foetuses, each a similar size, and all stretched out in silent agony, their glassy eyes staring out at everything and nothing.

Pampas and Parrots

The rest of my week is spent in the Bolivian Amazon, riding horses on a working cattle estancia:

A blur. From horseback an elevated view of the pampas is attained. The scenery looks like a lush African landscape, with 5 foot high pampas grass stretching for miles to the forested horizon, where the jungle resides, itself giving way to azur skies. The line of pampas is broken by large patches of marshland on which storks graze, occasional trees, and to the left a shimmering lagoon. In the foreground a small coppice is a playground for parrots, who wheel around, exuberantly presenting their bright green, red and yellow bodies. Also between pampas and jungle are sprinklings of black dots which, on closer inspection, prove to be cattle, warily grazing with one eye on the approaching horsemen. But all of this is a blur, as I gallop across the pampas on my trusty steed Viejo, his bay neck straining and sweating in the afternoon sun, my white knuckles clenched around the reigns as I cling on for dear life

Give Mental Photography a try before you join the photo zombies too!

Not only is mental photography a neat exercise for aspiring writers (like me!), it’s also a great way to become more mindful, which is another of my goals. With the challenge of recording important events, unencumbered by the convenience of technology, I found myself really experiencing each mental photograph, absorbing sights, noticing details and etching images onto my retina. I was undoubtedly living the moment to a fuller extent, and it felt great. So if you’ve got this far, you owe it to yourself to give Mental Photography a try. It’s dead easy, all you have to do is observe something you’d normally photograph, drink in all the details, then commit it to memory. Your brain will thank you, and perhaps between us we can stem the rise of the photo zombie hoards.

Postscript: camera karma?

On my final day of the Mental Photography challenge, an odd thing happened. We were kayaking on the lagoon featured in Pampas and Parrots in strong winds, and I accidentally turned into the wind, wobbling and finally capsizing. In my pocket was my Iphone, one of the two cameras I had brought on our travels. The water damage it sustained killed it stone dead. Is that karma?