We are all photographers because, well, we like taking pictures. But just because we like taking photos doesn't always mean we should be taking them. When is it time to put the camera away?
We're generating more photos at higher qualities than ever, and like any technology that advances and finds itself into more hands at a lightning rate, the etiquette and social norms that accompany that technology tend to lag behind a bit. And as we find ourselves taking more and more photos — almost on autopilot at times — it's prudent to ask when we should stop taking photos.
Experiences and Weddings
Go to any concert or wedding, and you'll see a myriad of phones held up to faces, recording the event, along with a few DSLRs belonging to the Uncle Bobs of the world. But for what? There seems to be a culture of showing the world: "look, I was there!" And sure, a quick snap and a status update to share with friends and family (or, let's be honest, to score those dopamine hits) is one thing. But when we spend an event with a camera or phone to our face, what are we gaining, or even more importantly, what are we losing?
If it's a concert, we might get some terrible video footage with completely distorted audio that no one in their right mind will ever watch. If it's a wedding, we might get some okay snapshots or even decent photos if using a real camera. But the couple has already hired other professionals to do this, so why should we? Is it to be the first on social media to show off the new couple? Because our photographic instincts are still going? Do we feel almost naked being in a situation waiting to be photographed without our cameras?
On the other hand, what do we lose? More than we might realize. Psychological studies tell us that our memories of events are worse when we photograph them. We're not present in the moment, because we're more concerned with documenting it than experiencing it. I would argue that if we're with someone, we bond less, because our attention is devoted to a more self-serving activity than a mutual experience. I would argue it's just plain rude, even if we're by ourselves. No one wants to try to see the stage over thousands of phone screens (and believe me, it upsets the artists too), and the bride and groom didn't hire you, Uncle Bob. Why is the proof of having been there more important than being there?
Making People Uncomfortable and Tragedy
In the United States at least, the First Amendment essentially says that if you have a camera, you can photograph whatever or whomever you want, as long as you're in a public place where there's no reasonable expectation of privacy. And that's a very important law for a lot of reasons. But sometimes, we make the mistake of equating what's legal with what's ethical, trumpeting that the law allows us to do something when our actions are challenged. But the two are not always one and the same.
For example, suppose a family you don't know is involved in a severe accident in front of you as you're walking down the sidewalk. Can you legally take pictures of them as they're lying bloodied in the street? Yes. Is it ethical? I think most people would agree that unless you're a media photographer with some journalistic reason, it's nothing more than exploitative disaster porn.
A more middleground sort of case might be street photography. The same First Amendment law applies there, but that doesn't mean all people enjoy being arbitrarily photographed. I think that in that case, there's a bit of a line that a delicate touch can help one to stay on the right side of. Being open, friendly, and respectful can help a photographer a lot in these situations.
Putting Yourself in Danger
We're all heard stories of selfie-takers accidentally falling to their deaths after jumping a safety barrier or something similar. And while we might scoff at them for dying for seemingly vain reasons, are we completely innocent in our own photographic pursuits? Having a camera and being a professional is a poor rationalization for unnecessary risk-taking when death doesn't care whether you're shooting a Canon, a Sony, or an iPhone. How often do you get a little too close to that cliff for the shot? How often do you trespass where you know you shouldn't? Sure, life is often a game of calculated risks, but at the same time, no photo is worth dying for.
Interfering With Another Photographer
Let's go back to the wedding example. Wedding photographers have a hard enough job as it is: it's a fast-paced genre full of must-have shots that they only have one chance to get. Having someone else running around with a camera risks anything from stealing their professional thunder to preventing them from getting needed shots. The world doesn't need any more Uncle Bobs.
I use this term for things like Instagram shots of food, the compulsive selfies, the random pictures used as excuses to prattle on about the minutiae and tedium of everyday life that we're all dealing with. I don't mean that to sound crotchety; if you want to share that awesome burger and fries or the like, by all means, go for it. The key is in my header is "thoughtless." I mean these photos in the sense that they're taken almost if on autopilot, as if guided by compulsion to do so (and indeed, it may very well be a compulsion for some).
Think of it this way, for those of you old enough to remember. 20 years ago, would you call up 30 of your friends to tell them about the burger you were eating? Social media has given us an outlet to broadcast to the world at large whatever we please, no matter how mundane, how trivial. And worse, it has conditioned us to indulge in doing so. And in turn, that draws our attention more toward manufacturing the image of our lives than letting it come about organically from how we live. I know a lot of people for whom the disparity between their apparent happiness and contentment as seen on social media and their true emotional well-being is disconcertingly wide, and without fail, they tend to be the ones who try the most on Facebook, Instagram, etc. It saddens me. This short film always summed it up well for me:
We're producing more images than ever, and those numbers will only continue to grow. But there's always a quantity versus quality argument to consider, and as cameras invade more and more of our lives, it's one well worth considering. Images should be things that capture the reasons we live; they shouldn't be the reasons themselves. They're the means, not the end.
Lead image by Suliman Sallehi.