Why Are You Taking That Photo?


The photograph is an amazing thing. It allowed painting to be released from the representational to the abstract and allows us to share experiences in a hauntingly intimate way. As technology has evolved the photograph has become easier to capture and share. Photography is now a ubiquitous medium for memory retention and experience sharing. Mediums like Instagram have allowed the photograph to become ephemeral. This is an evolution I have embraced. I am currently living in a van, traveling the country to see every state, and Instagram has allowed me to share my adventures with my loved ones in an efficient and intimate way. I truly enjoy experiencing something and then capturing a glimpse of it to share.

Unique to the Information Age is this ability to share without losing the commodity itself. If I were to share a good with you, I would be left with only part or none of the original item, but by sharing information, a piece of it has been passed on without taking anything away from my experience. Or has it?

This week I was at Yellowstone. I have visited many national parks on this trip and have been embracing their "find your park" slogan, trying to explore more hidden spots which have yielded some amazing experiences. At all the parks, and other attractions along my trip, people including myself are documenting their adventures; iPhones, Go Pros, and increasingly user friendly DSLRs abound. I have noted and chuckled at people's need to capture the thing they are here to see and wonder if they are actually seeing it, or if they are planning to live their trip in hindsight looking at their own photos. This begs the question: Why travel at all when arguably the best photos one could hope to take are just a Google away?

In Yellowstone this phenomenon is at its peak. Maybe this is because here there is intermittent cell service throughout the park, and people are able to maintain the connection to their social media world. Thus, they are actively experiencing the dopamine hits that come with a liked post. Whatever the cause, this is what I saw -- people only seeing natural wonders through a lens and then moving on, selfie sticks used and checked and used and checked, a couple standing a few feet from each other, both with phones out taking arguably the same photo, a girl stopping every few steps along a scenic walk to take a selfie. Taken in this volume, are the photos even serving their purpose of commemorating a trip and jogging our memory, or will they sit as too daunting a pile to be sorted?

What are we missing when we are focused solely on documenting more than experiencing?

For me, seeing this made me self-conscious to use my phone. It made me more aware of my surroundings and a desire to honor them by experiencing them in the moment. I love photos for sharing and to help jog a memory, but where is the line?

When do photos detract from the very experience they are meant to honor?