First Click: Photographs are memory triggers, not replacements

October 13th, 2016


We are living in historic times. Whether it's transoceanic flights, pocketable personal computers, or that little invention called the internet, our generation enjoys access to an unprecedented bounty of knowledge, experiences, and technological capabilities. Don't just take my word for it, the US president also thinks now is the greatest time to be alive. But something troubles me about this brave new world of ours, and that's the way we're experiencing it — or rather the way we're relegating the experience to the act of documenting it.

Here's how memories used to work when I was a kid. My family and I would go on vacation somewhere, let's say, and I'd soak up all the mountainous vistas of the Bulgarian countryside and at some point we'd stop at a monument, look at it from all angles, pick the prettiest, and pose in front of the thing for a photo. The order was: memorable experience or sight first, totemic photograph second. Looking back on those photos today is just the catalyst for bringing me back into that original moment and environment.

Shoot first, try to remember later

We've now completely reversed that order. We shoot first, and try to remember later. Modern phone cameras can do stabilized, high-definition timelapse video, so going on a scenic drive and not capturing it for sharing later can feel almost lazy. Phones can also record panoramas, slow-motion video, bursts of rapid-fire photos, and of course selfies. They are just awesome at making your life look awesome, and we've had all sorts of cultural outgrowths developing from that technical improvement (including, but not limited to, the food photography craze).

When deadmau5 took over London's Millbank Tower in 2011 to shill Nokia phones, I was in the crowd, dutifully recording the fancy projection lights show on my own handset. Where's that video now? I've no idea if it even exists anymore. But even if I still had it, would it really be worth degrading the experience of the lights show for the document of it? No video, no matter how immersive or beautifully shot, can transport me back into a place and time the same way that my mind can.

I don't want to argue that taking great photos has become too easy, or that people shouldn't selfie the hell out of their daily lives. By all means, do. But consider also the original purpose of a photograph, or any other sort of recording. It's there to rekindle a memory, not to take its place. All I'm saying is, stop and actually smell the roses before you post a tastefully arranged photo collage of them to Instagram.

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