When You Shouldn’t Take Pictures

Last week, I flew to Puerto Rico to visit one of my close friends. I haven’t taken that many pictures because my phone keeps dying while I’m out and I haven’t Instagrammed anything because I’m a cheap bastard who doesn’t want to deal with data roaming charges. The scary thing, however, is the sheer amount of times I have the urge to do just that: to reach for my phone whenever I pass a beautiful building or strip of beach, or snap a photo of some narrow cobble-stoned road, edit it in X-pro II and post it with “San Juan, Thursday 3 p.m.” or some other sh-tty caption. Seriously. The number of times I feel like doing that on a daily basis is staggering.

But, damn. I’m not about to pay some crazy amount of money so my Twitter followers can look at the cobble-stoned road I’m walking on; besides, I’m pretty positive no one cares. But we all post stuff like that — martinis, skylines, cats, collarbones, babies, cropped and edited — all over our chosen social media platforms all the time, or when we’re not being charged extra. Granted, it’s not always a bad thing, of course everyone is free to post whatever they want wherever. But in a way, it seems like it’s become increasingly difficult to do anything without feeling the need to broadcast it. Do we do it because we want people to see it, share in it, get a little jealous maybe, or because we have this vague fear that just plainly being in the moment isn’t enough?

And I’m not just talking about posting pictures anymore, but simply taking them. About documenting. There’s this crazy sense of urgency about being in a new place, this absolute overarching need to see and do as much as possible and document it in every way you can so you don’t lose it somewhere. Souvenirs. Photos. Receipts, bus tickets. We want to hold onto these things so we remember where we were and when, like we’re afraid our memories might suddenly evaporate; like we’re not experiencing it fully if we’re not cataloging. But in a way, putting too much effort into documenting can make us miss out on what’s really there. Like pinning a butterfly to a display board, we’re so wrapped up in trying to keep it that we lose the raw experience of it entirely.

I thought about this when I realized my inability to take tons of pictures or post them was actually a sort of blessing, in that most of the things I experienced and wanted to share weren’t really photo-friendly at all. They were just kind of… lived. Felt. They were things a picture wouldn’t have been able to capture, and even if I had taken a picture, it wouldn’t have been an accurate depiction of the moment because the thousand words a picture is allegedly worth is usually a thousand words of wrong interpretation.

I could have taken a picture of my bent copy of Hopscotch blowing open next to a caipirinha in an outdoor café, water droplets sweating down the glass, and it would have seemed the ultimate in tropical vacation relaxation, although at that moment I was feeling empty and desolate at the flat possibility of never being loved again; that and I had a heat migraine. Pictures of books and alcohol always make it look like you’re having some kind of profound alone time even when you’re crushed on the inside and feeling borderline illiterate.

I could have taken a picture of myself floating around on my back in the ocean but probably not because my phone would have gotten wet; I suppose I could have asked my friend to do it, but either way you can’t photograph the ocean’s reverberating heartbeat, the deep thrum of the dark water or your own brain melted into one even rhythm when you close your eyes, and that’s the exact moment I wanted to remember.

I wanted to take a picture of the art gallery I wandered into, and I did, but not of the owner, who I had a long talk with because I wasn’t late for anything and it was clear she needed the company. Some kid with a giant camera came in mid-conversation and asked if she was an expat, to which she answered “No. Puerto Rico is US territory,” and there was simply no way to capture the way he fumbled with his pamphlet and stumbled over the stair on his way out.

And I guess I could have taken a picture of the faded matte blue-gray sky balancing delicately atop the ocean’s flat blackness like a large-scale Rothko, but a phone camera only does so much and sometimes you just have to put it down and look. TC Mark

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