The Greatest Photographs You Never Took Part 2

The frustrating thing about photography, and about travel journals in general, is that no matter how evocative your captures, how skilful your editing and how eloquent and expressive your prose, you know that you can never, ever capture the experience of being there. There are many places in the world that lack ‘big ticket’ sights, that have no magnet for visitors: no Taj Mahal no Houses of Parliament, no Uluru. They’re the better for it, but a visitor needs to linger a while and absorb the flavour and texture of the place, and this is often beyond the scope of a two-week visit, and shooting 6×8 windows on these worlds is annoying and futile, like eating chocolate with the wrapper on. It’s not for nothing that browsing photographs of others’ travels is travel porn because it whets the appetite in a similar way without occasioning the gratification that is surely the point of…er…we were talking about travel, weren’t we?

One such place is Cambodia. With the very significant and notable exception of Ankor Wat, Cambodia has little to attract the flash tourist. Phnom Penh has a fearful reputation – although one which has to be taken in the context of Asian cities, which are generally far safer than US or European cities – which puts many casual tourists off visiting.

There really is nothing that can capture the atmosphere of Phnom Penh. The colours are washed and muted, the atmosphere a mix of dust and pepper and spice. The roads are potholed and rumpled as an unmade bed and every building of age is at differing stages of collapse.  There is a palpable menace in the air, but most of those offering menace are very accomplished criminals, policemen, politicians or often all three at the same time. They aren’t interested in you unless you bump into their children or scratch their cars. In fact, I did once do this while walking from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to the bank. I had left everything I owned except the clothes I was wearing and the prepay card I used to withdraw cash back at the FCC. On the way back, I stumbled off the kerb and into a black SUV with no number plates. I’ll never now what it was, but there was a definite ear-curdling screech of shredding paint and I quickly composed myself and walked in a brisk but very controlled fashion the rest of the way down the Riverfront. You have to remember that this is a city which, 10 years ago, was out-of-bounds for those not carrying a firearm. 35 years ago, it was completely empty due to the Khmer Rouge evacuation. People don’t take many photos in PP, partly because it’s not a particularly photogenic city but mainly because they’re mostly too afraid of robberies to risk displaying their camera. There’s some logic to this: Phnom Penh’s crime rate us unusually high for a Southeast Asian city, but it’s still a lot lower than almost any North American city, and most European cities.

So, here is the second non-photo in the series: Australian Man In Cambodia National Football Team Away Shirt, The Magic Sponge Bar, Phnom Penh.

In Phnom Penh, there exists the greatest bar in the world. It’s right near the backpacker guesthouses at lakeside; or at least it was; the tourist industry is filling the lake with sand to form the foundations of luxury hotels now, as though to mark again the end of the era of democratised travel. It sells cheap wine and spliffs, whichever is your thing and it has a PS2 for its patrons to play.

I’d been wandering around Psar Thmei, Phnom Penh’s huge art deco market that day and I’d seen a Cambodian reserve football shirt for sale in a hugely fetching shade of day-glo green/yellow. I really wanted it, but hesitated over buying it as I was still too whacked out by the town’s insanity to properly take in what was happening. Later on in the bar when I saw the guy wearing it, I knew I’d made a mistake.

The Greatest Photographs You Never Took Part 1

All photographs start in the same place: in the mind of the photographer. Their paths through reality vary after that initial blossoming of firing neurons.

Find a photograph. It’s almost certain that there’s one within a few feet, or a few clicks from where you are. Perhaps there’s one on this page. Now, open a magazine and look at an advertisement. Look at the textures, the sumptuous and carefully-chosen palette, the precisely-judged texture of the image; it’s beautiful, at least to someone. Of the millions of photographs taken every minute that this planet turns, such a tiny fraction make it as far as that photograph has that it’s really a miracle that that particular image is printed on that page and that you are looking at it now. If we consider the journey of an image from this point backwards, for each shot that has been published in a magazine, or displayed on a website having passed approval by an editor after editing and retouching, after selection by the photographer from a range of similar images shot that day. And they’re the ones remaining on the camera after the cull of lame, overexposed, poorly-composed runts.

But the captures that never passed the bleep of the autofocus button number even greater and the scenes that existed only in the photographer’s mind are endlessly fascinating to me. They are more beautiful and perfect, more personal than even the most lovingly-crafted final products.

A friend of mine, @frak once advocated not carrying a camera while travelling because the captured images expand to become your only memories of the place or occasion and while my extremely poor memory precludes such a strategy, it is true, I think, that the most beautiful photographs are the ones that you never took. The ones that framed themselves spontaneously when your camera was at home. The ones that were beyond your technical ability to capture but especially the moments that impressed upon you such sublime and mysterious beauty that no lens, no filter and no process could ever but diminish it.

I’d love to do a gallery exhibition, empty frames of solid colour with a neatly-written description of each never-forgotten moment but I haven’t the money, the time or the reputation to even imagine doing so. So here it is: an part one of an exhibition of the greatest photographs I never took.

I didn’t take this photo in a tiny local bus from Dhulikhel, Nepal back to Kathmandu because the windows were open only a few inches due to early monsoonal rains and I couldn’t get up from my seat because I’d been wedged in for 7 hours. The bus was overcrowded even by Nepali standards. Not helping the atmosphere was the smoke from the cigarettes of the two young Nepalis who were lovingly nursing viciously sharp kukris, pointedly pre-empting any complaints that might otherwise have been lodged.

The window next to me was leaking and I hadn’t moved a muscle below my waist for four hours. I was settling into that almost masochistic state of mind that I find essential to surviving long and uncomfortable journeys when the bus rounded a corner and the bus lurched to the left so that through the ineffectively-open window on the far side I saw for a heartbeat this scene that I would remember among all the others that have made my heart soar. I love the detail on the rice terraces, like undulating cogs or stacked layers in a vast organic machine, so green that it hurts your eyes. I love the way the curves of the slopes draw your eye past terracotta farm shacks to the utterly magnificent glacial peaks of the Himalayas, burning red and gold from the late, lazy sun. The steam that you see rising from the valley on the right of the picture is the evaporation of copious fresh rainwater in the subtropical heat, rising in a haze over the jungle.

I’m glad I didn’t take this photo. A poorly-exposed shot from seat 6 of the local rattletrap would have diminished one of the peak experiences of my life.