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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  • http://twitter.com/geology_rocks Haley F (@geology_rocks)

    You realize Puerto Rico is in the US and therefore you can use your AT&T service without roaming right?

    • milajaroniec

      I have Verizon.

    • http://twitter.com/subhasnair Subhas Nair (@subhasnair)

      Thats not the point of this article!

  • Guest

    This is beautiful. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately…i couldn’t agree more. Thanks for the reminder.

  • JK

    This resonates with me. I instagrammed a picture of my afternoon snack a few minutes ago… like, why!?! Also, I thought about this the other day at brunch when both my husband and I whipped out our phones to take pictures of our breakfasts. How did this happen to us?

  • bregeen

    I am a firm believer in what you just wrote about, the ability to really feel and remember the moment. I’ve never been a big picture-taker though, so that might have something to do with it. Social media is a great thing, but it’s getting a little out of hand.

  • kate

    This really resonates with me.

    I’ve spent a lot of time trying to grapple with my overwhelming need to take pictures of everything all the time. Part of it is sharing it with people, yes (which ties into a long-standing theory that I need to share things with people in order to validate my own experiences), but another part of it is for me to remember. At 23, I’m starting to forget things for the first time. It’s hard to remember what my 1st grade classroom looked like, where I went on my 8th grade DC trip, what cars my friends drove in high school… So I document the visual (and the scraps of receipts–which fade after 5+ years and really aren’t worth keeping–and tickets and brochures) perhaps in hopes that 20 years from now, it will help me remember the heartbeat of the ocean and the horrible headache I had with a delicious drink in an amazing place.

    Unfortunately, this just leaves me with close to 30,000 pictures to sort through from the last 5 years… whoops.

  • VJK

    i am attached to my camera like another limb. but i love it when i go to a show without a camera. when i think of memories with my boyfriend, it is more often things i dont have pictures of than things i do.

  • Nori

    existential.

  • http://manyworldsmanyminds.wordpress.com Eden

    Reblogged this on A Garden of Delights and commented:
    This is just perfect…as is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrea.lynema Andrea Lynema

    At all your descriptions of pictures you could have taken, I thought “Aww, but that would have been an awesome picture!!!” But with every description you gave of how the picture would never have come close to capturing the moment, I thought, “yea… that’s so true…”

    I kind of battle with this problem all the time now… I’ve never been much of a picture taker, but I frequently find myself regretting that I don’t take pictures more often because my memory really is a lot crappier than I’d like it to be. Whenever I try to remember something, the memory always comes back distorted. At least with a picture I can capture SOME of the things that were going on in the past accurately, and it helps jog my memory in general too. Then again, I definitely know what you’re getting at when you say that while taking pictures, it’s hard to be “in the moment” and experience the full gravity of where you are and what you’re doing. So often when I start taking pictures, it’s because that little voice in my head is saying “you’ll regret it if you don’t”, or “you need a new facbook profile pic/cover photo”, that all I’m focused on is what will be the next great photo, and nothing else.

    Either regret not enough photos, or have tons of photos with little emotional value since I was so immersed in getting the best photo… I just try to cash in on the best photo opportunities, and not take too many. That’s the closest solution I see.

  • H

    Taking pictures doesn’t stop me from being in the moment, I don’t walk around with my eyes closed just because I’m photographing something.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kburgess Kelly Burgess

      Yes, this. In fact, taking pictures often makes me slow down and really stop and -see- something. It’s how people see things and look at the world that makes looking at all kinds of pictures interesting to me.

  • CL

    i have a love/hate relationship with sharing pictures. i like that people can see amazing things and share stories but it’s like you say, there are so many stories that can’t be told with just a picture and shouldn’t either. so then your sunset pictures are sort of pointless and purely to show people. and i totally agree with being the moment. you spend half the time trying to get the perfect shot you can’t even enjoy it.

  • Melancholik

    This is so real; hit me right through the guts. I for one am terribly fond of documenting too much and I’m trying so hard to taper that down. I should live the experience– that’s truly what makes it memorable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=728563050 Nadira Mohammad Diah

    I love this. Thank you. You’re in my head.

  • Mclovin

    Some people take pictures to share some of their moments and it’s no different from writing a blog. Some even do both taking pictures and writing blogs. Pictures can be a good medium to attract readers but I guess being cheap and a bitter title works too.

  • Kate Knibbs

    This is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read on Thought Catalog! Your description of being in the ocean momentarily brought the thrum of water back to my ears.

  • Bappy

    In fact, taking pictures habitually makes me slow down. It’s how people see things and look at the world that creates looking at all kinds of pictures fascinating to me.

  • Guest

    Nothing I hate more than people whipping out their blackberrys, which have notoriously shit cameras, to take a photo of something too far away or with dodgy lighting which everyone else around them is taking a picture of. They don’t even enjoy what they are experiencing, they just want to put a picture on facebook. When there are people taking well compositioned photographs of the same thing with their expensive cameras, which will do the situation some sort of justice. I love photographs, I document a bit too much but I know taking 300 pictures of a gig is unnecessary.

  • Miho

    I love taking pictures, but there are just SO many stories a picture will NEVER be able to capture! By holding on to a camera every minute of the trip, one fails to experience everything in its entirety.

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  • Nikki

    Not at all what I was expecting and what a pleasant surprise ^__^

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