Maxwell Barna is a local photographer and writer based right here in Philadelphia. He has written for national publications such as Vice, Huffington Post, High Snobiety, HypeBeast, Thrillist, Leica Camera, and many more.
This is the second piece in a commissioned series exploring his personal experience with photography.
All images ©Max Barna, used with permission.
Travel Without Photography is a Sin
I remember being in the garage with my dad one afternoon when I was a small boy. We were working on one of his motorcycles. It was a shiny black Honda that he’d purchased in the ‘80s, but had let sit for some years after he and my mother had me. Somewhere between bolting up the new carburetor and setting the bike’s idle speed, he turned to me and asked a question I’d never forget: “What do you want to be when you grow up, Max?”
I’ll never forget that moment. I remember stopping, thinking for a second, and then telling him that I didn’t care what I wound up doing, so long as I got to travel the world. He smiled and joked with me that if I wanted to travel, I’d be better off joining the Army, because we were a simple, blue collar family. I never forgot that day, and I don’t think I ever will.
These days, brands, publishers, and clients pay me to travel all over the world. I’ve been to places like The Bahamas, Nicaragua, Ireland, Canada, Mexico a few times, Iceland, Puerto Rico, nearly every contiguous U.S. state, Spain, Sweden, and a bunch of others I’m sure I’m forgetting. And no matter where I’m going, no matter what I’m doing there, I always make sure I never leave without my camera.
Why? Well, there are a few reasons.
Photograph taken on a Fuji X100F
The first and most practical is that when I travel, no matter for business or pleasure, my main goal is making memories that’ll last me for the rest of my life. In fact, I’d say that I’m in the memory making business. Unfortunately, when you’re in a strange and unfamiliar place with strange and unfamiliar people, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and flustered by all the beautiful things happening around you. Your main line of defense? Your trusty camera.
There’s no better way to recall the beautiful ceiling in Paris’ Café de la Paix than by looking up and grabbing a photo of it in between glasses of Bordeaux. Were you blown away by the tiny streets and towering centuries old architecture in Stockholm’s Historic District? Snap away, friend. How about how vibrant and beautiful those Dutch tulips were? The reds, the violets, the yellows? And the way they were aligned so neatly in the foreground, while snowcapped Ardennes Mountains towered off in the background? Are they unforgettable? Perhaps. But the only way to be sure is capturing them forever.
Photograph taken on a Fuji X100F
Which brings me to my next reason. To me, my travel photos are little bookmarks; tiny frame-by-frame time capsules. They don’t just help me recall the little details of a beautiful scene, but they take me back to how I was feeling in that moment—even if the photos themselves don’t turn out all that well. Looking back on that blurry photo the girl in the cowboy hat begged me to take of her and her friends in that one Honky Tonk bar in Nashville takes me back to that evening. The stale beer and whiskey dripping its way off the bar and onto the wood chipped floor. The rockabilly band with the talented lead, strumming away Johnny Cash covers until four in the morning. Who the hell even knew he had that many songs? My eyes see these photos even years later, and my brain recollects almost perfectly the way life was in that moment—and damn, is it beautiful, even if those faces wound up blurry and underexposed.
Photograph taken on a Leica M6 with Kodak Ektar 100 35mm Film.
Finally, it took me a little while to realize this, but when I go out into the world, traveling isn’t just about me. These stories and memories I pick up on the road are for all the people in my life waiting for me back home—and for all the friends and loved ones I make along the way. Can I tell you about the beautiful meal we had at that one restaurant in that one country? Sure. But there’s nothing like being able to see the beauty of it. All the #foodies reading this know exactly what I’m talking about. Could I tell you about those beautiful horses running through the mud on that farm outside Reykjavik; how they came in every color imaginable? About how personable and emotional their eyes were? Or about how they seemed to transform into a sea of color, with waves of orange, and blonde, and deep brown when the sun hit them? It sounds nice, but the photos are nothing short of breathtaking.
Photograph taken on a Fuji X100F
And that’s the point of it all. All of the above is just a long and drawn out way of saying that your camera takes the best of your experiences and puts them in a frame-by-frame postcard for you to look back on for the rest of your life and share with the people who matter. Taking photographs carefully can help you slow down and acknowledge the beauty of every little thing happening around you—even if you’re overwhelmed and finding it difficult to live in the moment. When I look at all the reasons why I love traveling, they fall under two categories: Experiencing incredible new things in incredible new places, and being able to look back on those things whenever I want to (or need to). Photography makes all of that possible.
Photos help me remember what I was doing, when I was doing it. They help me remember sites and sounds, people and places. They help me remember the smaller details that often get lost underneath all the big important ones. They help me capture those memories forever, to do anything with them I’d like, whether it be sharing them with friends and family, or locking them away in a box for my eyes only.
Most importantly, and above all else, travel photography helps make my trip worthwhile. I’m never as aware or present as I am when my camera is in my hands. I’m always on the lookout for something cool and worthwhile to capture. And since every moment is fleeting and comes but once in a lifetime, it’s important to be there—and stay there—as long as you can. Unless I figure out time travel, photography is the only way to ensure that happens.
I never leave home without my camera, and I hope after reading this, you won’t, either.
Visit Maxwell on Instagram to see more of his photography and writing work..