Cameras capture a ton of memories; documenting everything from grandparents to silly cats which inevitably turn into memes. The invention of the camera has been a part of human culture ever since the invention of dry plate technology in 1878. Since then, we have photos that give quick snapshots of life in the past. Additionally, we glimpse into major events or learn about individuals that are long passed (e.g. any major war, major political figures, celebrities). During these times, cameras were used to capture moments where we can never go back; but each picture told a story. And these stories live on through that image.
Recently, I’ve been listening to a fantastic history podcast, Hardcore History. In it, Dan Carlin beautifully narrates major events in history, with World War I and Genghis Khan’s rise to power being among the most vivid. (If you’re interested, I’d recommend starting at Prophecy of Doom, both of which can be found on his site.) Listening to these events gave me a vast appreciation for the world’s past experiences, mistakes, and triumphs; learning how each decision shaped our lives today. The way we digest historical information, in general, tends to be fairly boring. But every once in a while, we stumble upon a photo like the one below and it gives us a taste of what life was like decades ago.
Civil War photo from the frontlines
However, there has been a troubling lean away from purposeful capturing of moments. Instead, we’re bombarded with pictures of dubious importance through social media and news outlets. In my view, we’re currently in a time where it’s okay to document the ordinary instead of the extraordinary. We have seen our media outlets become okay with blowing stories out of proportion and presenting things like the Kardashian’s latest exploits as factual news.
One question I’m wrestling with as I write this: are people going to look back at our photos 100-200 years from now and feel the same impact that we have for past photography?
The Emergence of Bragging Rights vs Experience
I bet you’re thinking, “Alright you mad man, what got you riled up?” I’ll tell you, it’s the photo below.
*The author silently screams.*
It made me want to start a discourse on this phenomenon. Why are individuals, presumably those from other countries who paid money to travel, taking pictures of the Mona Lisa? A portrait which arguably the best conserved and replicated throughout history. Why aren’t they in the moment; enjoying the portrait for the individual brush strokes that Da Vinci put in the canvas centuries ago which can’t be seen in those images? Why aren’t they enjoying it for the sheer fact it still exists?
Why are individuals bent on capturing a piece which has been preserved physically and electronically on the internet millions of times? Neglecting the fact that a Google search can produce a 100x better photo of the Mona Lisa than a 12-14 megapixel phone ever culd, you can also get any variation of the portrait you desire. You can even find one with her holding a fat cat.
Why is this happening? I’ve got a theory: these people want something else. They want bragging rights and to be noticed.
*The author continues to silently scream.*
What we’re observing in these photos is people wanting bragging rights to tell their friends and colleagues later. Further, it will help them be noticed by their peers. A photo, an experience for that matter, becomes currency rather than something extraordinary. Instead of looking back and remembering why they traveled and how they were transformed, the photo exists solely to ensure everyone knows that they did this, “I, me, I was there and I have proof!” He was there, they weren’t and let’s see how many Facebook likes he can get.
Do you see the issue? In a generation where a camera fits snuggly in our pocket, we can use the technology better. There is a larger issue here; it’s our neglect for time and how we value our experiences. What we fail to realize when we grow older is that the small moments shape our lives and who we ultimately become.
Being purposeful: the necessity of valuing experiences
Through reading Stoicism, one thing that I’ve started to develop an appreciation for is time. It’s time that is inevitably against us. It’s a fact that once appreciated, makes our lives more palatable. The contemplation of our own mortality allows us to be bold in our purpose and helps us cherish experiences with those who we come into contact with.
In the above photo, it’s essentially three generations of my family (you’ll notice I’m not in it, this was taken when I was deep into my early graduate school years). The man in the middle was my great grandfather and he passed away two years ago. I don’t have a ton of photos with him nor did I take photos when I was around him. However, some of my more vivid childhood experiences revolved around my limited time spent with him. I remember staying at his cabin and learning to weld while taking in the evergreen air of the California mountains. I remember his stories of his trips to Vancouver. However, when I went away for school and left California (roughly ten years ago), I saw him sparsely when I came back for holidays. I never got the chance to tell him how much I appreciated those experiences, but I think he knew.
I brought this to a more personal level for a reason. I encourage you to examine your own experiences and appreciate the individuals in your life that made you…well, you. We often neglect the people that shaped and groomed us into the men and women we are today. And I’m willing to bet some of your greatest experiences aren’t documented. That’s why I’m making a call for cherishing those times rather than recording every second of one’s life.
Cherishing rather than capturing
German soldier during WWII
Granted, I’m guilty of taking this for granted as well. I’m certainly no saint when it comes to this. Further, it’s hard because technology makes it so damn easy to snap a photo.
However, I think being aware of how the culture is forming and being skeptical of our influences is important. Coming full circle, this post isn’t a full on rant on the culture of social media or misuse of technology. The reason why I’ve written this post is to bring a greater appreciation of time and the people in our lives. Sure, we could take a picture of this amazing food we’re having at some restaurant, but really, who cares about the food when you have your best friends around you. Isn’t it better to tell the story of the experience rather than photograph every second of it? Isn’t it infinitely more awesome to share the experience with those friends as opposed to worrying about likes or social prestige?
Let’s have a quick exercise: take a look at your Facebook photos and attempt to remember the experiences that came with the photos. Odds are, you’ll have the fondest and most vivid memories of the ones where pictures are scarce. It’s certainly the case for me. Those with the fewest photos are typically times we cherish and experience the best; when we put our technology away and just exist in that space.
Now, this is the point of the post: to remember why these experiences are valuable and how they influenced you. Instead of seeking likes on Facebook or proclaiming to the masses, reflect on the experience you had in a particular place or with a person. Appreciate what made that experience great and make the photos you take truly memorable. Make it so that when generations look back, they envy the time they spent with you and cherish the purposeful photos you do take.
Please read the disclaimer once you have read the article.
**Disclaimer: This article is about personal use and how we share experiences with our peers/family/friends. There is also photography for marketing and promotional purposes for business and education. The good practice and ethics of using photography in business is a separate, but interesting discourse. This is not what I’m discussing and is an entirely separate discussion.**