Life Through a Lens

close up of person using camera
Photo by Rakesh Gohil on

I sometimes wonder how much time people spend living their lives through a lens. Some time ago, I stopped taking as many pictures and videos at various places I visited and events I attended in order to be more present in the moment. I felt like I was living my life through a lens and I didn’t like that. It wasn’t a terribly difficult decsion to make. I rarely look back the pictures I have taken, and the photos and videos, which sit in an enormous Apple Photos library have no real context associated with them.

Instead, I select photos to tape onto my journal pages when I write about something that I think is worth including a photo. The journal entry provides context for the photo. (Now that I have resumed digital journal entries in Obsidian, I put the photos there, instead.) These are curated photos and I don’t mind this. But I still avoid going out of my way to always be taking photos of things. I’d rather have the experience than the photo.

I think this was less of a problem in the days before digital photography. Sure, it is nice that you can take as many digital photos as necessary to capture the perfect (if such a thing exists) image. But there is a phoniness to this as well. Because digital photos are so cheap, it is easy to reshoot until you capture that perfect image, which is a little disingenuous. I can remember taking a camera with me on trips before digital photos. You had a roll of 24 or 36 shots and you had to think carefully about what you wanted to shoot. Not only did you have to pay for the film, but you had to pay to develop it.

family at epcot
One of the few photos I got at Disney World, courtesy of a kind passerby.

I saw a lot of people living life through a lens at Disney World. People would get on a ride like Rise of the Resistance and they would video the whole experience, watching the scene on the screen of their phone rather than experiencing the ride. This seemed remarkable to me on three counts. First, it seems to diminish the experience. Second, given how rarely I go back and look at photos or videos, I couldn’t understand why taking a video of a ride was so important. Third, given how expensive it is to visit Disney World, It surprised me that people would spend time experiencing it second-hand, so to speak, when they’ve paid for a ticket to experience it first-hand.

How much of the world is it possible to recreate in digital form from the collective photos and videos we’ve all taken? How many photos of the castle at the Magic Kingdom have been taken? How many are available online? I can see those pictures any time I want, but to experience standing in front of it with my family is something that no photo can convey.

Written on January 15, 2022.

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  1. I was in Seattle in September, and I was really surprised at the number of people taking video of the crowds when we were in the Pike Place Market. It’s a place filled with activity, and I just couldn’t imagine (1) that any video could capture the true experience of being there and (2) that I would ever go back and watch a shaky video I had taken while walking through a crowd holding the phone above my head.

    As the saying goes, you had to be there 🙂

    1. I noticed the same thing when at Niagara Falls last summer. There, I was really tempted to take more pictures, and tried hard to resist. I kept reminding myself that I was here to enjoy the experience and that there were millions (if not billions) of photos of the falls online, but this was my only (so far) trip to see them in person.

  2. I gave up taking many photos or videos when my children were pre-schoolers. I noticed the same thing you did. While I still took photos, I was much more thoughtful about when and where.


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