Pics or it didn’t happen!

January 23, 2010 | By | 5 Replies More
Image by Rohan Kar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image by Rohan Kar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I was mulling around the Lincoln Park Zoo today with a friend when a man stepped on me. He was filming a Siberian tiger with a high-end digital video camera, which he held on an expensive mounting. He was fidgeting with all of the camera’s features, backing up to get the perfect shot, and he stepped all over my feet. The foot-stomping didn’t bother me so much as the man’s intent focus on something other than his present surroundings. A beautiful creature stood before him, but his attention was directed at the camera and the filming of the tiger more than it was the tiger itself.

Not much later, something similar occurred in the Tropical Birds House. As I was watching the bleeding-heart pigeons, a man, family in tow, came around the corner with a massive video camera. He also had it placed on an expensive mount. Obliviously, he nudged forward until his lens nearly leaned on the display’s glass. He fiddled and fidgeted. He zoomed on the critters for a moment, and left.

“Do you think he’ll ever watch that footage?” my friend asked.

“No,” I guessed. Without much thought I noted, “It isn’t about the footage. He probably just bought that camera, and is filming because he wants to play with it.”

“So the actual footage is useless,” he observed in return.

I intuited that the man’s camera was a new purchase because I’ve done the exact same thing with a fresh ‘toy’. Last winter I bought a cheap, adequate consumer-grade digital camera. I immediately took it on a photo-taking jaunt to the Columbus Botanic Gardens. I took close-up macros shots of water droplets on petals, long panoramas of trees enveloped in mist, and every other cliched stock-photo trope you can imagine. Lost in my little photographer game, I probably invaded the space of other visitors.

I have never used or shared those photos for anything. In fact, I rarely use the camera.

Sometimes, the recording of experience supersede experience itself. Anyone who has gone to a concert recently can relate to this. If a concert has a strong showing of young adults and adolescents, there is a 100% chance that several people are recording the show with a camera or phone. Probably a few people are holding their phones to the air, a friend on the line, straining and blocking views so the pal might ‘hear’ the performance. At least a thousand people there are texting about the experience.

When my teenage sister gets into a fight, one of the first things she does is commemorate the event with a surly Facebook status update. When I think of a smart quip or musing, I tell myself, “Oooh I better remember to put that stuff on Twitter.” And yes, when some interesting interpersonal conflict rolls my way, I whip out my phone and send someone a text that reads, “I have gossip! Want to meet later?”

“Pics or it didn’t happen!” Is a common online protest, prominent in communities like 4chan. Infantile as it sounds, it might reflect the welcome emergence of online skepticism. Unfortunately these protestations urge us to snap, record, tweet and text our experiences all the more. With human memory so faulty, how can we even be sure our own lives happened if we don’t have a litany of pics?

I’m not sure if it is for good or ill that we feel compelled to document all experiences. But at least future historians will have a hell of an in-depth record to probe. Maybe then my tweets and botanic garden photos will finally seem interesting.


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Entertainment, Films and Videos, Internet, photography, Simple living, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: The ambivalence you feel is my ambivalence too. As you know, I love taking photos with an inexpensive digital camera. I sometimes display these images on this website, if they resonate with me, of if they illustrate the topic. As the months go by I am gathering all kinds of images. Picasa indicates that we have 20,000 on our hard drive, most of them gathered over the past 11 years. The rate of photo-taking ramped up considerably upon the adoption of our two children. I often have my camera with me, and I'm always looking at the world for a good image. Sometimes, I want to share these images (probably for the motive of displaying my photography prowess). Sometimes, I just want to be able to remember–our family often gathers around the computer and tells stories and laughs while we look at the photos we took. I am amazed at what I don't remember without the photos. What in the world did I DO over the last 12 month? I can remember certain recurring events, but it only when we scroll through 12 month of photos, that I remember . . . "OH, of course. We went to the zoo. And here's Jake visiting" etc.

    On several occasions I've posted that I carry a camera because it reminds me to LOOK in the first place.… I tend to live in my abstract thoughts, and the possibility of keeps me better tuned into the hear and now. I try to not step on people's feet, and I try to make it quick and painless (I intentionally opted for a point and shoot, to keep the gadgetry options lower, and thus lower the cognitive load and the time spent setting up each shot).

    What am I trying to say? Yes, I'm ambivalent about taking lots of photos. It keeps me looking at real things, but I'm looking at them as a photographer, not as a person who is just walking about. It helps me remember, but it warps my preference for the kinds of things I'd like to look at.

    I'm proud to say that when we met in Chicago last year, I didn't pull out my camera!

    This is most unsatisfactory, but perhaps the best solution to this problem is striking a sensible balance. Or is this an empty platitude?

  2. Erika Price says:

    Erich: I think a balanced solution is the appropriate one in this case. Really, over-recording only bothers me when 1) the recording format does the real-life analog no justice; and 2) the process of forming this inadequate recording actually distracts from the analog in-the-moment. A shaky digital camera pressed against big, obstructing zoo bars does not a good memory make. A shot of the kids watching the animals and interacting probably does.

  3. Andrew says:

    I think your thoughts are dead on, Erika. We become so involved in sharing our experiences with the rest of the world, and cataloging it for future reference, that we totally miss the experience itself while it is happening. I am utterly guilty of this indiscretion, in particular at concerts lately. I feel that somehow, recording the band I'm seeing will somehow prove nostalgic down the line, or, just as importantly (not), I can post said video or picture on Facebook for mad narcissism points. Invariably, I take the videos (or pictures) head home, and either forget about them, or upload them and no one comments. What a waste.

    A long long time ago, people would have to actually fully experience the activities they engaged in. They would go to on a trip to the mountains, and have to actually look around and take in everything they saw, as opposed to sharing their experiences on Twitter or Facebook.

    I think the important thing, perhaps, is intent. To use your botanical gardens example, if you truly went there to capture the beauty of the gardens, and you felt that taking macro shots of dew accurately represented the beauty you can find there, then who's to say it's cliche or contrived?

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    I studied drawing to better see. I learned meditation to better be (as in the moment). I learned writing and photography to better share.

    Yet I recently wrote "For Whom the Shutter Snaps" after the death of my mother, considering the pictures found and not-found in her drawers full of slides and snapshots.

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