A few weeks ago I went to a highline festival. On day 1 I gave my camera to someone and told them to take some pictures of me while I was on the line. Naturally, I wanted to get the picture/video of the experience.
It was great to view afterwards. I learned a lot about my technique and ways that I can improve. It was fun to watch the journey.
I remember one run in particular though where I could see the camera pointing at me. I was conscious of it. I wanted to continue standing/walking so that they could get it on camera. At the time I thought it was a bit distracting in all honestly. Superficial too. Like I was trying to perform for the camera so that my friends could see rather than me just having fun.
So the next day I decided to leave the camera in my bag. In fact, I left it inside of my bag for the majority of the festival. I barely took any pictures or made any attempt to capture the moment.
Instead, I focused on being present in the moment. Taking mental pictures. Taking more conscious breaths of gratitude throughout the process and anchoring those to my sights. Visually appreciating things without a camera.
The funny part? I feel like I remember the whole experience more vividly as a result of it! I have intense mental imagery when I recall these experiences. Each highline I jumped on is vivid in my mind. Runs of watching other people are vivid and alive inside of my mind. The whole experience feels more visceral to me.
In all honesty, I’m happy I didn’t get pictures of everything because I remember it all better!
It reminds me of a different experience I had when I was 20 years old (so about 10 years ago). A few days before I went to the Amazon Rainforest, my camera broke. These were the days before every phone had a camera on it, and a broken camera meant buying a whole new one.
Before I went on this trip, the deciding factor of going to the Amazon over Macchu Picchu was a comment a friend made to me. He said, “what you see in pictures is what you get with Macchu Picchu…there are no pictures that can capture the beauty of the amazon.”
I felt like the combo of this comment + no camera was a sign to not take a camera with me. To focus on being present in the experience and soak it all up with my eyes. To make an effort to remember visually what would otherwise have been forgotten because I can capture it with the ease of a camera.
That’s exactly what I did. I went with a shitty disposable camera (the kind with actual film you have to develop after) where I couldn’t see the pictures until I got home. In general I barely took any pictures throughout that experience.
And of course, that trip to the Amazon is something that is forever burned into my brain. I still have vivid mental pictures of my bunk where I lived, boat rides on the amazon bird watching, fishing, building fires, and so much more.
I remember that I also had more fun. I was immersed in the experience instead of taking pictures. I was jumping into everything with action instead of the ready hand of the gunslinger waiting to snap a shot. It was an experience of true mindful immersion, before I ever knew what “mindfulness” or “presence” even was.
This recent experience with the highline festival felt a lot like that trip to the Amazon. It made me think about our photo obsessed culture. How I always need to capture those “big moments” on film.
But in that moment I laughed to myself, because when I think back on it, the vast majority of the “best moments of my life”, the majority of my “peak experiences” – there was no camera around to take a picture of it. I have no evidence that the experience ever existed.
There’s so many that come to mind. All of the times I freestyle rapped in front of audiences of 500+ people in India. The first voice acting session I had. First time I got on a highline. First time I took Ayahuasca. The first dates with women who eventually became my girlfriend All of the rickshaw and motorcycle rides in Southeast Asia. The various innocently amazing meals I’ve eaten. Random nights out with fun people where moments and situations arise I couldn’t have ever predicted. Countless sunrises and full moons on sleepless nights. All photo less 🙂
The smaller moments too of my day to day life. Not necessarily peak experiences, but things like my daily commute, restaurants that I commonly eat at, conversations with friends, work life and what I was going through at the time – none of that is ever captured on camera yet still, when I look back on my experiences while traveling, these are the images that come to mind.
I think that is beautiful. These experiences are mine and mine alone. Unique to me. For me myself and I. The fact that I don’t have a camera makes it doubly meaningful because the only place in the universe that memory exists is in the depths of my mind.
It’s almost as if the pang of not having captured it on camera is what makes it resonate so much. What makes it so vivid. It’s like my brain knows that it has to remember it because it was so meaningful and in doing so makes it so that I can’t ever forget it.
On the contrary, many of the things that I DO have pictures of, I actually don’t remember as vividly. I have to look at pictures to remind myself. It’s almost as if the more pictures that I took, the less of a natural mental image that I have.
Turns out, there’s actually science to back all of this up. There is something called “Photo-Taking Impairment” – a fancy way of saying that when you take a picture of something, you literally remember it less. This is based on something called the “offloading hypothesis”, that “taking photos allows people to offload organic memory onto the camera’s prosthetic memory, which they can rely upon to “remember” for them.”
From here I am going to quote an article from Quartz on this subject, as they did a great job breaking down the studies on this subject –
“In 2014, a Fairfield University researcher named Linda Henkel published work in the journal Psychological Science in which she detailed taking people on a tour of a museum where they were invited to take photos of objects
“If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them,” the study says.
One running hypothesis is that when people stop to physically take a photograph, they temporarily disengage from the moment they are living to handle that quick task. As a result, this theory suggests, their brains encode the moment less deeply than they might otherwise.
In their research, the UC-Santa Cruz researchers sought to take Henkel’s work to a new level. They enlisted 42 undergraduate students and put them individually through three different scenarios when looking at artwork on computer screens.
- Look at the art without a camera.
- Look at the art and take a photo.
- Look at the art and take a photo knowing the photo would disappear, similar to a Snapchat-style application.
Each student was shown 15 different paintings, five in each scenario. They were then administered a test with 30 multiple choice questions about visual details of the artwork—two for each of the 15 paintings that were presented during the experiment.
Overwhelmingly, subjects scored higher when asked to recall details about photos they did not photograph, followed by instances in which they took a normal photo, and then the times in which the Snapchat program used scored lowest.
In a second experiment (involving 51 students this time), the researchers switched things up a bit. The replaced the Snapchat-like scenario with one where the subjects would take a photo, look at it on their smartphone screens, then delete it. This gave them more time to study the actual art, rather than simply snap a shot and move to the next piece. The researchers also decided to give the subjects more time with the individual artworks when they were told to take photos than when they were simply told to observe them without a camera.
Again, the test results were highest for students when they had no camera, and were asked simply to observe the art. The next highest score went to students who took a photo. And the lowest score went to those who took photos, examined them, and then deleted them (though test results for this were higher than for the students in the Snapchat setting).
“Although it remains to be seen whether the present results generalize to other types of conditions, they do suggest that taking photos can impair a person’s ability to remember the details of the experiences being photographed, an effect that appears to linger even after the camera has been put down,” the researchers wrote in their study.”
So you see, there’s some evidence to back up what I am talking about! When we take pictures of an experience, there is some indication in the research that you are going to remember it less.
What does this mean is my recommendation to you? For one, don’t be so anal about always needing to get a picture of every moment. In fact, do the opposite. Intentionally decide NOT to take a picture. Decide to consciously take mental imagery instead.
That doesn’t mean never take your camera out either. It just means don’t ALWAYS reach for the camera. Try to cycle on and off. Go for certain experiences with the intention of not taking a picture. Or only take a picture at a certain point instead of throughout the whole way. Experiment and find your balance, as long as that balance includes putting your phone away sometimes.
So the next time you’re having a peak experience, put the camera away. Keep the experience to yourself. Be selfish. Don’t share it. Experience it and remember it and let it build roots deep into your subconscious.
The best moments of my life have rarely been captured on camera, and I think that makes it all the more beautiful 🙂