When should you just enjoy the moment as opposed to taking a picture of it? We have all become Isherwood’s human camera—passively recording everything we see, saving the images to be looked at later. I wonder if we shoot pictures for enjoyment, to remember what we’ve done and where we’ve been, or as a compulsion, a way to own the experience, or conversely, perhaps a way to evade it.
At family gatherings, tourist destinations, graduations or just about anyplace or time that’s significant, people pull out a picture-taking device and record what they see. (For fun, when I go on vacation, I often take pictures of people taking pictures of their experience.) As some writers on photography have noted, it may be a way to show ownership of the experience. You take a picture in order to share with others what you did and what you saw; it is a type of proof of an ownership of that time and place.
But as I learned from hauling around all my camera equipment during vacations, I am taken out of the experiential moment when I mitigate it by photographing it. Even in those seconds when I put camera to eye I am removing myself from the experience of just seeing, of just being there. When I photograph something my mind is engaged with manipulating the camera, with getting the right shot. I am in the process of constructing a time and a place that I want to remember. All the activities involved in taking a picture removes me from participating in what originally brought me to that spot: its beauty, its transcendence, its serenity, its ability to relax me. Those intangible things that I may gain by just looking and enjoying are exchanged for the ability to document my visual perception of that place.
This is true too of those events we attend as a matter of social interaction. When I photograph events either as a favor or as part of my living, I find that the camera I carry activates a kind of force field. It helps me limit interacting at the event I’m there to document. I become involved with taking the picture and manipulating the camera. The event itself, with all that goes on, is the subject, to be sure, but I am uninvolved with what goes on except to the extent that I’m recording it. Having a camera and taking pictures makes you an outsider, an observer, not a participant. I am there to get the best pictures of the people, the space, the interactions, the theater of it, and so I have to be in a different psychological space from those who are there to partake.
So, what do you get out of taking pictures at a family gathering or during a vacation you’ve been looking forward to? What do you bring home: proof of ownership, or firsthand memories of a life lived?
Tell me what you think