In a series of interviews last year, NPR covered a topic that strikes close to most of us. Why do we take so many pictures and videos, when we often don't look back at them AND they take us away from the every day experience of living in a particular moment?
Psychologist Linda Henkel explains:
"As soon as you hit click on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory," Henkel says. "Anytime we kind of count on these external memory devices, we're taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own."
There have been times (like the Christmas experience above) where I've had a small impression that the camera that was between my loved ones and I was not necessarily connecting me to the experience forever via recording it, but rather cutting me off. I was "outsourcing my memory".
Jim Gaffigan's Dad Is Fat was not only a hilarious listening experience for me, but actually quite insightful (see my review here). In one segment he talks about how silly it is that we take so many photos and videos and mostly they end up on old hard drives in our closet. I mean, do you really want to sort through 5,000 pictures of a two day family vacation? And if you do, are you going to frame them all or what?
So we should never take pictures? Just live our lives and enjoy every moment? No, I am not saying that. As both a filmmaker and an aspiring qualitative researcher I think there is quite a bit of value in keeping records and memories. But as is the case in just about every area of life, balance and discipline can not be overstated. How can one balance the strange and strong desire to whip out the phone and record everything that appears slightly interesting with the important ability to enjoy life as it happens?
Consider these three questions:
1. Who Am I Recording This For?
Next time you feel the urge to pull out our camera, consider who would benefit from the image. Is it something important your kids might appreciate? Is it an image you could send to a family member as a reminder of some shared memory? Maybe it is a picture you plan to use in a blog post that you will share with close friends who actually are interested in images of you in different places. If you can't think of a person who might genuinely appreciate the recording, then put your camera away and just enjoy the unique thing!
As the Gaffigan quote I mentioned above illustrates, what is the use of having loads of digital images in your closet if I never see them or enjoy them? If you aren't planning on using the images to edify others then you should probably consider what you are really planning on using them for. To be clear, I am not calling for a rigid checklist to be pulled out every time you hold your phone up for a picture or video. I am grateful for the vast amount of footage my Dad took as I grew up. Without it I could have never completed this assignment! But just consider, do I need 30 pictures of my kids with the dog? Or will 1 work? Do I need 15 minutes of the choir concert? Or will 2 minutes give my family and friends the same experience when watching home videos?
2. Why Am I Recording This?
Isn't it hilarious to see a group of tourists snapping away at something that seems so trivial and part of the regular blandscape? It is easy to scoff at their strange behavior. And yet put me by a cool looking 3 wheeled taxi in Guatemala and I can guarantee my camera is going to be all over that. How come? What is my purpose?
I have a hunch that within each of us is a deep desire to capture reality and stow it away for perfect keeping. We want more than just images, but experiences to stay with us and be available if we have the fancy to call them up. That is why we take pictures and videos, to trigger experiences and feelings of a particular day and age. But the problem is, if we spend so much time taking pictures - what are we actually experiencing? If all you have of the grand canyon is 3 GB worth of pictures but no memory of hiking along the rim or allowing the sense of awe wash over you as you just sight and stare for a few minutes, than what do you have? Nothing but 3 GB worth of images that will probably sight on your hard drive till the end of time.
Often I realize I am taking a picture or video for a very prideful reason. Maybe I want to show off something, or tell the world how proud I am of my son. This is not helpful to anyone including myself. The world doesn't care about how many words my boy can say at age 18 months, or how my old dog barks at us when he wants to come inside. If all I want from taking a picture is someone to say "YOU BABY IS SO DANG CUTE" on my Facebook post, then I need re think my purpose for recording my world.
3. Is My Recording Of This MORE Important Than Experiencing It Right Now?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, consider whether taking a recording is more valuable then experiencing the moment itself. The clip below doesn't cover the whole scene, but if you've seen the full movie you will understand.
In the movie, Sean Penn's character (the photographer) has been waiting for a very long time to get a picture of "the ghost cat" (a snow leopard). The cat shows up, and he can easily see it through his lens but then decides not to take the picture.
Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it?
Sean O'Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O'Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.
My son will never have his childhood back, and if I spend the whole of it taking pictures of him I am never in it. A life worth living is a life worth recording, it is true. But a life worth recording is also a life worth living. Often the most precious and important moments of our lives are best experienced without a mini-computer lodged between us and the world.
I am a graduate student in Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University. I enjoy writing, hiking, and spending time with my family.