“The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
― Susan Sontag
“Some photographers take reality… and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.”
― Ansel Adams
I have 5,570 photos on my iPhone from this summer in New York. That’s probably at least 4,570 more than I need.
I’m terrified of forgetting things. Recently that means I photograph everything – from quotes I like (despite the fact that I can always reread the book) to my brunch before I eat it (despite the fact that I will eat many, many more identical meals in my life). Sometimes I take a blurry photo of an event that I’ll never send to anyone just so I won’t forget having been there. Photographs let me archive my life in a way that is more space-efficient than my shelves of old stuffed animals and art projects, in w way that is more conducive to storytelling.
Memory isn’t the only reason I am susceptible to the allure of taking thousands of photographs. Photographing also allows me to romanticize, to fit experiences neatly into little squares, and to capture specialness out of something ordinary. Sometimes, though, I look back on a beautifully captured event that wasn’t nearly as fun in the moment, and I wonder if it is wrong to feel nostalgia for this edited memory. The past seems to always hold an unfair advantage over the present when it has wistfulness to amplify it.
Often, placing such a great significance on memories means I devote less importance to the present. And I don’t mean in the clichéd way of “if I’m photographing this sunset, then I couldn’t truly be enjoying it and present in the moment,” because photographing takes just a few seconds and sometimes makes me appreciate beauty even more because I’m focusing on it. I don’t agree with Susan Sontag’s commentary on the cameraman’s ultimate detachment from his reality. I identify more with Ansel Adams’s quote on how photographing can become an extension of oneself, amplifying and preserving the truth of a lovely moment.
The way photography impacts mindfulness, a mental state involving complete awareness and calm acceptance of the present moment, has long been up for debate. Interestingly, findings from a study published in the journal Psychological Science even “suggest that mindfulness might hamper the cognitive processes that contribute to accurately identifying the source of a memory,” which implies that people have more trouble figuring out if memories were truthful or imagined when they simply use mindful meditation to reflect upon their day.[i]
What I do worry is that taking pictures makes me think of the present in terms of the future: what memory can I make out of this moment? What can I keep to look back on? By thinking in this way I remember a skewed version of reality— a self-fulfilling prophecy. In one study done by psychologist Linda Henkel at Fairfield University, when students went to a museum, they remembered fewer details of the objects they’d photographed than the ones they hadn’t, for example the statue’s hand position; what Henkel calls outsourcing your memory to an external memory device. Yet I don’t think small details are necessarily significant factors when it comes to our ability to remember and analyze and be impacted by an emotional experience or a beautiful object.
Don’t outsource your memories of famous works of art, Henkel tells us, but we already do. At least among my friends, it’s common to substitute memory for external memory devices. I might not remember the entirety of a day’s event, but Snapchat does. In the voids of My Story, the small details that make up a day proliferate and cycle. Our lives seem overexposed, flash optional. Impulsively I watch my own Story persona sometimes—the most absurd waste of time—and I think about how my own recollection of my day is being shaped based on my understanding of how others are perceiving it: my life through Cooley’s looking glass. I wonder how important these ephemeral 24-hour moments are, and how important they will be in shaping my future self’s memories.
Snapchat and other platforms seem to create a space for performative memory. In NYC this summer I saw museums, wandered boroughs (except Staten Island), went to restaurants. I took pictures. The ones that ended up on social media became exponentially the ones I remembered the most from the summer: a pretty latte that I wouldn’t otherwise recall, a saturated panorama from the top of 30 Rock, a filtered carousel ride that wasn’t actually worthy of representing my whole week.
At the end of the summer, I went with my family to rural southeastern Ohio to hike. We had no service or WiFi in our cabin. It’s good to disconnect my parents would say, and then by nighttime we would run a questionably necessary errand at the nearest Kroger’s to use the 3G, make calls and write emails and send Snapchats—because that’s the only legitimate way to know you’ve remained true friends with someone.
Photography has always been a subjective representation of experience. People have been posing for family portraits and taking pictures of their travels to exotic places for almost two centuries. But combining an excess of recording apps with a cultural mindset of “pics or it didn’t happen” risks muddling the inherent value and mindfulness of the experience.
When I heard about a good restaurant this summer, I would research it on Instagram to see if the food looked good before I went. I trusted Instagram over restaurant reviews because in some ways, photos allow you to judge for yourself—provided you can adjust your assessment of an aesthetically pleasing dish to account for the inevitable filter. Unlike a review, photos don’t give you the words with which to judge them. They seem to radiate objectivity, letting you have the space to impose your own judgments. And seeing the ways other people capture beauty at times is eye opening. I love following Instagram accounts of people who create art with apple peels or who post miniature watercolors. But most of the people I follow are my friends, and the way we present the details of our intimate lives can be socializing and homogenizing—since when did I start thinking my rainbow sprinkled ice cream cone was only pretty if I held it up to a wall? (Since I saw it on Instagram.) There’s no unique value of memory in that. The only lens I should prioritize looking through and adjusting is my own.
This summer, I outsourced my memory thousands of times. I compressed my months into an accordion of photographs, records of where I went and what I did. I realized I’ve come to prioritize retaining a memory through a lens. Writing and journaling make me examine my experience closely in a way that a photo, objective and unprocessed, doesn’t demand. A photo is the easy way to remember something. For those of us without photographic memories, photos are a great way to retrieve memories. But they shouldn’t be the only way we retrieve memories, nor should they become a glorified medium for making them. I won’t stop recording the memories that make me happy and nostalgic but I will try to stop recording them in certain ways. More precisely, I’ll stop framing them with the thought of how they’ll look in a picture frame. When I look at photos, in particular the ones that I’ve curated specially, there’s the potential that my mind will generate emotions and inferences and thoughts that weren’t actually present in the moment. I’ve decided to do more journal writing—which reflects my inner experience and the way I felt about it—and less photographing. Subjectivity is a crucial part of memories. Writing something down will help sear the memory into my consciousness in a way, true to my experience, that a photo just can’t.
All this seems to speak to a larger question of mindfulness. Back on campus, I was reminded of my family hiking trip and of my meditations on mindfulness and memory as I sat with seventy students inside the mess hall in Blairstown, a camping ground 60 miles north of Princeton, on a retreat for Bridge Year students. Rain fell in sheets outside.
We called out goals for living meaningfully at Princeton—a way of living that came much more easily and naturally during our gap years: I want to write down memories of Bridge Year, and of campus, before I forget them, someone began. I want to remember there’s a whole world outside Princeton. I want to stop regretting decisions past. I want to remember to call my parents and thank them. I want to be vulnerable to people and not tailor or curate who I am. I want to talk deeply with people, not just see them at a meal. I want to act intentionally. In general, people wished to live more mindfully.
At Princeton we’re rewarded for focusing in on narrow, self-involved things: getting good grades for ourselves, having friendships that make us happy, building résumés. We can be self-absorbed and not self-aware. While nothing is wrong with this, it does make it hard to live mindfully. We’re constantly told that outward empathy, gratitude, and mindfulness are crucial to happiness and emotional wellbeing. Recently the McGraw Center created weekly meditation sessions on living mindfully, titled “Moments of Mindfulness,” intended for “alleviating stress and anxiety, addressing comparison and competition, enhancing brain performance, and cultivating compassion.”
I’ve really tried to be more mindful. I enrolled in Berkeley’s massive open online course The Science of Happiness – but I only completed a couple lessons. (Considering the outstanding popularity of happiness and positive psychology classes at places like Berkeley and Harvard, it’s surprising that Princeton doesn’t have one.) I decided to keep a list of quotes to inspire me on my wall, but took them down because after a few days they lost any effect or motivational force they may have had because I just got used to them, anesthetized.
There are parallels between being mindful and also remembering “outside the box”—writing and taking photos in an attentive way and not in a way dictated by conventional social media patterns and gratuitous streams of iCloud photos. Both require continuously changing up habit, breaking the norm, looking at things in a new light. Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Concentrate all your thoughts on the task at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought into focus.” I’ve realized that a camera lens bringing the sunset into focus has similar potential as mindfulness of beauty to foster memory and appreciation.
My conclusion at the end of a summer spent in perpetual documentation was that I took photos for the wrong reasons at times, although part of my mind would disagree with this assessment—perhaps a consequence of cognitive dissonance. I tried too hard to prepare moments for future nostalgia. I took photos as testimony to my travels, proof that I had done something or gone somewhere interesting. I wasn’t mindful because I was thinking outside of myself: within the perspectives of future me (or of My Story viewers). In some ways, then, my recollection is skewed. In other ways though, I am now able to successfully reminisce. I can find countless evocative details reproduced in old photos, details I would’ve otherwise forgotten: the texture of the raw sticky bun I tried overeagerly in Chinatown before realizing it wasn’t precooked; the dimpled smile of an adorable three-year-old who I worked with; the melancholy but bright graffiti I admired on a stormy day. These moments confirm for me that despite being a tourist in New York, I was not a tourist in my own reality.
[i] “Mindfulness May Make Memories Less Accurate.” Association for Psychological Science. N.p., 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.