Everyone has a camera nowadays. Even if you don’t want one and never use it, it’s on your smartphone. If you are travelling, then you at least have a point and shoot. If you’re an avid photographer, then you spent the money on a DSLR, maybe even the thousands of dollars it takes to get a pro-level camera and all the accompanying lenses.
It never fails to amaze me how much people like to use them. Friends of mine on Facebook are uploading photos daily. Travelers I meet never seem to have their cameras far from hand, myself included. They cameras are taken out at the slightest provocation: a cute kid, a delicious looking meal, a beautiful view, or just out of boredom, when walking down the street. Taking photographs is so ubiquitous that some tourist attractions in Burma decided they could make more money charging entry for cameras than people.
But the nervous tic of photography comes at a cost. It is higher than most appreciate.
First, it kills the moment. It redirects focus from simply enjoyment, reflection, or bonding into focusing on the composition of a photograph.
Perhaps the best example I saw of this was in Bagan, a dry valley with thousands of temples across it that is Myanmar’s premier tourist attraction. People go there to watch the sunset. It is a majestic sight to behold. Best viewed perched on a monument of stone half a millennium old, the sun dies the pagodas pink and the hot air cools, and what with the hundreds of buddhas scattered around you, it give the feeling of peace, or of being on a religious mushroom trip. It doesn’t sound like silence though, if you go to the popular viewing spots. It sounds like the click click click click of hundreds of DSLRs and heavy breathing and low muttering as the owners attempt to correct their aperture and exposure, or curse their own cameras in jealousy of the 5D on a tripod next to them. The sound snaps you out of the peaceful trip fast.
Even in my own family’s vacations, cameras make regular mood-spoiling experiences. Two weeks ago, my family came to visit in Thailand, and we took a one week trip down to Ko Tao, a tropical island in the gulf. There were five us on the trip, and seven cameras. We might be hanging out, playing in the water, or taking a ride into town on one of the long boats, when someone would decide to take a picture. It would be fine if it was just a quick shot. But it never was. There was always someone who had get out of the shade into the burning sun to squeeze themselves in frame, or who had to take off their sunglasses and find their bag to put them in. It was inevitable that a conversation was interrupted, maybe even a good one, of two relatives squeezing in some one on one time in the zoo of group travel. Of course, it was never enough for one person to take the shot, either. You can share a photo in less than ten seconds, but everybody wants their own. So the cameras would rotate, at least four of them, until the last shots were squinty eyed from the sun and I’d be cursing myself for not putting more sunscreen on.
The worst part is that, in the hundreds of photos we took during the trip to Ko Tao, and the thousands that were taken every morning and evening of the sun in Bagan, I can’t for the life of me figure out what those photos are for. OK, so you put a few of them up on facebook for your friends. But most of them go into some digital catalogue that you won’t look at for a long time, and may eventually disappear when your harddrive fails a few years from now, or you reset your system. A few you may keep, but not many. I’m not trying to say that all photos are useless, just positing that the majority of them amount to nothing, and that many moments are killed for photos that are looked at once and forgotten. The moment might have been far more memorable. Plus, if you really want a photo of the sunset on Bagan, just google it. A pro already did it better than you.
The second real cost is that it builds barriers in between you and the subject. This is especially important in foreign countries where you have to make friends across culture and language barriers. I once did a story about a man who worked at Galata tower in Istanbul, selling paper birds. They were these little birds that were powered by rubber bands, and if you threw them right, they could really fly. He was an excellent salesman, and a crazy philosopher, and the best damn character for an entrepreneurship piece that I have yet found. Once I went to find him, we sat down and he treated me to tea. Then he started talking… what a piece I was getting! He talked to me about illegally entering Morocca, about how he showed at the airport in Rabat with nothing but 200 paper birds and selling enough of them in the terminal to buy his ticket out. He talked to me about his political philosophies, and how he’d made 150 dollars the day before and blew it all that night on beer for his friends. He was colorful enough to be a journalists dream. Then I took out my camera, and the interview ended on the spot. I couldn’t publish the piece because I hadn’t had time to ask him for key details, like his full name.
The camera can build a wall between friends, too. Who lets loose at a party with a photographer? Have you ever had a deep conversation with a subject you were photographing? Maybe just before, or just after. But when the camera comes out, everyone puts their makeup on.
My goal with this piece is not to make the reader fear taking photographs. I only want them to think before they shoot. What moment will this photo ruin? Most importantly, how will I use this photo? If you can’t think of an answer, it might be better to let the prettiest moments just flow. They’re much better when not looked at through an LCD screen.