Being there - Make sure you have the memory before you photograph it


My family and I visited the museum the other day here in LA to see the renowned King Tut exhibit. It will be the last time much of the collection will be able to be seen outside of Egypt. The key word here is “seen”, as in looking at something and experiencing the use of our sensory ability called sight. If I am starting to sound sarcastic it is because as I wandered around the exhibit looking at all these ancient marvels, I also started to notice that many of those around me were not actually looking at the relics, but walking around and taking photo after photo of them with their mobile phones. They were literally experiencing the entire exhibit through their phones and rarely did I notice them lifting their eyes above their illuminated screens to spend a few moments gazing with awe at the glimmering pieces of gold, lapis, silver and turquoise.

I started to become fascinated watching people walk up to a case with their phone already raised, take a few shots, and then veer off to the next case to repeat their actions. I have to admit it was becoming difficult for me to focus and enjoy the exhibit myself as I followed these folks along and took pictures of them taking pictures of the exhibit. Who’s the fool?

As a photography instructor I talk to my students about how to distill a scene that you might be experiencing with three of four of your senses, into the two dimensional frame of your photograph. I use the example of a beach scene where you might be smelling the sea air, hearing the crash of the waves or seagulls chirping, watching the sun setting and feeling the gentle ocean breezes on your skin. Obviously that is a very stimulating experience, but how do you capture that sensory smorgasbord into the single frame of a photo?  That’s the challenge I call them to.

What I saw at the museum was almost the opposite of that, so many people were not even having the sensory experience of actually being there. It begs the questions of how much are you experiencing your situation when you are seeing it through the back of your phone. I started to feel the sudden urge to devote myself to a life long mindfulness practice as a way of purging myself of what I perceived as this strange human behavior.

I began to wonder how our minds will treat a memory that we are essentially experiencing second generationally through a screen. Will the memory be of documenting it, or witnessing it, or an amalgam of both? As a professional photographer who has photographed a lot of events, both news and personal, I can tell you that my experience of an event is going to be vastly different from others attending it. I am paying attention to the technical matters of my cameras as well as the story-telling aspects of the event itself. Kind of what I was doing when I was photographing the people photographing the exhibit, hah!

Now there certainly is a chance that a couple of the folks I saw were actually documenting the exhibit for other purposes, but a third of the room? I don’t think so!

This goes to the other big question, which is why would anyone want all those photos of the exhibit to begin with. Taking a couple I can understand, simply to help spark the memory of being there, but how likely is it that any of these people are going to cozy up years later with fifty or sixty of their favorite Egyptian boy king photos?


People have always taken pictures of things or places they are experiencing that excite them, it is our way of saying, “hey, I was there.” But even in the past we took too many shots of landscapes, scenics and other people’s weddings because we were excited to be there. I know its too many because when I help clients weed through their collections, these are the first pictures they want to get rid of, save for a few.

But even taking all those photos never got in the way of being there and now with our ubiquitous camera phones we are crossing the line where the experience of taking the photo is replacing the experience itself. I believe if we truly want to remember these memorable events we have to put down out phones for a bit, and actually have the memory.

I recently read an article by a wedding photographer who now insists that no one else be allowed to use his or her phone or camera to photograph the ceremony. It had gotten so bad that the shutterbug guests were blocking his shots as he tried to get his, but even worse when he tried to take pictures of the guests watching the ceremony, they almost always had their phones in front of their faces. Not what the bride and groom want to remember about their special day I would guess.

As a photo organizer I am really organizing the memories and life events of my clients as recorded by their cameras. Now I will have to remind my clients to make sure they have the memories to begin with.