Sometimes I wonder, when we whip out our cellphones to mark moments, if we are actually even there. Concerts are dead–a sea of screens experiencing what the people below them are missing. If live music, especially, is meant for our ears, what are live images for? I think we are diluting our experience of our environment with our constant need to document and share. I have been reconsidering my perpetual desire to affirm that something happened by posting it on the Internet. But I do like the insight those images afford me when trying to make a decision about my next trip. So what do we do?
I find myself on both sides of this conversation here–this is complicated. So, who benefits when you take photographs on your trips? You do, sure, but if you have 5,000 photos of your trip to Pompeii, what were you doing there other than taking pictures? Also, who do you know who wants to look at all those photos? Wouldn’t you both have more fun if you shared a meal and talked about what you did? I, myself, cringe when someone offers to show me the pictures they took on their trip. Show me 10, tell me a story.
Who really benefits from all those photos you put on Facebook? Mostly, the subjects of those images–if they are places someone else can visit, a hotel, a resort, a meal at a restaurant. But I’ll go find the waterfall you tell me about if you say it’s worth it. You don’t need to sell me on a photo. And the social validation you get on Instagram is, I’d argue, slightly offset by the fact that you were taking a picture with your cellphone when those fireworks were going off, not kissing someone next to you.
*This is a good time to mention Dave Eggers’ new book, The Circle, a searing exploration of what it means to share images and have private experiences. Side note: The website for the book was designed by my partner in Playtime, Otis Pig.
In 2008, I followed a love interest to South Africa. With a few changes of clothes, a few Justin’s Nut Butter squeeze packs, two cellphones, and a manual Canon viewfinder, I visited ZipZap circus where she was working at the time and learned about the local social struggles as well as a thriving art and circus scene. I also saw zebras and cheetahs from above on an amazing two flights on an ultralight airplane, a trip I arranged in order to shoot aerial photography.
In a powered ultralight glider, flying at altitudes between 2,000 and 10,000 feet, I enjoyed exhilarating views of beautiful scenery and herds of wild, running animals and, at my request, ventured into restricted airspace above poorer townships to get a real look at the visual juxtaposition between white and black communities, a harsh and obvious economic disparity, hardly changed since the 1990s.
To be clear, the flight wasn’t just to see townships. My goal was simply to see the Earth from above, but the images I captured marked some of the most powerful and exciting moments of my life. I will always remember the instant the pilot shut the engine off to let us glide, silently, through some clouds. I remember asking if he’d ever been skydiving. He said, “No. I’m not interested in falling. I am interested in flying… this is the closest I can take you to heaven.”
During the whole trip, I shot six rolls on real film; but I also shot some digital images included herein. I captured scenes with my new friends at a level of intimacy that is hard to translate into words. Even now, writing this, I can remember what it felt like to do somersaults down the sand dunes in a nature reserve north of Cape Town.
Once, two of us found ourselves alone at night, in a place so free from light pollution as to be illuminated only by starlight, a place from which astronomers mapped the stars and planets as seen from the southern hemisphere. I should note my familiarity with stars: When I get home to Connecticut, late at night, I get out of the car and look up. My whole family does this any night it’s clear and we know the stars from home. The southern hemisphere is completely different. Disorienting in a profound way.
At one point, we heard a noise from behind us, animals thumping and breathing. A herd of zebras, at least five of them, had come to sniff us out.
“What do we do!?”
“Nothing. They’re probably asking themselves the same thing.”
I tell you this because I have no way to show you this; neither of us considered capturing the images of the zebras under the stars; we were too busy being astounded at the magic of that moment. Moreover, when I returned to the States, I came to learn that my analog camera had malfunctioned and had overexposed every single photograph I took with it!
The reason I chose analog in the first place is that the practice of framing 1 of 36 makes it somehow more sacred. I feel that the digital image, in a way, has less emotion invested in it, and less purpose. No offense intended toward my brothers and sisters with their digital cameras–I too love the luxury and convenience it affords me. But, at that time, I chose analog to practice looking. Even with a higher-end digital camera, there’s a need to frame and compose that brings attention to the image.
While I’m grateful for some of the digital images, that I was able to bring home with me, I am also grateful for the stories I gathered with no technology other than my memory. It is more and more rare to travel and just be. The popular quip, “Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” might not be true after all. Sure, the image will be there for people to see, but the experience of gliding above the Earth will last far longer than the value of the photos I captured. The thrill of just looking, being present with the clouds, the stars, the zebras–the rush of being alive will always trump the rush of pushing a button; and, besides, sometimes a thousand words are worth more than a picture.
I encourage you to find ways to feel like more of a human. Detach from your phone, camera, technology, and build a memory that is yours and yours alone! Get in touch with your environment and your experiences. Listen, smell, taste, look around. I worry that without reawakening our awareness, our interaction with technology numbs our senses and dilutes the power of our momentary experiences. How do we find balance between the behavioral norm of Instagramming this moment and the need, I’m asserting, to not; ultimately, with unlimited clicks, you could spend your whole trip shooting and leave with no real memories.
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Micah Spear is the Creative Braintrust Design Expert and Founder & CEO of Playtime