Watching Life Through a Viewfinder — Are Photos Ruining the Experience?

The realization of, “Gosh, missed that shot!”, sometimes coincides with the realization that also the very experience of living that moment was missed as well. An good friend always said while pointing the finger to his head, “This is my camera.” Said he didn’t need a camera because he likes to enjoy the moment and view. To me, my cameras keep me going. They push me to venture out of the house, leave my comfort zone, talk to people and make me discover new things. Still, there is no denial that photos can limit awareness.

Both perspectives are completely legitimate. There is no right or wrong determining whether someone truly enjoys a sunset by simply looking at it or by photographing and hanging it on the wall. Oh wait, it’s more about selfies today… People. look at things!! And yes please, sunset with the flash on…

Photos | xkcd
Photos | xkcd

There are moments one shouldn’t grab for the camera. If not paid to do so, I wouldn’t make make photos of a classical concert. I’m there for the experience of the music. Or even with the consent of mourners or being asked to do so, would you feel comfortable to shoot a funeral?

It can be done in a most respectful, dignified way. Mourning and loss are the stuff some of the best images are made out of. But they’re very private human emotions. Documenting them is voyeuristic intrusion. Some things are better kept in the heart.

Doesn’t have to be a sombre occasion. Don’t you sometimes wish that people put their distracting smartphones down. They not only block the view. They destroy the very experience.

Still, watching life on an LCD and through a viewfinder has pros and cons. It teaches the eye to see and the mind to focus on what’s essential. But the very fact of “framing” excludes the much bigger picture beyond the frame. That’s why it makes sense to keep the “unused” eye open as well to follow what’s going on outside the frame’s limited perspective.

So can photos ruin the experience? Certainly so. Who didn’t try to capture fireworks. Put the camera down. The best gear will never capture even a hint of the real thing. On the other hand, photography can bring fun into boring places and quite often a photo makes me see things I wasn’t aware of when pressing the shutter button. So a photograph can certainly enrich and interpret reality.

In the end, it’s all about a state of awareness to avoid that the camera separates the photographer from the experience. Even more importantly, one really needs to master one’s camera. Having to think how to operate the thing makes you miss a) shots, and b) the experience.

The camera is friend and foe. Nothing beats the family photos archive. And I wouldn’t have done many things in my life without photography. There’s hardly a more positive motivator than the camera forcing me to go out and shoot, to discover new things, meet people and familiarize with new environments and challenges.

But photography can certainly shift one’s focus from enjoying the moment to trying to capture the moment. I have not the slightest doubt that photography can diminish the experience. With the right approach there’s time for both. By making photography part of the experience there’s no need to choose between a unique moment and a unique photo op.