Attention to detail
When photography helps immediacy instead of hurting it
In recent years, critics of social networking have said the millennial generation’s desire to constantly capture, share and post photos devalues experiences, hampers memory and keeps us from truly engaging with our surroundings. There seems to be a consensus that using technology and being present are mutually exclusive.
For example, concert purists lament the thousands of glowing phone screens held high in the crowd before them like lighters, swaying with the sounds of the music and the palpable excitement of potential Instagram likes. Nature purists believe being outdoors is something that cannot be captured by cameras, but rather deserves the immersion of every one of our senses. Some ride a high and mighty horse when proudly announcing how disengaged they are with technology, wearing their decision not to photograph something but rather “experience it” as a badge of honor.
As a millennial, a lover of photography and someone with active accounts on multiple social media platforms, I have to say I disagree. Though I agree there is so much that cannot be captured, only experienced, I don’t believe the act of photographing itself removes people from experiences or devalues moments.
In fact, I believe I am more acutely aware of my surroundings when I am looking down the barrel of a lens. With a viewfinder to my eye, my senses come alive and my camera focuses my attention on nothing but the moment I am in. I have fleeting seconds to get exactly the right photograph, so I become hyper-aware of every shifting detail in the scene before me.
The powerful connection to a certain moment becomes attached to the resulting photograph — and I truly believe I experience more with my camera than I do without it. To the critics’ credit, disengagement does come if we spend more time thinking about self-gratifying responses the photo will receive on social media rather than on the nuances left uncaptured by the photo.
A photograph is only worth a thousand words, but a photograph can be a thousand incredibly powerful words if, when taking a picture, we remember to spend as much time appreciating the sensory details in the experiences we capture as we spend picking filters, analyzing comments and feeling validation from likes.
I am fueled by, enraptured with and passionate about all those small, shifting details that go missed if one chooses to focus on the response to photos rather than the act of photographing. You see, though I recognize I cannot capture all the nuance in a world that demands to be experienced, not just seen, I keep photographing because I am fascinated by shifts in light, people scratching their noses and tucking their hair and tugging their shirts, quivering pinkies tapping surfaces to unheard beats, misplaced compliments, lost jokes, regretted non-sequiturs. All the world’s a stage, and I can’t stop staring at the actors.
I love, so ardently, the things that don’t quite fit into 35 millimeters — the things my camera cannot hold. The things people don’t notice they do. Small movements. Soft sighs. Silence.
To capture everything around me is an insurmountable challenge, but it’s a challenge I continually rise to. My camera is the closest thing I have to magic, the one device to help me as I try to gather all the wonderful, heartbreaking, dizzyingly remarkable moments spiraling down like fallen leaves around me. Though I have always recognized this endeavor is often in vain — I can never pocket an entire tree — it is the best way I know to fill my pockets with all the leaves I don’t want to lose.
As I spent my summer in Rwanda, I came to love the way the orange dust of Kigali arched its back and expanded to coat the vibrant yellow storefronts on KG 16 with a thin film of grit. It caught the setting sun during golden hour and created a filtered light Photoshop can only envy. No camera sensor or megapixel could do that color justice, but I tried so hard — shifting meters, apertures and shutter speeds — in an attempt to get close. I engaged fully with the moment and my focus on the details of the scene has cemented in my memory — not only the ocher dust of the road but also the playing children, the running water spigot, the swaying weeds and the peddling shop owners.
It is that kind of appreciation of detail that simply must be included in our frenzied desire to Snapchat, Tweet, Instagram and photograph every second of our lives. There are so many fleeting moments and beautiful nuances which go missed if we do not allow the act of capturing to ground us in the present.
Lauren’s column runs biweekly Fridays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.