Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Frame 9

Being There

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

Frame 9A


  1. Hi Larry, really important thoughts. As a pure amateur photographer, I've found that always having a camera (iPhone) with me has really changed the way I look at things, and for me, I feel that it enriches my life more than it disrupts it. I have started scanning my environment for things to photograph, and this has made me more aware of my visual environment. There is no question that there are times to put it away and it can be a distraction but overall it's made me appreciate both how things look, and more appreciative of the work of more serious and accomplished photographers. I'm sure for those who are professional photographers the experience is a lot different.

  2. Among the many things that come my mind when I read this is parents photographing every moment of their kids' lives. Birthdays, recitals, xmas mornings etc, all spent trying to capture the moment, all the while the kid just wants to look at the adoring expression onthe parents' face, yet it is obscured bythe device. What we need is a live in, round the clock, staff photographer who can let us partake of the situation while he or she snaps the pics for posterity. Or maybe you rig your house with specialized photo equipment that can sense when a photo worthy moment is happening. Perhaps in the future, everyone will have droid camera crews following them around, documenting everything. But seriously, I have experienced that yucky feeling of detachment when I'm in a place of beauty and I'm trying to get a shot of it. The picture seldom does it justice.

  3. The idea of being a human camera is intriguing, and the technological trajectory is definitely there. There is a point in the foreseeable future where there isn’t a mechanical camera, but a recording of the signals passing through the optic nerve from the retina, or even a recording of the mind’s eye view of a particular moment. Mapping the human brain and interpreting its patterns as well as those of the rest of the nervous system is considered the successor to the Human Genome Project, and given some of the interesting progress so far, the science is far less fiction that it was a few years ago. If (when) recording that kind of information becomes possible, so too will making personal passive recordings of nearly every stimulus. There won’t be a device to get in the way or a thought process that has to take place in parallel with current events – just look at what you want to see and pick out the good parts later. Things could also go the other way, and the omnipresent ability to record everything becomes an inescapable desire to record everything. Not to mention the obligation to record and share everything, taking the contemporary compulsions and privacy concerns to their hyperbolic extreme.

    I think the key to navigating the easily accessible camera, as well as most other types of omnipresent media, is to be more present than your devices. If taking a picture is pulling you out of the moment, then maybe don’t take it. Photos have always been good mimetic keys for personal experiences, and the good ones can share at least some part of those experiences with others. Vacation slides shows are great examples of the former, and very rarely the latter. Social media tends to turn into one long vacation slide show of everyone’s daily lives. Who really cares about most of them unless they were there? The oft-maligned and mocked stereotypical hipster’s Instagram photos of every meal are a great example. If more people took the time to parse images they sincerely believe someone else would enjoy and take pictures more sparingly, social media as we know it would collapse, but everyone would have a lot better photos and a lot more free time.