No Photography Allowed: Has Photography Ever Ruined Your Experience?

No Photography Allowed: Has Photography Ever Ruined Your Experience?

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

An example of when watching an event through my camera created a better 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.

Another example of when watching an event through my camera created a better experience.

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

A snap from a dreary day at Vimy Ridge after walking around for hours.

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.

A photograph from a return trip to Vimy that I like, but that doesn't make me feel the moment.

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.

An emotional connection through my camera. Note: Guhonda is the largest primate on the planet.

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. 

Alone with 200 000 of our closest friends. I love the depth in this photo, but, it can't capture the emotions I felt while I reflected on the direction of my life.

Your Experiences

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

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Rob Davis's picture

My rule, if there are good photos in the gift shop, I don’t take pictures. I don’t need my own version of things that have been done a thousand times before.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

That's not a bad rule to start with. I think I get what you're saying. But, there is something to be said of trying a different angle etc. If you don't start because it's been done before, there might not be experimentation. What do you think?

Rob Davis's picture

I'm thinking like a state park or a museum where there is a defined viewing area from which people have had relatively the same vantage point for decades and decades. Especially if such places offer special opportunities for photographers to take pictures like some zoos or state parks.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Makes sense. Thanks!

Robert Altman's picture

My rule is- look at the photos in the gift shop- and ONLY take images that are NOT those photos. That might mean no photos. It might mean a lot. Usually it means just a few...

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

With you on this.

Rob Davis's picture

This would also make the world a better place.

Jason Connel's picture

I agree it can take away. So, for instance I have a rule I don't photograph sunsets or sunrises. Normally, I'm shooting during those times, but if I do have the opportunity to not be working during one I just take it in and enjoy it.

Same thing with family events. I don't photograph them. I enjoy them.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

The comment “no family” is my typical approach. Sort of like chefs who don’t want to cook at family gatherings.

David Vaughn's picture

I always take photos at family events. But my family is very deep in genealogy and history so we have photographic records dating to the mid-19th century. One of my favorite things to do is relive family moments through photos, because often times our memory alone isn't enough. And I'd like those moments to live on after I die.

Family events are the one thing I always photograph lol

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Different approach. But, completely makes sense!

Jason Connel's picture

Totally get it. But for me I loose something in the event if I'm taking photos. I have a harder time remembering what happened if I was shooting it.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

It alternates for me. No rhyme or reason. Maybe if a certain mood strikes me? But, thanks for coming back to continue the conversation!

Timothy Linn's picture

I commend you, Mark, for contributing to this discussion rather than just linking to Ted's video with some pro forma text underneath.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Wow. Thanks Timothy!

Scott Wardwell's picture

I spent time at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. back in 2014. I was very respectful and circumspect about my shooting the multiple exhibits. By the end of my time there I had shot over 600 frames and I still did not get everything. The weird thing was that I have difficulty recalling aspects of the museum that I did not have pictures of with the exception of the claustrophobic elevator with the steel walls in a rusty patina that was to give you the feel of a gas chamber.
If I visit again, I will leave my camera at the hotel.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

My trips to both the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin as well as the Holocaust memorials in Père Lachaise Cemetery could have worked as examples. Much like your experience. The Berlin memorial certainly is designed to be a sensory overload. The camera certain lets you dissociate yourself and miss the experience.
Why would you leave your camera at the hotel next time?

Scott Wardwell's picture

To be a visitor and take in the full experience and to not be distracted by taking pictures. I found that I was spending more time setting up the shot for effect and not immersing myself in the narrative. My advice would be to go first without the camera and return later with a camera. The story being told is too important to dilute by having the camera act as a filter to your own memory.
In hindsight, it was like my only motivation to being there was to take pictures as just an observer.

Studio 403's picture

From my perspective this “babble” video is a lot about nothing. Follow the rules where one goes shooing. Really don’t want high minded what I call “look down” on this craft. Keep it simple, if you like it , shoot it.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Certainly agree that following the rules is important. But, within permissive rules you always have a choice to take a photo or not. Has that decision ever made your experience better? Has it ever made it worse?

Joel Peterson's picture

I’ve more than once felt robbed of an afternoon with my family as I couldn’t put the damn camera down. I’ve learned to only bring the camera on family outings if I feel I can grab a handful of photos and then put it away and forget about it.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Agreed. In fact, I make it a point to not have my "camera" at family outings!

Torgeir Hansson's picture

Try to go see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. There are so many flashes going off that it is hard to even discern the painting, where it hangs behind its thick armored glass.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

It’s a crazy show! Agreed.
I’m a much bigger fan of Winged Victory.

John Skinner's picture

One of my largest peeves is being trapped in a social setting, having to hear people like this guy in the video speak.

No real message. Just a whole lot of words and seemingly overwhelmed by the sound of his won voice.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I felt that Forbes' video was more the beginning of a conversation. I for one find that that is what these type of communities are for. I found the idea of whether a camera can 'ruin' or 'detract' from an experience interesting.
I agree that not every conversation can be for everyone, but, I did find this one interesting and thought I'd contribute.