Hayes: The problematic focus on picture-taking


Bob Hayes, Columnist

While enjoying a wonderful vacation from the stresses of school and daily life last week and subsequently coming across countless pieces of photographic evidence of others’ respective spring breaks, I was quickly reminded of what I see as a cultural trend that is in some ways problematic: the perpetual obsession with picture-taking.

Put another way, too many times while on my spring vacation in Peru, I overheard scores of tourists making exclamations like, “Let’s get closer so we can get a better picture!” Nothing is inherently wrong with that desire, but why is the purpose of the desired action improving the quality of our pictures, not of our experiences?

We encounter this photo-centric perspective in so many parts of our lives, particularly during meaningful experiences. The appeals of taking pictures are entirely understandable: We can permanently capture these transient experiences, look back with fond memory and easily share them with all our friends. Additionally, the idea of seeing oneself in a still image or video still feels like a fun novelty, while many see photography as an artistic practice. Despite my own criticism, I enjoy taking pictures and occasionally posting on social media for exactly these reasons. Similarly, I do not see an inherent issue with people taking hundreds of pictures while on vacation and then uploading them online.

The problem arises when we dilute our meaningful experiences by focusing so heavily on documenting them via photographs. This has become such a natural trend that I believe few of us even realize our self-inflicted dilution while it happens.

A common example is the constant temptation to film your favorite songs at a concert or music festival, which, again, is a practice I do not claim to be above. In these situations, the desire to capture the perfect video or picture at the perfect time occupies so much of our attention that we often forget to simply enjoy the experience in the moment. By focusing too much on photographing and filming — generally with the goal of replicating that experience for future viewing — we ironically worsen the experience itself.

Intuition may say that picture-taking and fully enjoying an experience are not mutually exclusive. For some, that may be true. Still, I encourage you during your next meaningful experience — whether it’s overlooking the Grand Canyon, feeling the vibes at a music hall or walking on the beach — to take a minute to simply enjoy yourself. I think many people will feel surprised at how different it feels to experience life through their own senses than through camera lenses.

Many of the best moments of our lives are not captured photographically, and we should feel at peace with that. Recalling a moment solely through memory is in many ways more powerful and personal than through photographs. Ultimately, as exciting as photographs can seem, nothing beats a cognitive memory.

With this in mind, what should we consider going forward? Should we stop taking pictures altogether? Of course not! Pictures remain an excellent way to capture memories and share with ourselves and friends.

But ultimately, I encourage people to consider that a memory cannot be measured by the quantity or quality of photographs taken. I believe we can each feel a greater reward by placing an emphasis on truly taking in a meaningful experience rather than abruptly rushing to document it photographically.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.