In the moment or photos forever

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2008

Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen occasionally asks his readers to suggest topics for him to write about. Stump the polymath, as it were. I posted a suggestion that I’d been wondering about recently:

Is taking a photo or video of an event for later viewing worth it, even if it means more or less missing the event in realtime? What’s better, a lifetime of mediated viewing of my son’s first steps or a one-time in-person viewing?

and he answered it today:

If you take photos you will remember the event more vividly, if only because you have to stop and notice it. The fact that your memories will in part be “false” or constructed is besides the point; they’ll probably be false anyway. In other words, there’s no such thing as the “one-time in-person viewing,” it is all mediated viewing, one way or the other. Daniel Gilbert’s book on memory is the key source here.

I take a lot less photos than I used to — even though cameras are easier to use and carry around than ever — and prefer to experience the moment rather than fiddle with the camera. But that seems to swim against tide these days…camera irises seemingly outnumber real ones at photo-worthy events and places.

Reader comments

GuyMay 05, 2008 at 6:05PM

I have thought the same thing before, that I’m more worried about recording an event than experiencing it. But I do cherish the pictures of my son and wife (flying a kite, smiling, playing, etc.) I have taken and they make my work cubicle a much more habitable local.

BrockMay 05, 2008 at 6:16PM

Within 10 years or so you probably won’t have to choose. Your Personal Life Recorder, which remembers phone numbers, faces, people at parties, etc. for you (it’s terribly useful) will also record all these moments and tag and categorize them pretty efficiently with a little training. It’s like a Twitter/Google Search History mash-up in hardware.

SamMay 05, 2008 at 6:21PM

I think it’s dependent on the situation. Pictures of loved ones, absolutely, but when I’m at concerts or parties I wish people would just put the camera down and enjoy the moment. Can you really experience something if you’re concentrating on deferring that experience for later?

MarkMay 05, 2008 at 6:22PM

There’s also a difference between capturing a great moment and capturing a Great Photograph. If you’re not too concerned about the latter, it can make the whole process more enjoyable. Snap something and be done. The albums of me and my brother and sister growing up are full of crappy photos. Doesn’t matter too much. And, if we’re thinking more long-term or holistic or what-have-you, I also like to see the old crappy photos of my parents and grandparents. I hope my kids will enjoy looking back on mine in the same way.

JohnMay 05, 2008 at 6:27PM

My daughter is two and I am already noticing two things as we prepare for our second:

First, my wife and I are both forgettinglife with a newborn. Pictures and video really help with reminiscing.

Second, we are taking fewer pictures as we get used to this new life and we are increasingly we by idiots with cameras wherever we go.

But the fact remains that Tyler is right.

The best advice I can give is that recordings of everyday life and events are priceless. 30-seconds of your sons life during May of 2008 will mean quite a bit in 2 years.

When my dad shows 8mm film of me at 2or 4 or whatever, it is embarassing to me. But as a parent now I know what it means to them.

Ryan SingerMay 05, 2008 at 6:28PM

Of course there is a “one-time in-person viewing!” Those steps are happening once, and you are there once, and you are not separated from the process. It’s up to you how you interact with that, and your choice of action will affect the impression that is left in your mind and the impressions left in the minds of those around you at the time. Will the others remember you as the guy behind the camera or the guy dancing up and down in excitement? One can say that all viewing is mediated, but it does not follow that all mediations are equal. Cowen basically dismissed your question as saying “it doesn’t matter.” It does matter, because different actions bring different results.

It comes down to your own wishes. On the one hand you can participate with those first steps, run around the room with free hands or share an extra minute of eye contact with your wife. Or, you can be a photographer and focus carefully on the individual details and the composition, and you can share that moment with your family and friends far into the future. They are all good options, but they are by no means all the same by virtue of being mediated.

EthanMay 05, 2008 at 6:29PM

I was in a situation last year where I was in a VERY small venue listening to a group of very famous musicians. I had the same dilemma as you, experience or archive. I chose to just listen and enjoy the experience. Let it all soak in, look around at the friends and family in the crowd, go get another beer.

Trying to capture it on CCD might help when it comes to bragging, but it is more fun to re-tell it and let the memory dance through your head.

PJ DolandMay 05, 2008 at 7:15PM

You should just setup security cameras throughout your house and record EVERYTHING to a DVR. Keep a few days in buffer, then archive anything that turns out to be important. That way you never miss the moment, but everything is archived.

Your child will thank you later in life, provided he doesn’t end up with some kind of paranoid personality disorder from constantly being videotaped.

KristinMay 05, 2008 at 7:30PM

I don’t like video stuff. Because I think it tries to make you live in the past. Pictures are nice because they capture moments that you can remember however you want. The best parts TO YOU will be remembered and there will be nostalgia there. With a video, there is only one way of remembering. And the video will soon replace your memory of the event.

Anyway, who spends hours and hours watching old videos of their kids as babies/toddlers? Even flipping through pictures, I only do that occasionally. I’d rather live in the present and enjoy how my kids are NOW. Yes, they were adorable babies, but they are babies no more. They are children who are changing and growing every day into young adults. And I find that more fascinating than watching them take their first steps over and over and over.

Scott BerkunMay 05, 2008 at 7:31PM

The right answer depends much on the moment and who you’re sharing it with. I find I take way more photos when I travel alone since I’m not competing with my desire to share my attention with anyone.

Also, you can can take pictures to remember moments without getting entirely consumed by the act of photographing - I don’t mind when people want to a few photos to help them remember something, but to spend most of the entire experience recording the experience is something else entirely. It’s always smart to ask other people to take photos of you with friends/family, that way no one gets left out.

And there are other ways to remember things - writing about them in a journal, keeping mementos (ticket stubs), etc. that don’t require any interference with the moment itself.

agmMay 05, 2008 at 8:16PM

I recently took a video at a a friend’s senior recital. It was crappy in that it was handheld and a bit shaky, but she was grateful because over all it came out well. The “official” video taken by the music school basically had her hidden behind her music stand. It gave me an excuse to play stuff in avidemux I hadn’t before, and we both have this slightly less tenuous connection as she wanders off to Julliard.

Overall I think that one was a win. But I am more selective now about what I film, if I remember to bring my camera. Sometimes I know that fellow dancers will enjoy the video, especially if it is of a performance, sometimes I just want to experience the moment, and on the best days I manage to do both.

aleshMay 05, 2008 at 8:33PM

I find it pretty easy to strike a balance — and it tilts heavily towards experiencing the event. The thing is, though, even one photo, even a bad one, is great for triggering memories. I find that having a photo or two makes the even more real in retrospect.

I’ve done professional photo shoots, and it’s a drag because you’re so concerned about getting photos that you really do miss out on what’s going on. But when it’s for myself or my blog, I shoot a few photos and put the camera away for awhile. Works for me.

Jeanne PickeringMay 05, 2008 at 8:55PM

You have it backwards. It isn’t your memories (whether mediated or not) that matter, it’s your son’s. I have films my Dad took of us when we were young. They are interesting to watch every couple of years. I don’t think my 86-year-old mother ever looks at them unless her children are watching with her.

The best part of those films now are the pictures of my Dad’s nose as he peered at the front of the camera to see whether or not it was working when it was. As kids, we use to laugh and laugh when his nose would suddenly appear in the film and we still do now. It was one of the family jokes. After all, for much of your childhood, a lot of what you see of your Dad is his nose from below :-)

My children like to look at the occasional videos we took of them. But what they really enjoy is hearing me tell the funny stories about when they were little. Telling those old stories over again and laughing just as hard each time is a favorite family activity even though my children are mostly grown. And those are the times when I feel most connected to my own happy childhood and deeply grateful that I’ve been able to pass it on to my children.

So take a few photos and a few videos but try to live your life so that they are only catalysts to enjoying memories with your children when they are grown.

Jim RainMay 05, 2008 at 10:11PM

Does Mr. Cowen have children? Maybe it’s all mediated, but it’s more mediated if your attention is on the simulacrum of the kid and not the kid himself.

ivanMay 05, 2008 at 10:24PM

I constantly think of this whenever i decide to take my camera out. I have even gone to the point of pointing the camera, shooting, and not watch through the lens, but rather through my eyes… and if i capture the moment, great.. if not, something will be there, but at least i got to get the real life experience anyways.

briceMay 06, 2008 at 1:06AM

i guess i never thought of it that way. interesting…

janelleMay 06, 2008 at 7:50AM

it’s not easy to pick up the camera when your hands are full with such a juicy baby!

JeffMay 06, 2008 at 8:46AM

Both my children are adopted from China. And I have spoken to many prospective parents about taking a video camera in addition to a still camera to record the “in China” moments (when we first meet, the official Chinese procedures, etc.). These are priceless recordings in the traditional sense. But they are also very important to the children as they get older and start to think about their adoption.

Recently we looked at these videos as a family. My daughters are now 10 and 11 years old. It connected them to an important event in their lives in a way that no still image could do. It also reminded me, as a parent, just how far my daughters have come in those years and what their early needs were.

Jerome HainesMay 06, 2008 at 8:54AM

Jason, I thought the same thing once. Was that all the time I spent taking photos of my new baby girl diminishing my time for interaction with her?

Skip ahead four years. Now that I have a new baby boy in tow, the zillion pictures I took of her as a baby now have much more significance. Seeing her baby pictures on a daily basis, even as screen savers, makes me appreciate each moment of time that passes with my son… whether or not I have a camera in my hand.

Like the picture of my daughter taken in 2006 on my blog… I can recall the moments of the bike ride and appreciate her zeal even now. Moreover, I can see that same zeal, the same squeals, the same family smile, in my boy.

TimMay 06, 2008 at 9:25AM

…I’ve found a compromise that works well for me (I have two kids). At a photo-worthy event - day at the beach, birthday party, etc - I try to capture at least one, but often a handful of representative pictures. I’ve noticed that even if I take hundreds at an event, I often latch onto one which represents the day, so I try to get that picture early, then live in the moment. I find it somewhat sad to miss the event chasing a ghost.

jkottkeMay 06, 2008 at 10:29AM

It’s not just the kids, it could be anything. Let’s say you go to watch the Space Shuttle take off. Once in a lifetime experience for you. Do you take photos the whole time or just watch it take off?

StephDMay 06, 2008 at 10:55AM

you watch it take off.

StephDMay 06, 2008 at 10:56AM

You watch it take off. Live in the moment.

londenioMay 06, 2008 at 12:23PM

I did several trekking trips in National Parks, with perhaps some of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth. I once decided not to take a camera. I came back home and my friends found it very bizarre that I decided to go on such a trip “picture-less”.

But I was happy in that trip. Because I liberated myself from the continuous anguish of thinking whether a landscape is picture-worthy. Finding the best spot, the angle, making sure the light is right.

My point: in some cases taking picture not only diminishes the actual moment you spend looking at the world through the viewfinder rather than through your pupils, but also the whole non-picture experience in between shutter clicks. You are enslaved by the camera because you have to bear the responsibility of documenting your experience in an accurate, representative —even exhaustive— way.

Review StewMay 06, 2008 at 12:38PM

I think the trick here is to do some of each. My personal preference is to take pictures to comemorate the quotidian stuff, and for the most part experience the special events “unfiltered.” I won’t ever forget my baby’s first steps or the trip to Florida, but I might have forgotten how she interacted with her turtle-toy by now if I didn’t have the pictures to remind me.


On a related topic: I am a big advocate of audio recording of babies and kids. You switch on the tape recorder (or whatever tech you use), and just let it run, no need to point and aim or select shutterspeed or adjust the lighting. Listening to how my kid’s voice and modes of expression change over time is far more intense (for me) than the visual recordings.

Farid MashhadiMay 06, 2008 at 12:49PM

It’s worth it if you have kids. Otherwise, I’d say no. I took 500+ pictures on my first visit to NYC. Never looked at them later!

THE man himself, Mr. Scott Berkun, visits your site eh? how cool is that?

LouiseMay 06, 2008 at 12:51PM

We live full-time in our RV and drive to a new place almost every day. If I didn’t take at least a perfunctory photo, I’d never remember anywhere we’d been.

I’m a pedestrian photographer and rarely take interesting shots, but I’m fine with that.

I find that the most useful thing our blog does is record these transient places for us. So much so that our informal motto is “We blog to remember and drink to forget.”

LouiseMay 06, 2008 at 12:54PM

We live full-time in our RV and drive to a new place almost every day. If I didn’t take at least a perfunctory photo, I’d never remember anywhere we’d been.

I’m a pedestrian photographer and rarely take interesting shots, but I’m fine with that.

I find that the most useful thing our blog does is record these transient places for us. So much so that our informal motto is “We blog to remember and drink to forget.”

Farid MashhadiMay 06, 2008 at 1:08PM

It’s worth it if you have kids. Otherwise, I’d say no. I took 500+ pictures on my first visit to NYC. Never looked at them later!

THE man himself, Mr. Scott Berkun, visits your site eh? how cool is that?

JeffMay 06, 2008 at 2:19PM

Jason, your comment about the situation being anything, not just your children’s events reminded me of the time I decided NOT to take a photograph. I was in the hills of Czechoslovakia. I had a penpal from a small town just outside of Prague since I was in junior high. Now that I was an adult and making may way around Europe for the first time I wanted to visit her.

She took me to a campground with a bunch of her friends. We searched for wild mushrooms and I went sailing for the first time with a guy who didn’t speak English (and I didn’t speak Czech). As the sun was setting it produced the brightest orange reflection on the clouds just behind the mountains. It was so beautiful I started to run to get my camera. It was indeed a once in a lifetime situation: the sunset, the colors, the Czech forest. But then I stopped.

By the time I would have retrieved my camera the moment would have been lost. I decided to stay and take a mental photograph of it. To this day I both can retrieve that image and remember how wonderful it was to just look at that scene.

anastasiavMay 06, 2008 at 4:18PM

It’s not just the kids, it could be anything. Let’s say you go to watch the Space Shuttle take off. Once in a lifetime experience for you. Do you take photos the whole time or just watch it take off?

More and more we find that with digital we can just set the camera up in a good location and let it run, then edit down to what we want later. We did this with my son’s first birthday party — just set the camera up, aiming at what we kind of knew would be the “cake and presents spot” and forgot about it. Afterwards the video enabled us to catch some cute moments we hadn’t seen, but because it was digital we could edit down to the core three or four minutes and just toss the rest. (Not so easy to do with the old VHS camcorders).

So I guess I would do both — I’d set the camera up, but then I’d leave it alone and watch it take off. So I’d have the personal memory and the recorded record too.

On the “kids” front: I know you’re a parent so I’ll try not to be too heart wrenching but I have a coworker whose child died from a sudden illness last year. Her biggest regret was not that she hadn’t been able to spend enough time with the child, but rather that after the child turned about a year old they had basically stopped taking daily photos and video and had really nothing (a snapshot here or there) from the last six months. Now I try to take photos and video of people - my husband with our son, our parents, friends with their children - as often as I can. You never know what that image is going to mean to someone two months or ten years from now.

Gray LensmanMay 06, 2008 at 6:23PM

I was a wedding photographer in a previous life. I know how much these pictures mean to families, particularly the ones of the old folks who may not be around the next time. I was at a niece’s wedding in Texas this weekend and there were two hardworking pros taking thousands of digital photos. I took some of our extended family with my little digital camera in black-and-white just for the challenge. They will be a record of what I saw that the pros didn’t. None of mine were the group smile shots. I concentrated on the grandfather of the groom at 85 and his 18 month old youngest great grandson.

John M.May 06, 2008 at 8:12PM

Photographs often seem to influence, even define, how we remember an event or time period. As time moves further along, these photos become lenses, magnifying fading memories. Even further along, they seem to become filters, our recollection almost dependent on them. They become an integral part of the memory as opposed to being a mere recording.

What I often find is that photos can elicit emotional memories, encompassing both how you felt then and how you feel about the situation now. They can even bring back what the environment smelled like, triggering further flashes of memory.

I’ve noticed that in regards to family and friends type situations, photos are usually taken in quiet moments or with staged groupings. Rarely does someone, even the photographer in the family, whip out the camera during a family spat or some other emotional or poignant moment.

Jean JordaanMay 06, 2008 at 11:18PM

I walk around with a cameraphone, and click blind every time I notice something. Afterwards the photographic record of the walk is like another, different, walk.

Jean JordaanMay 06, 2008 at 11:19PM

I walk around with a cameraphone, and click blind every time I notice something. Afterwards the photographic record of the walk is like another, different, walk.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.