The Eye (or Camera) of the Beholder

canstockphoto35817083A few weeks ago we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum that had a night art installation by Bruce Munro – lots of light, a little weird music, and a great deal of walking. Throw in the S’more kits being sold around a fire and it was a lovely evening. We walked along dark pathways from sight to sight, under a clear, starry sky.

Light pollution often obscures the sky in our neighborhood, so I took the opportunity to point out some constellations to my daughter. We had to keep finding dark areas to stand in because beyond the actual Munro installations, people were walking around with their phones out, taking pictures of the art.

It’s in my nature to push back against cultural trends and this one, of taking pictures in a “Kilroy was here” sort of way sends my brain off into incoherent, spluttering rants. We noticed this as we traveled the west coast last year. We’d be standing in front of some sight, an animal at a zoo, a zen garden, a perfect view of the ocean and someone would walk up, take a picture , and walk away. I wanted to yell “Have the #$%@ experience – put your phone down!”

canstockphoto19466486Part of this is my particular way of taking in an experience. I can stand for an hour in one spot just watching waves, reading informational plaques and observing people coming and going. My family moves a little faster, so I’ve gotten in the habit of breaking off on my own, finding a bench or a space where no one else is and becoming a rock. Museums are a challenge. I find some work I like and I just want to sit there for a long while, so when I go, it’s more likely to be alone.

I have friends and family who seem nearly maniacal in their picture-taking. One relative has forever earned my enmity for snapping photos of me in the hospital after I had my daughter. I was in for a long stay due to a complicated delivery and having bad reactions to pain meds. After vomiting most of the day and being poked with needles (apparently I only have one workable, ever-elusive vein). Click. Click. My husband had to keep me from ripping out the tubes and strangling her.

A friend explained to me that taking photos was how she processed experiences. As a writer, this is an approach that I can understand. The world makes more sense to me through words than any other way. But there is a compulsiveness with cameras and I see it around me every time I go out in public.

It would seem that the primary purpose of taking a picture is to capture a memory, or at least the shadow of one, so that at a later point in time, one can be reminded of an experience. What if you didn’t actually have the experience? You were there, but not present. You saw something, but you really didn’t pay any attention to it. Then the picture becomes about something else entirely. Bragging rights, a need for validation (look at me, I do stuff and have been places) and the possibility of likes.

There is also the aspect of skill. Very few of my photos are particularly good. When we travel now, I buy postcards, appreciating that someone with more skill and better equipment has already gotten the job done.

canstockphoto40253681Standing on the hotel balcony in Fort Bragg, California looking out at the Pacific Ocean, I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the horizon. Spouts of water! I looked again – more spouting and then I started to see them, dark figures coming out of the water and then retreating. An unusual time of year, but we had lucked upon a pod of whales.

If I had taken pictures, they’d be little more than vague shots of a horizon. But at the very least I would look at them and remember the excitement of yelling for my husband and daughter to come and look. I would remember the chill air and the sound of the waves. I would remember watching until the sun went down and then early in the morning, searching the horizon and finding the pod again, only a little farther north. The thrill of discovery and the awe of nature.

Many years ago we made a 13 state road trip out to the Grand Canyon and back. We saw and did a lot. While staying in Flagstaff, we drove out to Sunset Crater and did some hiking. It was a beautiful day and we hiked through the remains of craters, on paths of hardened lava, passing by a cornucopia of wildflowers and plant life. It was a really good day. I have a couple of pictures, but I have even better memories.

A day later we took a bus tour to the Grand Canyon, since we didn’t have much time before we had to head back to Mcanstockphoto3482788innesota. It ended up being a stop, take photos, get back on a bus. I have some photos and very few memories. Absolute worst way to see anything. My daughter, who was seven at the time, remembers Sunset Crater and getting to eat sugary cereal at the hotel. No memory of the Grand Canyon whatsoever.

To me, it says a little about how our brains work. When we integrate and absorb and move in the places we visit, pictures are just tickler files for memories. But it’s gotten to the point where the act of taking the picture is the memory and has nothing to do with content or context.

canstockphoto10299946I know there is no point in railing against this cultural idiosyncrasy. It’s here to stay. I just wonder how it impacts our ability to process the fully dimensional world and what that means for the human brain. My experience tells me that nothing conveys a moment better than a memory absorbed and breathed and lived.

23 Comments on “The Eye (or Camera) of the Beholder

  1. I totally agree with you. And sadly it’s not confined to vacations. We brush through life as well, not pausing to savour, participate or really experience any of it. We stop only for a second, long enough to snap a photo with our phone, post it on social media and rush off. Sadly there’s nothing to remember because we were barely there.

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  2. Allow me to present a different, perhaps complementary, view of the uses of picture taking. I think I’m with your friend: I find that the process of taking pictures–particularly of choosing what to photograph and how to frame it–helps me process an experience. It is, as you say, like writing, but in my case it seems to exercise another part of the brain (the left/right brain thing is oversimplified, but it feels like that).

    I’ve been participating in a blogging photo challenge called “Mundane Monday” for the past year, and what that has done has gotten me to slow down and look at and notice things right around here, in my everyday environment. I moved here to CA a year and a half ago, and blogging and photographing has helped me get adjusted and feel more at home. Wildflowers, parks, street art, little paths and shortcuts, all the strange electrical boxes, caterpillars, power towers, the juxtaposition of cement freeway structures and weeds, snails, the contents of litter–all things I wouldn’t have noticed without going geocaching and taking mundane pictures in the process.

    I also had a tough conversation with a friend not long before I left my former home in the Boston area. She was going through a difficult divorce and was feeling sad and a little hopeless. She asked how I remembered the good times and kept going. After I thought about it a while, I realized that one way I do that is through photographs. Like a lot of people, I have a selective memory for bad times, and there is a danger for me of exaggerating and wallowing in misery if I just rely on my memory to tell myself the story of my life. But I find that photographic evidence to the contrary can be very salutary. I make scrapbooks and photo albums. I’m hopelessly behind at this point, but my daughter is going to college next year and I’ll have time again.

    Sometimes I buy postcards as a supplement, but mostly I find that if I haven’t taken the pictures myself, I tend to ignore them. It’s like Douglas Adams’ “somebody else’s problem” field around the spaceship that rendered it invisible. To me, most postcards have a “somebody else’s life” field around them.

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    • We’re different in many respects. I am glad that you found something that connects you and makes you feel more at home! I just know that it doesn’t work for me and so often people without skill and decorum are marching through life behind a lens – often right where I’m standing, trying to take things in a bit.

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    • You speak the song of my people…except the part where you photograph a litter box to maintain awareness. There are some things I gleefully avoid as perfectly memory-unworthy.

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        • Oops, sorry, it looks like I wasn’t clear. I’ve never photographed a litter box! (To me, “litter box” means where the cat poops–ha!) But I had to go back to see what you meant, and I think it must have been my comment, “the contents of litter”. What I meant by observing the contents of “litter” was looking at what people sometimes discard, either knowingly or unknowingly. One time I found two pairs of kids’ shoes left in a playground: https://klallendoerfer.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/mundane-monday-shoes/

          It’s also the scientist/archaeologist in me that thinks you can tell a lot about a society by looking at its discards. For the past several Earth Days I have participated in something called a “CITO” (cache in, trash out) event, during which a bunch of people (in this case, people who find geocaches, like I do) go to a park or other natural area and pick up trash and take it away to the dump. It’s amazing what you can find sometimes. I found a soccer ball floating downstream. Bottle caps for beverages I don’t drink, some of which I’ve never even heard of. A sofa. Lots of bottles and cans.

          I suppose there are some gross things that may be better left unphotographed, but I’m not sure about that, actually. I think its incumbent upon us to look at carefully–and remember–what we are doing to the natural world with our throwaway lifestyle. Photographs like the ones on the blog below have made a huge impression on me, and stayed in memory, much more so than words about the same topics: http://www.1millionwomen.com.au/blog/straws-why-they-seriously-suck/

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  3. I’ve observed and written about this, too. It seems tied to the “juice” so many people get from sharing on social media, the feeling of being part of that scene and getting responses to others. As you note, it’s often not about seeing or appreciating the subject at all. And I doubt this would be happening if we still had to send photos to each other as prints, or even as e-mail attachments.

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    • Or if we actually had to pay to have pictures developed – we’d all be bankrupt! I think I understand the “juice” part, but it feels like there is a trade-off that might be detrimental to a happy life.

      Sometimes I hear myself and think “I’m getting super old and cranky.”I suppose it’s like anything else – in moderation, but humans never seem to manage that balance – like the woman who fell off a bridge taking a selfie in California. Wow, just wow.

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    • We all have a little bit of that. We’re such specks in the universe with such short lifespans, that there will always be a human inclination to say “Look at me. I exist.” But I think sometimes it’s gotten to the point where that’s all we do and we’re not actually enjoying ourselves.

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  4. I asked my son once years ago why he was not taking a camera on a trip out east and he replied, “all my memories will be here, Mom” and he pointed to his head and then his heart.

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  5. I hear you. Stopping and soaking it in until you’re saturated enough to have a fully formed memory in place is a wonderful experience. I studied a little photography and always looked at it as art, and still do. If I can’t find a good composition, or a different angle or interesting color combination, it doesn’t work. That is a different kind of photography though that makes you stop and really look at things, as opposed to a snap and dash and post mentality. And selfies, well, we won’t even go there!

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    • I see photography as an art form as well, in that there are varying skill levels to which most of us don’t rise. Perhaps I’m conflating some of this picture-snapping with the selfie thing as well. I’ve been going through pictures as part of a decluttering process and wow, I’ve taken some crappy shots over the years!
      Perhaps I am overly hasty in my condemnation, but the kind of picture-taking I’ve run into over the years has actually interfered with my enjoyment of a place and it feels like the point has become the picture, not the experience.

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      • I recall being mildly perturbed on my one and only trip to Europe–the street entrepreneurs were selling selfie sticks for crying out loud! Everyone would take a selfie in front of the incredible architecture and sculpture and art with their big faces taking up most of the view, I’m sure. I was like YEESH!, what’s the point, lol.

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  6. This rings true for me when I think about my granddaughter. My heart is full when I see her dancing, excitedly holding balloons and laughing like only toddlers can. I want to capture the moment with a photo so I can relive it during the weeks between visits. But sometimes taking a photo ruins the moment either because the phone distracts her or I can’t reach it fast enough before she’s on to a different activity. Probably savoring the experience is better than trying to record it.

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    • There have been times in my daughter’s life when I wish I could capture the memory and hold it forever. She used to love to sing while swinging in the backyard and I realized very quickly that no recording or photo would ever capture my emotions of the moment, so I made myself watch and listen. I can still recall, nearly 10 years later, those feelings of unmitigated joy.

      I think there is some skill now in recognizing what is worthy or useful to take a picture of – a little curating and discernment so we don’t miss out on what is happening right in front of us.

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  7. ‘But it’s gotten to the point where the act of taking the picture is the memory and has nothing to do with content or context … My experience tells me that nothing conveys a moment better than a memory absorbed and breathed and lived.’

    Thought-provoking way to end the article … something I’ve been thinking about a lot … maybe photos are worthless without a personal context.
    Would like to post about this …

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    • I think there are times when photos can show us things that we might not otherwise see – places we’ll never go or details we missed (although that seems more like a forensic photo). I just doubt it is as necessary or as useful as we sometimes think.

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