As photographers we often see the world through our cameras — literally. If we aren't holding a camera, we're often planning or imagining a photo. The drive to compose and take photos shapes the way we interact with the world. Has this compulsion ever ruined an experience for you? I was recently watching Ted Forbes' YouTube video, No Photography Allowed. The video discusses how a camera, or at least the drive to take photos, can take away from certain experiences. Forbes' video revolves around his trip to an art gallery that was designed to be completely immersive. Forbes explains that by taking photos you risk taking yourself outside of the moment and, consequently, miss the point or the experience altogether. If you haven't seen it yet, it's worth a quick look.
Likewise, take a moment to read Robert Baggs' recent article here on Fstoppers about Photo-Taking Impairment Effect. The theory of Photo-Taking Impairment Effect suggests that the act of taking photos reduces the likelihood that you will remember the event itself. Wouldn't this lend credence to the idea that focusing through your camera instead of on a moment itself could ruin an experience? The potential that your very memory is being degraded by the act of taking a picture, implies that cameras can do more than ruin an experience, that they can in a way nullify it.
What types of experiences can be ruined by focussing on photography rather than the moment?
This got me to thinking. What type of experiences can be ruined by focussing on photography rather than on the moment? On the other hand, if photography is so ingrained in someone's personality, does putting the camera away and missing a photo create such a sense of regret that the experience is otherwise tainted? I'm not talking about the now commonplace idea that if you don't post it on Instagram, it didn't happen. I'm not talking about taking a photograph for the sake of taking a photograph, but more of an existential need to take photographs. What if, like many artists, a camera is the way you interact with the world? After all, nobody would suggest that Monet should have put his brushes away and just enjoyed the sunset over his haystacks.
Personally, I've had a camera add to my experience and I've had a camera detract from my experience. I can't firmly come down on either side.
A Camera Added to my Experience
I've attended several concerts over my lifetime. At two shows in particular I felt compelled to take photos. My friends suggested that I stop taking photos and just enjoy the show. For some reason, I couldn't. I felt a need to keep shooting. I bopped, I sang, and I photographed. I left the concert feeling I got everything I could have gotten out of the experience. I also ended up with a couple of my favorite photographs.
A Camera Detracted from my Experience
During a recent photography trip to Tanzania, my partner and I were lucky enough to watch our first cheetah hunt. As the cheetah stalked the gazelle, our guide was adamant that we should put our cameras down and watch the spectacle. My partner listened, I didn't. As the cheetah started to give chase I happily snapped away. My partner observed only. Once the gazelles were aware of the cheetah they made a break for it. The cheetah shifted into another gear in order to give chase. I wasn't ready for this. My partner, who didn't have a camera to her face, let out a sigh of amazement. She was able to watch the cheetah move from a low slink, to a quick trot, to a fast run, to a full out sprint. I saw only little bits of it. I missed the full experience.
The Decision to Not Take Photos Added to my Experience
I'm a really big history buff. I'm intrigued by almost all periods. Perhaps the two world wars attract most of my attention. The first time I went to the World War I battlefield at Vimy Ridge in France I walked around for hours before I took my camera out. I wanted to feel the moment instead of capture it. In fact, aside from a few quick snaps, I didn't take any serious photos until I found my way back to Vimy about 10 years later. I've read almost everything there is to read about Vimy. But, it is those mist shrouded moments, wandering aimlessly that come to mind when I think about Vimy. None of my photographs create the same mood as my experience.
Similarly, in Rwanda, I visited several scenes of the genocide. I can't explain exactly why, but more often than not the cameras stayed in my bags. There were some stunning sights and moments that might have produced some incredible photos, but I intentionally let those moments slip away. I've never regretted that decision.
A Balanced Approach?
When I first hiked to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, I had decided that for the first 30 minutes of my hour with the the gorillas, I wouldn't take any pictures. I'd just sit and be with them. Over those first 30 minutes I saw some amazing interactions between the gorillas that, in part, I do regret not capturing. But, those 30 minutes also let me watch the gorillas and let them watch me. We looked at each other and in a sense, interacted with each other. I do believe that I might have missed that experience if I had had a camera to my face the entire time.
My memories of the island South Georgia, not the photographs I took, haunt me more than any others. South Georgia is some 4 days sail east of the southern tip of South America. It is remote and it is beautiful. Although I took thousands of photographs while I was there, looking at those pictures do not make me feel the same way as my memories of the sights, sounds, and smells do. Sometimes standing in line at the grocery store, waiting in traffic, or just before I fall asleep at night, my memories of South Georgia come rushing back. I love my photographs. They are a testament to my memories, but, separated from the photographs, it was the memories alone that slowly made me realize that I was chasing the wrong things in life. When I finally made the decision to move on from my career as a lawyer, it was these memories that urged me on.
I'd really like to hear about your experiences: has taking photos every ruined an experience? Has being told to put your camera away ruined an experience? Please share.
Images used with permission of let us go photo