Reading The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton, I am struck by how we tend to devalue the small things. In his chapter on the anticipation of travel, de Botton compares anticipation to art, and argues that “(…) valuable elements may be easier to experience in art and in anticipation than in reality.”
He goes on to suggest that “[t]he anticipatory and artistic imaginations omit and compress, they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments and, without either lying or embellishing, thus lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”
In other words, de Botton suggests here that the small, everyday things of life are boring, and that they distract us from the “valuable elements” and “critical moments” he mentions – the sun setting on a beach, waking up in a medieval monastery to a misty dawn. In all fairness, I haven’t read any further than this yet, but as it stands, I disagree completely.
Rather than bringing boredom and “wooliness”, the small things and the simple details are what makes life vivid and coherent. When I travel, I anticipate seeing the grand, famous sights of my destination, but what is more, I also look forward to exploring the details of how life at my destination is different from at home. I will certainly visit the famous bucket-list attractions, but I am equally eager to do something simple like explore a regular grocery store – nothing brings home the fact that I’m in a foreign country like seeing completely unfamiliar brands of ordinary items such as toothpaste and tea.
The same holds true for photography. Photographing the anticipated sights of our destination is all well and good, but it makes it hard to be original. If I travel to London to see Big Ben and the British Museum, and these sights are all that I photograph, I am likely to come home with images that are very similar to every other tourist’s. But if I also turn my eye and my lens to the little things, the unexpected flaws and the quirks and the cracks in the otherwise perfect tourist facade, I return home much richer in both experience and imagery.