I’ve read a few articles recently that dispute the theory that taking a photo will make the memory last forever. I can hear my children applauding this finding and, from this point forward, will never ever let me snap another group, holiday, vacation photo again. Ever. It’s disheartening. I first read about this in The Rotarian in an article by Frank Bures called “Photographic Memory”. He was reflecting on a trip to Hong Kong and being atop a mountain called the Peak. He sat there for hours enjoying the experience and watched throngs of tourist come up and snap several pictures, delete the worst and then move on, never taking a moment to take in the view. Never appreciating the experience. The photo was just one of a myriad that documented their trip but they never stopped to take it in.
I remember being asked to video tape one of my college roommate’s wedding. When we got to the reception after the wedding, I was videotaping all of my old college friends dancing on the dance floor and an old friend said “are you just going to watch or are you going to experience it?” I put the camera down and joined in on the old Animal House hit by the Isley Brothers “Shout”. I will never forget that moment. It took me back to my Junior year of college. I got out from behind the camera and experienced the moment. Alas, there is no video of me singing “a little bit softer now” but I have it tucked away in my gray matter forever.
So what should you do? Dump your camera app from your phone? Nah. Nothing that rash. But here are some ideas on how to be more present and less dependent on your phone to capture the moment:
1. Cut. Cut back on the amount of photos you are taking. If it’s not your wedding or 75th birthday, one or two will do. There was a time when I took a picture of each present my children opened on Christmas morning (boring!). This year, I took one photo of my parents with Santa hats on. It’s a great picture and, as my Dad turns 90 this year, who knows how many more opportunities there will be. My children were both home for about three weeks over Christmas this year (a very rare occasion). I am proud to say I only took three pictures. Or should I say I was only permitted to take three pictures. Cut back on the volume of pictures you are taking.
2. Accept. Be open to accepting the experience. Bures in his article quotes Susan Sontag, “Travel become a strategy for accumulating photographs. A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it.” I experienced this when I went to San Francisco last year and traveled to Battery Spencer at the Marin Headlands to see the Golden Gate Bridge. There were groups of tourists walking out to the overlook to take a picture and then head back. There were those who sat and accepted the experience. It was a magnificent view. The pacific wind was blowing, the sun was lowering in the west and I remember hearing at least 5 different languages from the crowd milling about. Accept the experience.
3. Observe. Take a moment to observe. Bures cites a study by Linda Henkel at Fairfield University. 27 undergrads were asked go to a museum and observe 15 items and take a photo of 15 other items. Their memory recall on the objects they only observed was much more precise. Henkel calls this “directed forgetting”, where we tell our brain that it doesn’t need to remember something we have taken a photo of. I went to the National Gallery in Washington DC last year purely to see an Andrew Wyeth exhibit. The exhibit was the only place where I was not permitted to take pictures. I have to say that I took my time and observed. Every gossamer wisp of a curtain blowing in the open window. It’s etched in my brain. Observe.
4. Focus. In some of Henkel’s studies, if the photographer focused in on the details, they were more likely to remember the details. I went on a trip Brazil when I was in my mid-twenties, I remember videotaping a big black tarantula spider crawling on the side of the road. I recently saw the video again. It’s precisely as I remember. So when you take a photo, zoom in on the gray heron or the tree branch or the sail boat. Focus on the detail.
5. Present. It’s not that you shouldn’t be taking photos but that you need to be present regardless. Photos are just push pins in your brain. They work more effectively if you stand back and take in the experience. Breath in the salt air, listen to the sounds of the breaking waves, touch the tree, smell the fresh baked bread and taste the crème brulee donut. Be there. Right now. Pause. Then, if you have to pin it to your brain for future use, take a picture. But first and foremost; be there, be present.
6. Organize. When you have a catalog of photos, make sure you organize them. In order to relive the experience, you will want to go back and look at the photos. If they are in a box dated 1970-2010, you have a problem. They are jumbled mess. So put them in folders by date or by topic or by person. If you keep them in a jumbled mess, you are not likely to sit back and review them. My grandfather was an avid photographer and he painstakingly (way before iPhones) put his photos in albums in chronological order, with dates and each person labeled. What a treasure trove. Put your photos in some kind of organization so that you and your loved ones can go back and reminisce. Organize your treasures.
I have to say that I went back to my phone after reading the article and deleted any picture that wasn’t of a person. I have also tried to take pictures on a more judicious basis. But the most important thing is that I am in the moment and less about documenting it. It’s an amazing place to be.