the purpose of photography


Yesterday as I was driving, I turned up the volume in the middle of an NPR piece on how to get young people (tweens and teens, primarily) to be more present in their daily lives.  The premise behind the piece was that young people have lost the ability to communicate with each other in non-analog ways, and the expert being interviewed shared a series of challenges that would help kids unplug and connect with each other more personally.

One of the main challenges was to have them go an entire day without taking a photograph.  Schoolteachers who had led the challenge in their classrooms reported that this was one of the hardest challenges the kids endured, but it resulted in them making more eye contact with each other, in ways they hadn't previously.  The expert laughingly mentioned a photograph of tourists who all had their camera phones out to take a picture of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, saying, "when we take a photograph, what we're doing is outsourcing our memories to a camera."  She continued by citing research that indicates that when we're at an event, we're far more likely to remember it if we don't photograph it than if we do.


I honestly don't know where I come out on this.  On one hand, I'm a photographer:  I'm so drawn to the art of photography, and how an image is captured, regardless of the tool that is capturing it.  It is a rare day when I don't take a photograph, specifically for the purpose of practicing  photography.  On the other hand, however, I'm also the person who is far more likely to forget to take a photograph if I'm having coffee or a meal with a friend, because I'm so involved in the conversation -- for example, when my dear friend Asha Dornfest and her family spent the Christmas holiday with us last year, I was having so much fun with them that I completely forget to document any of the time we had together, save for a quick photoshoot of her hand holding a sparkler (it is her hand that is on the cover of Make Light).  And I admit that that as much as I love smartphones for democratizing photography, there was a part of me that was horrified when Alex informed me that because a friend of hers was interested in learning more about photography, her parents bought her the latest model iPhone.  (Don't get me wrong, smartphone cameras are powerful, but make no mistake:  what they can teach about the craft of photography is limited.)

Here's the truth:  I have a poor memory anyway.  I remember very little of my childhood, or adolescence, or even college or law school with any detail, and there are many times when I think that but for my camera, I would've completely forgotten major events that have happened in my life.  (I bought my first camera a few months after I graduated from law school.)  So in addition to a passionate avocation, photography is absolutely a tool for helping me remember.  But I also love connecting with people one-on-one, and while I shoot practically every day, I nonetheless rarely risk ruining a moment by pulling out a camera (even as, after the fact, I often lament not capturing the moment on my phone).

What do you think?  Do you find yourself using your camera or smartphone to capture memories?  Do you find yourself relying on it way too much?  Do you think that photography (whether with a fancy SLR or a fancy smartphone) keeps you from connecting with others the way you used to?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.


Also, it turns out that a few years ago, I wrote how (notwithstanding anything I've said here) photographs are meant to be seen.  I still think that's true.  And I still think it's a way of owning your own story.  So assuming all of this -- is photography simply another form of communication, and does it really hamper the non-analog ways we communicate?)