It was October of 2012, and I was in the middle of a 40 km trek to remote Hmong and Khmu villages outside of Luang Prabang, in Northern Laos. I was two months into a fifteen-month trip around the world that I had been dreaming of for quite some time and planning for a year prior to my departure. I spent more time debating which camera system to bring than anything else. I forwent my film cameras for a DSLR with a few different lenses and a Polaroid Z2300 Instant Digital Camera. After living in South Korea, and traveling around Asia for five years, I knew printing images instantly would be a huge hit in many of the destinations that I planned to visit on this round-the-world trip. While many of my Korea-based friends headed to a beach on holiday, I headed to a remote village that required a day (or more) trek to reach. These breaks were welcome respites from crowds of people, traffic, and technology. Most villages operated on a single power source, if there was one at all. Farming was, and most likely still is, the main source of income. And, unless there was access to a computer, digital and/or printed photographs were few and far between.
Throughout the trip, I maintained a blog for friends and family to follow. When I stumbled upon a reliable Internet connection, I would upload as many images, videos, and travel anecdotes as I could. It wasn’t always timely, especially in remote locations or on days full of air or overland transit but, by the end of the trip, I had a comprehensive account of the good, the bad, and even the bus crash in rural Tanzania. Because of the genius of Polaroid, I was also able to share digital copies of the images that I had taken with my Z2300 and printed for those I had met along the way. More often than not, simply having the camera in the first place led to the most memorable exchanges.
More shy than the previous village [we visited in Northern Laos], the children of Ka Lau Kong always followed, but kept a safe distance from whatever you were doing, or toward wherever you were walking—unless you took their picture and held up your camera for them to see. Then they would rush and surround you, looking at their faces on your screen. Without your camera ready, "playing" with the children made for a fun, yet unintentional game of tag. We never won. I'd like to believe the children were more amused than terrified, but it was sometimes hard to tell.
Interacting with the village children was clearly one of the highlights of the trek. And then, I had enough courage to whip out my new Polaroid Z2300. The first picture I took was of the older gentleman surrounded by children. His wife asked for a picture of the two of them, and then she asked for a picture of me with all of the children. Giving her those pictures was, hands down, the most touching part of this entire trip so far. She couldn't take her eyes off of the pictures and just had this huge smile on her face the whole time. (Excerpt from Day 52: There were LOTS of Leeches)
A few months and a few continents later, and a replacement Z2300 in my hands after an expert pickpocket grabbed my first Z2300, I was ready to make some friends and make some prints. Safety was a big concern throughout our travels through Africa, especially after losing one camera in Asia, so it wasn’t until we were on the sparsely populated Mozambique Island that I felt comfortable walking around with a camera out in the open.
…two girls were dancing just outside of the restaurant, and asked for a picture when they spotted my [DSLR] camera. As you might be able to predict, I pulled out the Polaroid [instead], and made them wait while I pressed print. As soon as one of the girls figured out what was happening, she began jumping up and down and shrieking with absolute glee. She was so excited.
As soon as I handed one print over to her, she raced into the restaurant to show her mother. I tugged on her best friend’s shirt to show her that I was printing another one for her. As soon as it slid out of the camera and I handed it over, she was jumping up and down with it and raced after her friend still screaming inside the restaurant. Aside from the giraffes and multiple zebra encounters, it was the happiest moment I’ve had in Africa. (Excerpt from Day 205: Ilha)
Admittedly, the camera stayed in my backpack for the majority of Europe. On a continent where nearly everyone has a smart phone, instant prints aren’t as exciting as they are in rural Third World villages. I didn’t print another image until we were in Peru, on a man-made island in the middle of Lake Titicaca.
We were then shuffled to the back of the island, presumably so the next group [of tourists] could have a meet-and-greet with the President. A giant reed gondola waited to take everyone for a spin (for an additional fee). Think Venice, only instead of just you and your significant other on the boat, it was you and forty other strangers crammed together. It was something I didn’t need to do, and instead hung back to take some Polaroids and hand them out to the women (and children) of the island.
Once one of the mothers figured out what I was up to, she motioned for me to hold on and disappeared into one of the houses, returning a second later with different clothes for the baby. She changed her outfit, pulled all of her children together and then we took another picture. Then she set the baby down and asked for a picture just of the baby. It was a lot of fun (much more so than sitting on top of another tourist on the full gondola) and it makes taking pictures a much more interactive activity! I have to admit, I feel better about taking pictures when I’m able to give a physical print to the subject right away.
Later that day, on a different island,
These two little guys had trouble getting their drinks opened and asked Andrew for some help. When I looked over they were just sitting together enjoying the view. I had to take a picture… and then handed my camera off to [my] Mom while I pulled out the Polaroid. At first they were a little confused, and the need to reload the paper didn’t help matters. While technologically impressive, it often requires a lot of “wait for it…” gestures and holding the camera up to a child’s ear so they can hear that something magical is about to happen. These two were pretty patient. (Excerpt from Day 367: Lake Titicaca)
Packing the perfect camera equipment for a long trip or a weekend getaway is always a gamble—especially if you’re anything like me and you’re constantly choosing between film and digital. While I genuinely prefer instant film prints, I rarely have room in my budget or in my carry-on for multiple packs of instax or Impossible for Polaroid film—not to mention the fact that neither my instax nor vintage Polaroid camera features a digital sensor to record a 10MP image. Much like when I was in Europe, I don’t use my Z2300 as often now that I’m stateside. But I know that my Z2300 is the first thing going in my backpack when a flight is booked to a third world country. While the portraits themselves might not make it into my portfolio, the Polaroid Z2300 is the perfect ice-breaker when traveling through a community where a DSLR might receive unwanted attention. And when you do feel comfortable walking around with your DSLR, stop to make an instant print to say thank you. It just might lead to an even better portrait or a really great story to share across your social media outlets once you’re back “online.”