I saw a picture of a sunset on Facebook today, and the caption was actually quite predictable: “This picture really doesn’t capture just how beautiful it was.” Ironically, the picture was absolutely gorgeous.
Similarly, in the past couple weeks, a number of photos from some of my previous overseas trips have come up in my Facebook memories, and half of them have something just like that in the caption.
This picture really doesn't capture just how beautiful it was.
Why is that always the case? Well, there are a few obvious answers, of course. First, it’s not moving. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video is worth a thousand pictures (or at least 24 pictures per second, depending on what you’re recording with). Still, I said the same thing about my videos:
This video really doesn’t capture just how beautiful it was.
Apparently, moving pictures don’t cut it either. Again, there’s another obvious answer. Pictures and videos are flat, two-dimensional renderings of a three-dimensional world. Even with high definition image and audio, they don’t include other senses, like the smell of the air and the feeling of the wind on your skin.
But let’s ignore the obvious answers for a minute, because those are boring. Why is it that we so often feel compelled to qualify our pictures and videos? Why do we feel the need to tell people just how much more beautiful it really was in person? Why can’t we just take a beautiful picture or video and let that be it?
Because of the experience. The experience is what makes it real to us. The experience is what changes our minds and our lives. The experience is what fills us with joy and horror and everything in between. And you can’t communicate that experience through a photo or a video. There is nothing so accessible to us as the present moment, and no picture, video, or even vivid memory will ever actually capture the beauty or ugliness of the experience itself.
We're losing something
Here’s my point: I fear that we may actually be losing our ability to experience things. We spend so much time and effort trying to “capture” each moment that we are becoming incapable of just holding them as they happen. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past decade wondering what this is doing to our psyches and how it will affect our view of the world in the long-term.
It's oddly appropriate that when you take a selfie, you're actually looking away from the moment you're trying to capture.
I think of people holding up their phones to capture video of a concert, missing out on the full experience of just being moved by the music. Everyone knows that you could see the same thing in far better quality by searching for a live performance of that song on YouTube, yet we feel compelled to hold up our phones and make sure we are getting a good angle on the stage, only to end up with shaky video and fuzzy audio that clips from the high volume.
I think of people spending hours and hours stressing out over taking wedding photos, standing under the hot sun and using up half of their special day, missing out on time they could be celebrating with friends and family. (I know this is a controversial one. I’m definitely not opposed to wedding pictures, but some photo shoots are better than others - usually, in my opinion, the shorter ones.)
I think of people on vacation who spend far too much time and mental energy looking out for the best possible selfie-spots, missing out on simply taking it all in for what it is. Instead of really seeing and experiencing, their minds are working on a different wavelength as they are looking and hunting for photo ops. It's oddly appropriate that when you take a selfie, you're actually looking away from the moment you're trying to capture.
We're only robbing ourselves
Maybe I’m just an “old soul” (a nice euphemism for cranky grandpa), but I really struggle with this. Technology is amazing, and the ability to capture photos and video has radically transformed the world and, I think, made it a much better place. But we have to stop and ask ourselves what is really happening to our sensory experiences. Are we actually starting to see the world through our phones? Generally speaking, I really think we are. And it’s tragic.
Pictures aren’t bad, but when we see the world through the lens of what the pictures will look like, the priority changes. Rather than just taking it all, we prioritize digitally capturing the moment so we can go back and enjoy it later or show it to others. But remember that cliche comment: This photo really doesn’t capture just how beautiful it was. Without the experience, then the photo loses its value. So what happens when we, the photographers who were so hellbent on capturing those moments, never actually had the experience in the first place?
By all means, take pictures, but don’t rob yourself of experience by looking for photo ops. Find ways to share what you’ve seen with friends, but make sure you actually see it first. Consider how great it will be to have tangible reminders of each beautiful memory, but don’t sacrifice the present moment for the sake of digital keepsakes.
Maybe this article feels a bit out of place on a blog about faith and spirituality, but if you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you’ll know just how importantI think being in the present moment is for healthy spirituality. If we can’t be present to ourselves, those around us, and even our environment, then we are barricading our ability to feel, to connect, to grow, and to experience life for what it truly is - in all of its beauty, horror, joy, sorrow, vibrancy, and even monotony. Because, friends, no photo will ever truly capture all of that.