How many times have you photographed yourself while traveling?

It’s easy enough to do these days, with light digital cameras and nimble cell phones with cameras.  If you’re traveling solo, self-photography is often the easiest and safest way to document your presence in a destination, — do you really want to hand over your electronics to a stranger? But even when I’m traveling in the company of others, I’ll still often snap my own picture. It seems easier to avoid distracting companions from their own experience, for one thing, and for another, there’s sheer vanity — the typical arm outstretched angle of self-photography is slimming.

I’ve been thinking about photography and travel recently — you may have seen what I wrote about photographing strangers without permission a few weeks ago — and so I’ve been reading up on it as well. Last week, I brushed off my copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which I bought who-knows-when, and apparently only got as far as the page after the table of contents, which I dog-eared.

But I’m absorbed in it now, especially the parts where she considers the camera-wielding habits of tourists.

As Sontag sees it, tourists take photos as  a way of relieving the anxiety of disorientation that comes from being in another place, freed from the constraints of work and routine. Photography, she writes, helps people take possession of a space in which they feel insecure.

So what, then, can you say about the widespread habit of photographing ourselves while traveling — and of course sharing those pictures on Facebook and other social media? You can argue that it speaks to a certain amount of self-absorption — we sure do spent a lot of time looking at ourselves in those digital windows on our cameras and our phones, when we could be looking at the surroundings we’ve journeyed to experience.

But I think we keep looking at ourselves when we’re traveling because we’re insecure about ourselves — about who we really are, and whether a place is changing us.  We photograph a phenomenon to observe it closely, to make it sit still and to see how it changes, from frame-to-frame. And maybe those pictures help us to take possession of our own selves — the terra incognita that we bring with us everywhere.