Thursday, February 17, 2011

Moments in Time

I'm not very good at photography. I assume a good photographer is one who has his camera always at the ready, able at a moment's notice to capture the perfect snapshot. I no longer think about taking a camera with me. Here's why.

First of all, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that in college, on a whim, I took a photography class. BAD IDEA. My grade in that class was my lowest in all of college. The thing that saved me was the research paper at the end. (My source list was normal--about a page--and the professor wrote "WOW!" on it, if that gives you any indication.) Heaven knows my prints were terrible.

But the real reason I never think to bring a camera along is because it ruins whatever I'm enjoying at the time. At Abby's master's graduation--a two-hour-plus ceremony at which her program was but a footnote to the rest of the festivities--I was so worried about getting a picture of her walking across the stage that I have no memory of her walking across the stage. I missed the moment because I was trying to capture it for posterity. I sat through two hours of "inspirational" speeches and what might as well have been the phone book only to miss the reason I was there in the first place.

And I think that's why I don't like to take pictures. I feel like I'm putting evaluation on hold. Instead of being blown away by beauty, or taking in the moment, or enjoying the company of friends, I'm trying to make this moment last forever. In doing so, I rob this moment so I can evaluate it later. The enjoyment for a moment can only spread so thin, and so in saving some of that for later, there's less to enjoy in the moment itself. When the picture jogs my memory later, the memory itself is lost to me. I look at the picture that captures what was supposedly happening, but the picture is a substitute; that memory isn't mine, it's the picture's.

Maybe I feel this way because I have a decent memory, and I prefer my own recollections to those caught on film. And I'm not unilaterally opposed to pictures--I enjoy looking at others' pictures, and if someone else is snapping them, I don't mind. And I do take pictures occasionally (for example, the Snuggie photo shoot). But I have trouble multitasking, and it's far too easy for me to divorce the act of taking a picture for remembrance from the enjoyment of the experience itself. In some sense, it feels like when a picture is taken, a part of my soul is captured with it, but more often when I'm behind the camera than in front of it.

What caused me to think about this is what I blogged about yesterday: Facebook. I've wondered to what extent I live my life for my online life. Do I evaluate an experience while I'm in it for its blog-worthy potential? (I've often wondered if devotional writers formulate lessons before they've really learned them, since they have to come up with lessons all the time. Or when someone goes into a situation with the thought, "I'm going to write a book about this." Can they write about their experience if they're not really experiencing it? How much does evaluation hamper experience?) Am I actually living, or do I do things for later comment? Do I take "adventures" because I'm adventurous or so that my life doesn't seem so boring to my Facebook friends? Facebook doesn't do sad very well, and because of all the smiling faces, it has a tendency to make us sad in the process by questioning if our life is, compared to our friends' lives, worth living. Is the face I reveal there my face or just an image?

What are your thoughts on photography? Facebook? Soul-losing online?


  1. We're all slowly fusing with our online avatars. The two personas are becoming indistinguishable.

  2. Excellent post. Aron reminds me of this quite often. So often when I take photos of our "adventures" on Guam, he questions my motives, and he's not entirely wrong, sadly. Sometimes I find myself torn, trying to find the best of multiples of similar shots of Ella's facial expressions, to narrow it down to the best ones to post online. Shouldn't I be saving the best for just us? To be framed and hung on our wall, for us to treasure alone? Or do I really need other peoples' approval of my child? Do I need their comments to be sure that my child is beautiful and an odd duck?

    Thanks for this, Jon. I read all your posts, I really do, but I'm not the avid reader of great literature, that you are (I tend to read Beverly Lewis Amish Fiction books, they are my guilty pleasure, my escape into a fun different world from my own, and my reading time is limited these days, so it takes forever for me to get through one), so I rarely can really comment on your posts, but be sure that I am reading, for whatever that's worth!

  3. I usually forget to bring my camera along, or focus too much on whats going on to stop and take pictures. However, I love photography and with the advent of digital cameras and the ability to take dozens of pictures and save only 1 or 2 without wasting film is great for me.

    I like taking pictures if the specific point is to take pictures - IE capturing candid moments not as great, but stopping to take time to take some good photos is great. Sometimes the experience of trying to capture a great moment or image is a worthwhile experience in and of itself.

    Sometimes pausing a moment to take a picture, or to reflect on how you would write up an experience in your blog, may be good for you. Slows down the pace of life a bit instead of expecting to move from one experience to the next to the next to the next.

  4. @Caleb--Bleak, but probably true.

    @Katie--Thanks for reading. I appreciate your comment. That's an interesting point you make about saving the best for yourselves, of keeping treasured moments private. It seems more and more, with picture sharing as easy as it is, that the view is shifting to "treasuring pictures privately is selfish." I disagree with that, but I'm a fairly private person, so...

    @Wolfie--I agree that reflection is good. I'm not so sure about instant or in-the-moment reflection. My thought is that that kind of reflection results in incomplete experience--you're contemplating something that hasn't really happened to you or that you haven't really done, mostly because you weren't completely invested in it in the first place. This is just how it seems to me. I like your distinction between candid shots and photo shoots. If I'm taking pictures, I prefer the latter. Much less complicated and less to keep straight between what is experience and what is reflection/evaluation.

  5. Unlike you, I enjoy talking pictures, especially if I am unhindered. I totally see your point in the motives of taking pictures, but photographs have many purposes. I find myself capturing the moment so it can be shared. My family back home wonders what my life is like out here and I send them pictures to show them. I don't think they paint an inaccurate picture of me but rather compliment my stories. I also feel that photographs can be a form of praise. A picture of a good time or a fond memory can be a celebration of that. Wanting to capture a beautiful view on film is praising it, not stealing it. It's like wanting to own your favorite movie on DVD. Or how many times have you given out a copy of your most beloved books or even shared a quote? I think the same can be true for photographs.

  6. @Caleb--I can see your point, and you're right: it is similar to sharing beloved books and quotes. But as I mentioned, it's hard to have imminence and reflection together, and it's near impossible for me to separate those in pictures (unless they are staged, like in a photo shoot of some kind). But you mention some other uses of pictures that are valuable and don't fit my critique.

  7. I have had these same concerns, worrying that the obsession over capturing that Kodak moment will eclipse the actual memory of the event. But, I have always enjoyed taking pictures (perhaps because I never took a photography class?), so I try to weigh these concerns against the fun of flipping through photo albums years later. Even if I don't remember the moments themselves, I'm glad for the visual memory substitutes... especially of those who have since passed away.

    As for Facebook, don't get me started. Suffice it to say I share your concerns about online life and the insane pressure to make yourself appear interesting, clever, and most importantly NOT boring (gasp) to hundreds of people you only communicate with on a virtual level.

    In general, I think we need a culture-wide return to greater awareness of what's in front of us, of living "in the moment." Who was it that said "Wherever you are, be all there"?

  8. Like Caleb, I'm far away from family and friends, and in a world that is completely foreign to them, and new and exciting for us. Add growing children to the mix, and everyone is eager to see the photos we post. For example, it was difficult for me to describe how our new home looks or what strange animals they have here. And the natural beauty of Guam is indescribable. A photo doesn't even do it justice, but it at least gives people back home an idea of what we're experiencing here. But it's become a little strange, because I post my photos for all my friends to see, not just certain ones (not even sure how to go about filtering that, and I think it would be more time consuming), it puts my parents, siblings and closest friends on the same level as college acquaintances I haven't seen in several years, like yourself (no offense). So if I post a photo of a tender moment between Aron and our oldest daughter Ella, where he's holding her hand walking down the beach, something that anyone can appreciate, but only our closest family and friends who know what we've been through for the past 3 years can truly appreciate, it almost cheapens it, now that I think about it. I'm actually figuring all this out as I'm typing it here... I hadn't ever realized that was sort of what I am doing. Hmm. Please forgive my unorganized rambling. haha