commentmodern timesphotography

having experiences incorrectly

Today's xkcd airs the debate over people (aka “kids nowadays”) who constantly photograph themselves in front of things. White Hat criticises them for “taking pictures instead of just enjoying the view” because “documenting your life distracts you from living it” and Cueball defends them in two ways: firstly by saying that “trying to take a picture of a thing makes me pay more attention to it” and secondly by questioning why anyone should care about “other people having experiences incorrectly”.

Of course people should be left in peace to have experiences the way they want. But from what I've observed it's not generally true that photographing things makes people pay more attention to them - quite the opposite.

For example, last time I was in New York, I visited the MoMA, an art gallery which allows photographs. Some people followed traditional art gallery behaviour of standing in front of artworks and contemplating them for a while; but others walked briskly, barely glancing at the art, just pausing for the briefest moment now and then to take a quick snapshot. It seemed as though people were using their cameras to look at the art so that they didn't have to. Virtually no attention was paid, and I see this everywhere - a lot of people photograph things without more than a momentary glance.

and this is me in Cambodia...

‘how to take a selfie’ step 1: turn your back on the interesting thing...

The other thing which it's very common to see, everywhere in the world, is people taking their photo, or having it taken, with their backs to famous things. That's clearly not experiencing the thing at all. (In New York and Tokyo and Paris I've seen couples in wedding outfits running - actually sprinting - from one photo-opportunity to the next, without a pause to experience any one location.)

At best, they may be experiencing the photos later at some other time; but some people take so many photos that it's hard to believe they could possibly spend much time looking at each individual image later. And in any case, a photograph - especially one taken with little attention to technical detail - is hardly ever a very good substitute for the real experience, particularly with things like sunsets or sculptures. Documenting your life can distract you from living it, if you pay more attention to documenting than you do to living.

Photographing an experience is often attempt to get more out of it by creating something tangible that can be savoured later; and sharing on social media, too, makes more of the moment by spreading it around a lot of people (though many people have long since passed the point where so many are sharing so much that nobody has time to give most of it the attention it might deserve). But if an experience is any good, I think it is usually incorrect to assume that a photograph will be more valuable than the experience itself. Taking a photograph to get more out of the experience, and then neglecting to actually have the experience, must be “incorrect”.

Given how short life is, doing badly at getting the most out of it is regrettable. When I see people doing this it doesn't irritate me (except when they're getting in the way of me or someone else), but it makes me feel a little sad for them.

I've actually seen it happening so many times I can't believe I've never taken a photograph of it.