The Tower (Princeton, New Jersey)
A few days ago, President Obama posted a picture on Instagram of two people showing him a selfie they had just taken with him. The caption was a promotion for a chance to meet the President, and in parentheses said “Pics or it didn’t happen.” This sentiment is neither revolutionary nor uncommon. When somebody is doing something cool or interesting, it may as well have never happened if it isn’t documented with a phone or camera.
This is not to say that photography isn’t an art form, or that documentation is an unacceptable practice, but it may be hurting our ability to truly live presently and in the moment. The definition of living presently varies from person to person, but the general consensus is that to live presently is to be truly focused on the moment at hand, not living in the future, the past, or a virtual world. When we insist on documenting everything we experience, we distract ourselves from these very experiences to focus on capturing them on camera.
Some argue that this documentation is not a means of distraction but simply a way to look back and remember the experience in the future. They may argue that taking pictures of everything is not an obsession but perhaps a fear of forgetting that forces people to take precautions, just to make sure they remember.
I took two trips this summer: one to Sweden with my family, and another backpacking with friends. On one, I ended up documenting my every move and every place I visited, and on the other, my phone ran out of battery two days into the trip; I didn’t bother recharging it. In retrospect, I am happy that I did stop to document part of what I did, because the pictures now serve as a way to remember the summer. During the trips, though, the difference in my level of picture-taking and documentation made a big difference in my level of enjoyment of the experience itself. When I was focused on how my experiences and travels would appear to others on social media, I was unintentionally doing things merely so I could say that I had done them, to impress others who had not done the same. This mode of experience, I would argue, is the exact opposite of living “in the moment,” or living presently.
Documentation can be a good thing; many of us appreciate it because we can then share it with others as proof of a certain experience, not as something to help us remember. Our obsessive picture-taking and posting, however, distracts us from the experience itself, from our own perception of what is happening at a moment in time.
Graphic: Caroline Smith