For my first six months on the road, I would snap photos with nothing more than my smartphone. It was an 8 megapixel Android that, while far from fancy, got the job done. I could capture a friend's hijinks, or the general idea of some pretty scenery, but I knew that "beautiful" photos were out of my reach. As a result, I was never "on the hunt" for them. Every day I would walk around, my eyes and ears taking everything in, and when I saw something I really liked, I would idly snap a fuzzy photo. In this relationship, the camera was mine.
Six months in, I started to worry that I was making a mistake. There were beautiful sights waiting in Asia, and I had a feeling I would come to regret heading over there with little more than a MyTouch. So I did some research, scraped together some cash, and took the plunge into "photography." Nothing excessive, mind you, but a sturdy little cube of metal and glass with manual controls and an optic zoom. I had made, I thought, the right decision.
Our first week together -- our honeymoon, if you will -- was bliss. I was overwhelmed with the power that the new lens gave me. All of a sudden, I could take beautiful photos! What's more, I could make them better than the reality itself by playing with the settings, drenching or parching the lens with light. In my mind I became a wandering artist, bearing witness to the beauty around me.
After a while, however, I started to realize the truth behind my new partner -- it was taking control of me. Whereas before I would have looked and seen a flower as a flower, or a handsome building as a handsome building, now I could see only projects, challenges for me and my camera to conquer. Gaining the ability to take beautiful photos had made them an obligation, with my camera calling the shots. The camera was no longer my companion. Rather, I had become the camera's. We were in a co-dependent relationship, and I realized we needed to set some boundaries.
I realized also that I wasn't alone in this co-dependency. Everywhere I went, I saw travelers with massive cameras dangling around their necks, snapping photo after photo after photo, seemingly disengaged from the very experiences they were obsessed with remembering. The camera, I realized, had become a safety net: a promise to re-experience what you never actually experienced the first time.
In the bittersweet 2007 indie love film, 2 Days in Paris, the main character, Marion, laments her photog boyfriend Jack's inability to share a sentimental moment with her, on account of his need to constantly photograph those same moments. She says:
"Taking pictures all the time turns you into an observer. It automatically takes you out of the moment. For our trip to Venice I wanted to be in the moment, with Jack. But instead of kissing on the gondola, Jack took 48 pictures on the gondola..."
Whenever your camera is with you, whether you are using it or not, you are looking through the camera's eyes -- seeing things not for what they are, but for what they could be. This is a very subtle psychological shift in perception that, if you let it, can drain much of the vibrancy from the world around you.
So, what to do?
Simple: leave the camera at home sometimes. It's really the best way. As long as the possibility of taking a photo is there, your mind can't help but scan for opportunities. Leaving the camera at home, removing all ability to take the photo, will free your mind from the burden to do so. Don't neglect your camera too much, of course - -we carry them for a reason. But some boundaries, perhaps just two or three hours in the morning, or the occasional Saturday, would be a good place to start.
You might find yourself re-discovering that you can make memories without the help of the camera. And that's empowering.