With the advent of camera phones and the endless parade of technological upgrades that continue to follow, it’s easier than ever to take and obtain halfway decent photos.1 Subsequently, the number of amateur photographers has soared through the roof.2 And in particular, my generation (those ever-contentious, hard-to-pin-down millennials) has developed a penchant for incessantly snapping photos and posting them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like.
I’m not referring to those who are genuinely passionate about photography, nor the average person who takes the occasional picture when a prime photo opportunity presents itself. But specifically: the proclivity to take pictures of every situation you’re in—from group outings to solo endeavors—and neurotically publish them online.
According to a recent Slate article, this penchant may impair your ability to adequately remember your experiences. The piece described a study in which one group of students was instructed to photograph objects in a museum while the rest were told to merely observe the objects. Most who took pictures struggled to recall details about the objects as well as their placement in the museum.
Interestingly, some of the students in the photography group chose to zoom in on specific aspects of the objects; unlike the others in their group, they didn’t have trouble remembering details. The difference seems to be between actively participating in the task at hand and being disengaged with it.
Like someone who takes a slew of pictures at parties primarily to release them into cyberspace—what you might call, “frenzied photography”—the students who struggled with recall were disengaged with the present moment. Had they been paying attention to what was going on around them (or the thing right in front of them), they wouldn’t have had so much trouble recalling details, as evidenced by their peers who did not take pictures.
Conversely, those students who made a conscious decision to zoom in on particular aspects of various objects were acutely aware of their surroundings; they paid enough attention to the thing they were observing in order to form an opinion about what fascinated them about the object, and then to later adequately remember their experience.3
If frenzied photography prevents people from fully engaging in their lives, why do so many people do it? I suspect that on some level, they want to be disengaged. The present moment, after all, can be a formidable place to reside. The camera provides a distraction as well as refuge from the conversation that is not unraveling as smoothly as you would hope. You can disrupt an awkward pause—or perhaps, prevent one from occurring all together—by taking a picture.
Or if you’re bored with what people are talking about or simply cannot relate to it, taking pictures of people while they discuss matters about which you have nothing or very little to contribute prevents you from sitting idly by, awkwardly staring at the wall, ceiling, or your twiddling thumbs.
And in the event that you do feel uncomfortable, this frenzied photography allows you to imbue the present moment with value it does not readily offer forth. Taking pictures suggests that you’re having a good time—after all, why would you document an experience that was only subpar? By taking a picture, you can condition yourself to believe you’re enjoying yourself, whether you are or not.
We all want to be happy, I would think, and acknowledging discomfort or event discontentment can be difficult. Diversion, then (by means of photography) is a simpler course of action. As an added bonus, pictures allow you to retroactively create a positive narrative about the past. As the study referenced above suggests, mindlessly taking photos will prevent you from adequately remembering a situation anyway; so you can look at those pictures and believe the evening was more fun or meaningful than you really felt it to be at the time.
I suspect that beneath a chronic discomfort with the present moment lays a discomfort with one’s self. If you feel awkward because you can’t contribute to a particular conversation or silence hangs in the air like the grim reaper waiting to take you away, it is likely because you worry about how others perceive you. Worry that they will look upon your silence or behavior with disdain or ridicule. Worry that they will not perceive you the way you wish to be perceived.
This, of course, offers a whole new motivation for wanting to remove yourself from the situation at hand. And really, that’s understandable. We must all occasionally struggle with some level of insecurity, some desire to control our persona; after all, none of us can claim to be some egoless reincarnation of the Buddha. If someone chooses to take pictures to feel some semblance of control in a chaotic, entropic universe, is that so wrong?4 Maybe we should allow one another our coping mechanisms.
For the students in the museum who suffered a kind of self-induced memory impairment, I suspect that they regularly engaged in frenzied photography. Whether or not they felt uncomfortable at the museum, they had become used to hurtling through life with their mind and body in disparate places. They had become used to not paying attention, so it was no longer simply a means to cope with discomfort, but a way of being.
And I’d say this is the real issue with this kind of photography—when it becomes automatic. Regardless of the way one feels, they remain disengaged with the present in virtually every situation, without real awareness of it or their feelings about it. Withdrawing inward, more attention is bestowed upon their internal monologue than what’s going on around them. Primarily concerned with how they’re perceived or perhaps, with what happened to them in the past or will potentially happen in the future, they of course fail to see and understand the thing or person in front of them. Insecurity plaguing us all occasionally, I imagine we’re all guilty of such insularity. But let’s not let it become a lifestyle.
1. Unlike before when we were dependent on film and had to wait for it to be developed, with no notion of how our pictures would turn out. They could all turn out like crap without any chance of redemption: too dark, too blurry, so that maybe you had two halfway decent photos of a night on the town or a camping trip. It was almost more trouble than it was worth. Now, perhaps, we’re like kids excited about our new toy; or, perhaps, excited the way we would be with a new relationship, how much more thrilling it is than the last one, so we overindulge. But I wonder if we’ll actually grow bored or weary of our phone’s cameras the way we would with a toy or relationship?
2. And I wonder how ardent photographers feel about the explosion of the “every-photographer.” Do they feel cheapened? Does a professional photographer view the onslaught of amateur shots on the internet with the same disdain talented musicians listen to the music of Katy Perry, or wordsmiths read the formulaic fluff of James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, Jodi Picoult and the like?
3. So the problem is not with the photography at all, but with self-involvment.
4. Being that “wrong” is culturally, even individually, subjective. Nothing is inherently wrong or right.