MAD DOG: Seeing the World Through a Viewfinder

One of the great discoveries you make if you take a cross country road trip, aside from how handy an iron can be to warm up that leftover oyster Po-Boy that's been under the seat since New Orleans, is that there are way too many people with cameras. Everyone, it seems, has a camera around their neck. Simple one-shots, expensive SLR's, video cameras, digital cameras, and now the ubiquitous disposable. These cardboard cameras are the greatest invention since air vending machines at gas stations. And possibly the most appropriately named, since for most people the cameras are so disposable they lose them before they get the film developed. That's why I wish they'd start selling cheaper versions without film. It would let me continue to embarrass people by making them stand in front of Mt. Rushmore smiling like they're about to get a root canal without anesthetic and, since I know I'll never see the camera again anyway, I can sleep well knowing I saved money since the pictures will turn out exactly the same as if the camera actually had film. Nonexistent.Everywhere you go you hear the clicking, see the flashing, and watch as people take photographs of the Statue of Liberty, the French Quarter, and the tumbleweed that looks like Ellen Degeneres in the episode when she came out of the closet. Face it, there are already millions of photographs of virtually every inch of this country in books, tourist pamphlets and travel guides. I dare say, damned good ones, too. Are yours really better because your finger clicked the button? Personally, I think the person who shot the photos for the postcards did a pretty good job, and at twenty-five cents a pop they're quite a bargain. Besides, I can always personalize it by drawing a crude stick figure that's supposed to be me hiking way, way, way down the Grand Canyon trail when in fact I stopped after about a half mile, right about the time it became hard to tell the difference between the mule droppings and the mud.I worry that people with cameras are only experiencing a small part of what's going on. There's a reason the phrase is "Stop and smell the roses," not "Stop and take a photo of the roses." While focusing through the tight little viewfinder, the camera people are missing everything else that's going on. This is especially true of those with video cameras, which have become as common as T-shirts which say, "My parents went to Myrtle Beach and all I got was this lousy T-shirt that's covered with this morning's Grand Slam breakfast from Denny's." For some reason people with video cameras seem to think every moment is worth documenting. Either that or they own stock in Maxell. They follow the family as they walk down the sidewalk towards the Alamo. They hang out the window as they drive along miles and miles of barren desert. And they slowly pan along tourist information signs so they'll be able to read it when they watch it at home because they were too busy taping to read it in person. Ah, were it only to read: "Caution, videotaping this sign is punishable by making you watch all your vacation videos in one continuous sitting."Do people actually plunk themselves down and watch the 372 hours of videotape they took of their vacation at Lake Nothing-Happens? And why do they feel compelled to subject their about-to-be-former- friends to it as a nice break from playing Trivial Pursuit--the Dairy Products Edition? While photographs capture Kodak Moments--or so we always hope--video tapes relive the experience in all its agonizing detail, the kind of detail that makes one yearn for the delight of an all-weekend Baywatch Nights marathon.Of course I may be wrong. After all, people do watch a lot of television. If you're an average American you watch 1,600 hours of TV a year. That's more than 4 hours a day, or approximately half the time you spend pretending to work. Add to that the fact that more than half of us regularly watch TV while eating dinner (which next to chunky style sour cream is the primary cause of indigestion in this country), and you start to wonder if the act of seeing your vacation on the TV screen is actually validation that it really happened.That may explain why people love posing the family in front of tourist spots. It's a way of saying "We were here". Either that or, Ansel Adams be damned, they really think the view of Yosemite Falls is improved by their presence. Hopefully they'll confine this habit to their travels here at home, for if they try this in Afghanistan they could be arrested. Not long ago the Taliban religious army banned the photographing or filming of people, saying photography violates the beliefs of Islam. You know, you have to admire any religion that helps ensure that an evening with friends who just came back from a vacation at the Arabian Sea won't include four hours of watching them smile as they get knocked down by another wave.Hmmmm...Maybe I should sit down and write a letter suggesting this ban to my Congressman. Nah, he's probably busy videotaping his family as they leave the house and get in the car, ready to go on vacation. Wave everybody!

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