Photography, Technological Hand-Wringing, and Living in the Moment

One moment – two photos


Summer is here, folks are out at parks and on vacation, and some people have too much time on their hands and are writing more dumb articles on the internet. I recently read several related pieces which allege that taking photos prevents one from fully living in the moment and even “outsources memories,” a vague, but ominous-sounding consequence of digital photography.

Before I begin, I will say, I think there are absolutely occasions where we should use caution in taking photos. In some situations, the photos you’re taking might be exploitative or infringe on the privacy of others. In others, they may just annoy the people around you or prevent you from giving them your full attention. I usually don’t take my DSLR to family events because I want to focus on my family vs the camera, and when I’m hanging out with with friends, I never take photos. I also think it’s good to be careful that you’re not using the combination of photography + the internet to try to prove that your life is interesting or attempt make up for your own insecurities. But really, like most technologies, photography is one where you need to draw your own boundaries. You’re absolutely not a bad person if you can take great photos of family gatherings without getting distracted. But if you’re a non-photographer, maybe reserve judgement on hobbyists and professionals who’re enjoying an activity that’s important to them.

My honeymoon – still special even though we took this blurry selfie by Bushkill Falls

The main thing that interests me about the phenomenon of articles like these is that I’ve never seen a photographer write one. In fact, in the comments on these sorts of articles, I saw photographers saying that taking photos didn’t keep them from enjoying their lives, but other commenters were telling them their experiences were wrong. In these situations, it’s always a well-meaning, hand-wringing outsider who lumps excessive picture taking in with all the other vices of this generation’s favorite love-to-hate device – the smartphone.


Yes, smartphones have permeated society and not always for the good. Yes, smartphones are equipped with cameras which can enable excessive picture taking. But there’s a big difference between your average Joe or Jane who takes too many blurry photos with their iphone and a professional or hobbyist photographer who has the ability to see a scene or an exciting action and turn it into a work of art. Taking pictures isn’t the same thing as photography, and perhaps the ability of anyone to take photos blurs that distinction. Being a photographer is a lot more than holding up a camera and pressing a button. There is a world of both artistic and technical factors that have to be taken into consideration, often in the span of minutes or seconds. Lighting, shutter speed, aperture, white balance. There are rules of composition to consider and a photographer’s own interpretation of a scene that comes through in the photos they take.


Australia in 2004. Taken with a cheap film camera my parents got as a wedding present
One of the first pictures I took when I got interested in photography on a trip to Australia in 2004. Taken with a cheap film camera my parents got as a wedding present

I may be a far cry from a professional, but I’ve enjoyed photography as a hobby for 10 years and can say with confidence that good photography takes skill and that for many photographers, it enhances living in the moment rather than detracting from it. I have a bit of a hurried personality and I tend to rush around too much. But years of developing a photographic eye has improved my capacity to slow down and notice details in the world around me. I’ve found it’s a pursuit that encourages intentionality over haste. This allows me to live more fully in the moment, rather than always mentally rushing off to the next thing. The texture of flower petals, the glint of light off the water, a smile on someone’s face – even if I don’t have a camera in hand, I still think in photos and see the world around me in detail.

Since I’m claiming to be a photographer, I should probably show you a non-crappy photo I took, right?

Another concern I’ve heard raised is one of outsourcing memories. In an age when memorization seems to be less of an essential skill and many fewer things are memorized, I hardly see why the camera is a negative example of this. Of all the important information that people no longer store in their heads, we’re going to get upset about images? The thing about memories is, they fade. Time passes and we just forget, or perhaps we get older and aren’t able to remember much at all. I don’t want to have to rely solely on my mind to remember how things were. For trips and holidays with family when I was younger, the photos we have often serve as touchstones for more memories that aren’t on film. Even for more recent events, photos help me remember things I might have otherwise forgotten.


In the instance of the photo below, it was the one picture taken on a beautiful summer afternoon back in 2009 that I had completely forgotten until I came across the photo two weeks ago. Thad and I had gone to a concert his dad was playing in a local park. We got kettle corn, gave his sister some money to try her luck at the duck pond, and we laid on a blanket in the grass and listened to the music. None of those things are in the photo, but when I saw it, all the other memories and sensory details came rushing back.

Before we had smartphones or selfies.

The final benefit of these maligned “outsourced memories” is that we can share them with others. While it’s mostly something I do for my own enjoyment, I’d like to think that my photography is also of some benefit to others. I know I enjoy seeing photos from friends and family – right now one of my best friends is in Japan and I love seeing the things she shares on facebook, but it allows me a window into unique, beautiful, or funny things I might never see otherwise. Likewise, old photos, these memories stored on paper or film or computers can be shared with people in the future, so that they can share in collective memories or their families and communities. Surely this is part of the point of imagination, rather than a failure of imagination, isn’t it?


It seems that in certain circles, especially Christian ones, it’s cool to be a Luddite of sorts, and you immediately can claim moral high ground by pointing out the flaws in new technology which you may or may not fully understand or appreciate. But I’d recommend setting aside your righteous indignation and try to living in the moment yourself rather than worrying so much about the behavior of others. I’ve been told this “in the moment” is a great place to be and I believe we all can get there in our own ways.


Fellow photographers, do you set any kinds of boundaries around your camera or smartphone usage in general or in particular circumstances?


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