Shortly before I left Idaho for the East Coast, I lost the camera my parents got me for Christmas last year. I also lost my ipod, my backpack, and a moleskin notebook—full of what I now believe were brilliant ideas for stories and poems—because I’m really quite good at losing things. The point, though, is that I’m now in one of the most beautiful countries in South America and I don’t have a camera.
This has caused me to think a lot more about something that has troubled me in the past: the difference between experiencing something beautiful or meaningful or real in that moment versus experiencing something while trying to capture it with a camera. If we rely too much on our cameras to capture life as we are living it, are we really remembering what we experience, or are we remembering something other? It’s hard because I love taking pictures, but to do so requires attention and focus on capturing an image of what I am doing or where I am instead of fully investing in that moment while I’m there. Am I capturing a memory, or am I creating a new one that I’ll remember differently whenever I encounter it?
I like taking pictures for myself, to document times, people, and places I’ve experienced. And, I like taking them to share with other people. But some of the best memories I have are of times when no one was bothering to capture what we were doing. And I think that might mean something. What happens when our cameras or phones are doing the remembering for us? What happens when we have a billion pictures of some pretty place somewhere, but we don’t even remember why we were there?
Of course, I have pictures of some great times I’ve had too. And I don’t mean I’m happier not having a camera here, because I don’t think I am. But I’m not unhappy either. I’ve seen some great views of Quito that I’ve wanted to capture, but part of me is somehow at peace with not being able to do so. It’s more exciting and more permanent at the same time.
I think my qualms with rampant picture taking has something to do with me being part of the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter generation. We are a generation that loves to share, and often over-share, via social networking sites or text messages. We love to feel like we are connected with other people or to feel like what we are doing matters to others. I think a small amount of this is natural and healthy; however, I think that if we are not careful, it can interfere with the way we experience real life. It can also turn into a competition of whose life looks more interesting online--but the interaction between photography and social media is a different topic for a different day. Right now, I’m talking about the interaction between photography and reality.
I read an article in the New Yorker this morning that made me think more about this. It was written by a father who has become somewhat addicted to capturing the life of his young family with his iphone. It’s actually pretty cheesy, but contains some gems like this one:
"Perhaps everyone should make a weekly ritual of twenty-four hours of undocumented life. Periods of time in which memory must do all the heavy lifting, or none of it, as it chooses, the consequences being what they may be. No phone, no eclipse glasses to mitigate the intensity of what lies before you. The only options are appetite, experience, memory, and later, if so inclined, writing it down." (Link to full article: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/12/saying-goodbye-to-now-how-do-iphone-photos-impact-our-experience.html)
Do I still wish I had a camera right now? Definitely. But if and when I do get a camera again, I don't want it to interfere with my real experiences and my memories. I want to be more aware of when, how, and why I take pictures.