When Is It Time to Put the Camera Away?

When Is It Time to Put the Camera Away?

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. 

Thoughtless Snapshots

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:

Conclusions

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.

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37 Comments

I had a weeks-long email discussion with a friend who was looking for advice on long zoom to take on safari.

After all was said and done, I gave him my final observation: "As much as I am really, really into photography, given the choice for a free once-in-a-lifetime safari of (a) a honkin' big DSLR with a good quality long zoom or (b) a really good pair of binoculars...I'd take the binoculars."

Leon Kolenda's picture

Sorry! Once in a lifetime, and you opt for the Binoculars? Dumb!

"Disagree" is one thing. "Dumb", on the other hand, tends to point more towards cognitive limitations than comprehensive analysis.

I get what you're saying, and have no problem with anyone's preference, but I still would've chosen the camera. You can look through the big lens just like binoculars (minus the both eyes part), but you have the option of taking photos. Either way you're looking through a lens.

Just like binoculars? Granted my gear is a bit limited (100-400 Fuji & 120-300 / 150-600 Sigma), but none of those camera lenses is at all like working with even a pair of upper mid-tier Kowa ED glasses.

If shooting photos instead of observing is the activity, what is the communications objective?

"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."

Tell that to the dozens of people who pull out their phones whenever something vaguely interesting happens. I was recently in a subway where a victim had either fallen or jumped on the tracks. One idiot was crouched on the edge of the opposite track platform with a cellphone in one hand trying to get a better angle of the victim's torso under the train.

Having covered news events the conduct of the person with a cellphone is what we have to worry about. The professionals I have worked with know how to conduct themselves respectfully as well as know the bounds of what they are allowed to cover by law. It is often the amateur with a camera that ruins the day.

Motti Bembaron's picture

When Is It Time to Put the Camera Away? When you arrive at a scene of an accident and instead of pulling your big ass camera you try to help. Just a thought....

in todays society? hell no. most likely they wont have a big ass camera but use their phone.

help, whats that? people dont want to intervene, but sure in hell love to use video capture

ma kore chaver

Dear Dr. Motti, are you a firefighter or an Emergency Medical Technician? I am not and will not pretend to be one. Don't try to play doctor/hero at the scene of an accident or you could do more harm than good.

You might want to read the dangers TRAINED rescue personnel face and what they have to do to secure a scene as well as stabilize a patient for transport:

https://www.firerescuemagazine.com/articles/print/volume-4/issue-2/speci...

As you play hero at the scene of an accident on a busy highway you can easily increase the casualty count and become another patient rescue workers have to tend to.

Motti Bembaron's picture

In another article (Miami Police Handcuff Photographer..), you clearly and feverishly defendant a photographer that stopped on the side of the road to take photos of an accident. However, you seem to think that stopping to help a fellow citizen is stupid and irresponsible.

You have strange priorities.

Imagine you are involved in a bad accident and I happen to be the first person there. I pick up my camera and run to the scene. You think I am about to assist you but sorry sir, I cannot. You see, I am not a firefighter or a police officer. I do not have the necessary skills (or basic human decency). But I am a photographer, I can take your bloody picture!

You really can't see the absurdity in that?

If you arrive at a scene and emergency personnel are already there, the safest, the most responsible and the best thing to do is to get out of there.

Hi Doctor Bembaron,

I guess you didn't read the link I posted about how dangerous it is even for trained firefighters and EMT just to secure the scene of a vehicular accident on a busy highway. The risk of the vehicle involved in the accident getting rear ended is also a possibility you should consider as you play hero.

The phrase "First, to do no harm" should be considered as put on your cape to dash across a three lane highway to play EMT. You can cause more injuries to a victim by playing doctor. Leave it to the professionals. Call 911.

Running into a busy highway to save someone is like jumping into a river to save a drowning individual especially if you do not know how to swim. Your mad dash across three lanes can cause a driver to swerve and cause another, possibly fatal chain accident. You yourself may be struck and killed. Now you have just multiplied the number of victims for EMS to treat.

"If you arrive at a scene and emergency personnel are already there, the safest, the most responsible and the best thing to do is to get out of there."

I do not speak for many photographers who cover breaking news but the call is up to the individual photographer if that is their job. I know many who have put down their cameras and helped out. Look at Netflix series "Shot in the Dark"

Unless you are trained in treating patients please do not play doctor at the scene of an accident. Call 911.

Jaran Gaarder Heggen's picture

If you ever go to Norway or Sweden or any other Scandinavian Countries... Remember to put that mentality behind you in a drawer at home...

In all Scandinavian Countries you are breaking the Law if you don't stop and try to help, If there already are someone at the scene, you shall ask if there is something you can do (Stop Traffic, or what ever)... First when police or other emergency units have arrived, you are free to just pass, an then its actually breaking the law if you do stop or hinder the traffic in any way).

And its not legal to publish any photos/videos that can identify the victims... but in Scandinavian Countries no News Desk would ever publish a picture of any victims... Its just not ethical !

And I think its the same in most European Countries...

I know that in Germany you will get a fine for approx 100-150 USD if you slow down and try to film or photograph an accident... if the Police sees you.

Hi, I cannot speak nor am I aware of all the intricacies of the laws in 194 other nations. This happened in the U.S. so I am discussing the current law in the US.

Jaran Gaarder Heggen's picture

I just say that I hope you put that attitude in a drawer if you decide to go to Europa...

And the rest of the world do know that the laws in US is really fxxxed up...

Jaran, I think it's time to put your keyboard away. I have worked in many countries and follow the local laws and customs. The law is the law in US. Sorry they are not to your liking but maybe you can write to congressman.

Jaran Gaarder Heggen's picture

Actually I think you are the one that should put your spelling plate away...

A person that defend the kind of behavior, that "You shouldn't try to help", that its "more important to take the picture of injured people or dead bodies than respect the privacy of the person or family or help them",

I don't care if the Law is the Law in US, it's plain a ignorant Law, and even if it do exist, you do not need to follow it to the degree of inhumanity !

You as a person actually have a choice, A choice to NOT do something the Law allow you to do, but will not punish you for not doing !

Thank someone higher that we have a higher standard in other parts of the world and that most US Citizens also have a higher standard than that...

Jaran Gaarder Heggen's picture

Here is a simple question even you should be able to answer related to this...

If you was in a serious accident, would you rather that the first person to the scene to claim his/hers right to photograph you, and let you die, or that the first person dropped the pictures, helped you and saved your life?

It depends on the situation. The original directive from Dr. Motti was "When you arrive at a scene of an accident and instead of pulling your big ass camera you try to help."

As I said:

"are you a firefighter or an Emergency Medical Technician? I am not and will not pretend to be one. Don't try to play doctor/hero at the scene of an accident or you could do more harm than good.

You might want to read the dangers TRAINED rescue personnel face and what they have to do to secure a scene as well as stabilize a patient for transport:

https://www.firerescuemagazine.com/articles/print/volume-4/issue-2/speci...

As you play hero at the scene of an accident on a busy highway you can easily increase the casualty count and become another patient rescue workers have to tend to."

In most of the situations I have covered there is usually EMS on the scene by the time I arrived. I have helped in cases where someone collapsed on the street or once in a bike accident. But I am not qualified to pull people with severe internal injuries out of a crumpled car in the middle of a busy highway.

Laughing Cow's picture

When you sleep.

at a wedding i'll put mine down when the wedding breakfast starts and only start again when most people are finished eating and are mingling and having a drink again. During dancefloor and candid action i'll move round until i'm happy i have most people covered and then leave everyone alone to enjoy themselves and give them a break from me & my camera.

John Bayler's picture

I live in a small community where most people know or know of someone. One issue that makes me sick is when there is an accident. Pictures of the accident will show up on facebook before the family is notified. In one case a few years ago there was a bad accident with 2 people being thrown out of the vehicle and dying. A, I really don't know how to describe him, so I'll say idiot, was taking pictures of the bodies with his phone when a deputy told him to get out of there an to delete the pictures. He did as told thank goodness. I shoot pictures for a newspaper, which will not run sad stories, but if I were to take a picture of an accident I wouldn't post it until hours later when I know the family has been notified. I work closely with first responders so they all know me and they know I follow a code of ethics.

If they were thrown from the car then they weren't wearing seat belts. You're doing a pubic service by photographing and publishing the most gruesome photos you can to drive the point home that people should always wear their seat belts. That's the ethical thing to do.

Hopefully this deputy sheriff wasn't in the United States. The deputy may have the authority to secure the accident site and ensure that the accident scene, aid efforts, and the investigation are not interfered with. But he/she has no authority to order the deletion of images.

I'll put the camera down when they put my body down to rest!
Seriously, if you need to be told, then you're obviously missing common sense!

I took a trip around the world in 1992-1993. Over 18 months I photographed and video taped on a Hi-8 camera almost daily. At some point, in less than a few years, I found that the video memories of the trip had largely replaced or over written the actual memories of the trip. A few memories and synaptic pathways remain but for the most part if it wasn't recorded it didn't happen. I basically stopped using cameras for the next 15 years. But in 2010, I met a girl that I wanted to photograph, we traveled, got married and had a child. I am videotaping and photographing his life and our life like I was Ken Burns. But I don't take selfies, food photos or have any social media accounts. It's just for us. No one else does or should give a rats a$$.

Kirk Darling's picture

"We're not present in the moment, because we're more concerned with documenting it than experiencing it."

I have found that true of concerts and other events I photographed for newspapers back when I was doing PJ. Dang, especially that Donna Summer concert when I had elbows-on-the-stage for the entire concert. I remember I was there, and I remember the experience of being a photographer and getting the shots...but, no, I don't really recall the concert itself.

Interesting article. I can admit to the 'I must capture this' moment but at least manage to restrain myself sometimes! And most people don't like a camera perpetually stuck in their faces, so get some shots and then relax - I like Joss Denham's approach

John Skinner's picture

Came for the comments... period.

Eddy Waddel's picture

One day . i just decide to put my camera away for close to three yrs...end of...and now started back since 2016...and loving it w...would i do it again..yes just a break..my eyes see just as or better ,...now...

Well I photographed my sister's wedding instead of hiring a photographer. I think using a camera in moderation on trips especially and occasionally for the documentation of your everyday life helps bring back memories. Most photos are not sold for commercial reasons but are for your own personal memories. And some like myself.....maybe I have a very mild form of Autism, but I feel a great accomplishment when I take professional quality photos of myself, my family and my vacations. And like you say there are risks for instance in hiking alone and you have to tell others where you are going so that you do not get into trouble. Find the balance between enjoying the moment and taking some photos.

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