I've been watching a lot of people take photographs these last few weeks. Buildings, landscapes, food, drinks, art, movement: everything is a potential shot. The constant presence of photography in action made me think about what we are doing when we stop for a picture.
When we see something beautiful or interesting and then move to capture it, what's going on? Part of it is probably rooted in the ego: we want to have proof of where we go and what we see. When we share that proof with others, we are met with adulation, often in the form of abstract Internet approval. Another part of it might have to do with our attempts to bottle the awe and interestingness we encounter and share it with others. Humans have a deep drive to connect with others and one of the most powerful ways of doing that is to let in others on the story we see unfolding before us.
The drive of the ego and our desire to share could explain why we pause to take a photo, but I think there is more going on. Before photography, what did people do? They sat there for a moment and took it all in. Maybe they wrote, painted, or told stories to keep the memory alive. Now, though, we have the option of memoralizing it at low-cost. The choice is ostensibly between keeping it forever and letting it go. "Capturing" a photo is an apt turn of phrase: we either catch the moment or let it return to the wild. These moments don't exist in any true sense beyond the present moment. This impermanence -- the ephemeral nature of what's before us in every moment -- presents a frightening chasm that the past swallows up. It's no surprise that we turn away from embracing this impermanence and cast our nets out to try and keep what we can.
I'm convinced, however, that in the process of running away from the impermanence, we are losing something. We see the photo before we see the moment. This would make a good picture, we think, pulling out our camera. Through the act of framing a picture, our very experience of the moment is also framed.
Let's be clear: I'm not advocating for people to stop taking photographs. They can be a wonderful medium. I take pictures and will continue doing so and the stories they can tell are worthy of deep effort and a keen eye for what makes the world beautiful. I just think that we have to wrestle seriously with the way in which we respond to impermanence. Before you snap, soak it up. Maybe experiment with letting it go completely, freeing yourself of the burden of trying to keep what is ultimately impermanent.
It's worth noting that there's something strange about the language we use for photography. Capture. Shoot. Take. All of these are violent, aggressive words. Even the advice for good photography mirrors the advice for good marksmanship: breathe out when you shoot the photo (and the bullet).
Maybe we can experiment with letting go of this violent attempt to hold on to the past every once in a while. Maybe we can decide to transmute what we see into other forms in order to keep our memories adaptable and multifaceted.
If after a pause, the moment deserves the photo, then, by all means, take your picture. This pause is everything. Learning how to sit in that small space of pause is the battleground for our humanity. It is where we explore the choice of calmness over anger, mindfulness over desire, and courage over fear. We can choose to journey there more often. We should.
Now, hold on a second, I've got to take a picture of this vista...