I am standing on a hilltop looking down at the Moroccan city of Chefchaouen, also known as “The Blue City.” An enormous cluster of turquoises and aquamarines, it lives up to its name. The trails surrounding it wind in and out of view, small trees and shrubs dotting the hills my friends and I have just ascended. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful sights I will ever see, so I should be content to stand there and soak it all in. To appreciate every detail my eyes can discern, to relish the feel of the wind on my face and my friend’s hand in mine. To laugh and shout and simply be. And for a minute or two, I do. And it is perfect.
But then I find myself reaching for my camera, and the spell is broken. I’m no longer in the present moment– I’m thinking about how I will look back on it later.
Between iPhones, Facebook, and Instagram, it sometimes feels like people are becoming collectively obsessed with photographing their lives – whether for themselves, or for their peers to scrutinize and, they secretly hope, envy. And I have to wonder if the ability to capture moments on a memory card has come to feel like an obligation for our generation. Have we begun to take the joke saying, “Pictures or it didn’t happen” too much to heart? To some degree, are we documenting our lives instead of fully living them?
I didn’t even own a camera until college, and once I did I was ecstatic. But, suddenly having the means to preserve the image of everything I saw, I became stressed at the notion of not using this technology at every possible chance. During my semester abroad this got especially bad – if I saw something even the slightest bit cool (read: EVERYTHING), my hand would practically grab the camera of its own accord. I couldn’t walk down a Spanish street without photographing its every nook and cranny. If my camera wasn’t with me, I felt anxious about all the moments it was missing. How would I remember the things I did that day? And if I forgot them, would it be like they had never happened at all? The impulse to snap photos became constant and exhausting. I was traveling the world, but only seeing it through a viewfinder.
By the end of the year, I had decided to semi-retire my Panasonic for a while, content with the fact that three pictures are sufficient to remember a sight instead of twenty. And as soon as I did, it felt like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders!
A photo can be a double-edged sword, and while it is a wonderful thing to be able to capture the beauty of the world, I think that is an ability that should be exercised with care. Make sure you don’t let the endless attempt to visually capture life get in the way of life itself. Every once in a while, leave the camera at home. Spend a day out in the world, and don’t interrupt the experience for even a second to observe or preserve it. After all, to tweak the saying a little bit, “Life is what happens while you’re busy taking other photos.”