Last week, I was reminded by a tiger at the Oregon Zoo of something that concerns me: the trigger happy use of digital cameras to replace real experience and observation, by myself and probably most other casual photographers these days. I did not have my camera with me that day at the zoo when I found myself in front of the Siberian tiger exhibit. Lolling on the rain-glazed artificial stone of his enclosure was a huge, magnificent cat. I am generally less interested in such iconic animals at the zoo, being more eager to spend time with its smaller, less charismatic denizens. But I was charmed by the tiger that day. Of course, my first instinct was to reach for a camera and start snapping photos. But like a gunslinger without his pistol, I was left feeling naked. If I was to carry something away from that moment with the tiger, my only option was to stand there and actually look at him, take in his presence, connect with the experience.
My guess is that, like me, many people are taking far more pictures now than they ever did in the past. The obvious reasons for this phenomenon are: 1) the storage media of digital cameras can store hundreds or thousands of high-quality photos; 2) photos can be viewed and, if necessary, deleted “in the field.” We no longer have to wait until after our pictures are developed to see how crappy they are; and 3) development costs are negligible, especially for those of us who keep only digital copies of our photos. Armed with digital cameras, we are equipped to indiscriminately record every thing that passes in front of us. I have a huge collection of photos that I have taken in the last five years stored on my computer. These photos are precious to me and I am thankful for the modern technology which made it possible to collect and store them. But of the thousands of moments I have captured on “film,” I wonder in how many of them was I truly present, truly engaged in the moment and mindful of what I was trying to capture in the photograph. Are my photographs simply surrogate memories? Poor stand-ins for what I might have gained by taking the time to look, listen, and feel?
I first began to think about this problem when I purposefully did not take my digital camera on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As an aspiring ultralight backpacker, I try to shed as much unnecessary weight from my pack as possible. For that trip, I opted to leave my hefty one-pound camera at home. The Sierras are phenomenally beautiful and photogenic, so naturally there were many turns of the trail where I was faced by some glorious mountainscape which begged to be photographed. But without my camera, I could not simply take a snapshot and move on, thinking, “I will get a really good look at that mountain later… at home on my computer, when I blow up the picture in Photoshop.”
Instead, I would have to let my hiking partner trudge on ahead while I absorbed the scene. I studied the crags, the shades of grey and green and orange. I felt the crisp wind through my shirt and the intense radiation of the Sun on my neck. There was the hushed roar of a stream in the canyon below and the twitter of small birds in the bushes flanking the trail. The vastness of space between me and the mountain on the other side of the canyon was palpable. I could feel it like I could feel the weight of my backpack pressing down on my shoulders. I could not take a picture, so I forced myself to pay attention and to enjoy reality. Yes, it would be nice to have a picture too. But if I could have only one, the photo or the fully engaged experience, I would take the latter.
Luckily, with static subjects such as mountains or flowers it is possible to have both the picture and the experience. The challenge is to keep ourselves from merely snapping a photo and walking away. Take the photo and then bring all your attention into the moment. Use all of your senses to appreciate the subject of your photo. For example, If your subject is a flower, smell and touch it. Walk around it and revel in its three dimensional structure, something that is completely lost in a two dimensional photograph. Note how the flower is a part of an ecosystem and of the greater universe.
Of course, if you don’t have time for all this touchy-feely business, you can still take your picture and bustle off. I know it isn’t practical to deeply connect with every moment we are capturing in a photograph. But if there is something particularly beautiful or meaningful to us, we should consider giving it a little more of our time and attention.
Many picture-worthy moments are fleeting and happen too fast to both photograph and observe. These are either/or situations. For example, I was in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona a few years ago, where there is a great diversity of bird species, among other things. I am not a huge birdwatcher, but I knew that one of the hottest birds living in those mountains is the elegant trogon. I spent several months in the Chiricahuas and only once did I see an elegant trogon. I heard its strange barking-seal-like call in the trees overhead and looked up in time to see it flapping away. I had a camera at the time and remembered fumbling with it, hoping to get a shot of the trogon. I am lucky I saw the bird, because I might have missed it if I hadn’t given up on taking its picture. When things around us happen quickly, we must make quick decisions about whether to take a photo or to just actively observe.
Yes, photographs are forever and memory does not always serve. I am not suggesting that we should burn our digital cameras and rely solely on mindful observation to record the moments of our lives. Rather, I suggest that we take a little time, when appropriate, to stop and smell the proverbial roses. As an experiment, take a hike or even a whole vacation without a camera sometime and try to engage your senses and consciousness to create vivid memories of places, things, and people.
Standing before the Siberian tiger at the Oregon zoo, without a camera, I watched as he flexed his massive claw-tipped paws and yawned. It was cold and drizzly and I marveled at the plumes of condensed breath billowing from his pink nostrils. I watched his ribcage rise and fall. Though he seemed asleep at times, I saw his ears twitch and swivel in different directions, reacting to the odd noises of the zoo. I thought of how thousands of great tigers like him once prowled the forests of Asia. They were revered and feared as mythical monsters, which in essence, they are. I both pitied and envied him. I felt a connection to him as a fellow mammal, tetrapod, metazoan, carbon-based life form, and self-conscious chunk of the universe.