Let’s say NO to the camera


By now, you’ve probably seen these two images of the pope announcements of 2005 and 2013.

The images above reminded me of an emotional story Umberto Eco told last summer in his column in Espresso. When he was a young boy, he witnessed a horrible road accident: a peasant woman had been run over by a truck, her head wounded amid a puddle of blood, her husband holding her and wailing in anguish. The little boy was transfixed – it was his first encounter with death, as well as with sorrow and despair, which he counts as a defining moment of his life and perhaps his most vivid memory.

Eco went on to ponder about the significance that moment would’ve held for him if cell phone cameras had been invented and he had one in his pocket, as is the case with every kid today. He most probably would’ve snapped a shot of the scene to show his friends he was there, and maybe also post it online. But as he would snap the picture, he wouldn’t be as transfixed by the event – he would be removing himself from it, just as happens with casual cell shooting today.

Indeed, which moment feels more emotionally charged and  transcendentally significant between the two scenes above? The one in which we are fully present and get to remember in our own memory or the one we try to store in our iPhone memory so that we look at it later to fully indulge in its significance? Eco says that after that first accident, if he had stored it in his hypothetical iPhone, he perhaps would have continued to take snapshots of other accidents, inured to the suffering of others. Those who wander the world taking pictures of everything they see are condemned to forget tomorrow what they’ve taken today.

As I’ve said before, photography puts you on the other side of life. This is actually a sacrifice you make for yourself, sometimes worth it – but sometimes it means sacrificing other people and important things for the goal of taking a picture. I am not even talking about the fast clicking that happens in front of tourist landmarks in which we try to dessicate the instant of experience for its later retrieval.

That retrieval almost never happens. How often do we go back to the “Rome” folder buried somewhere deep into the hard drive to look at the pictures of our Roman holiday? And if we do it, do we ever experience the euphoria of being in the presence of some essential element of our civilization that we had so much anticipated visiting before that? Somehow I don’t believe so. And I am grateful I didn’t have a camera the first time I went to Italy – it was too expensive for me – but had the good sense of sacrificing my little money to buy three books with photographs of Rome, Venice and Florence. Some years later these books inspired my son to want to study in Italy – but while I was there and it was my turn, I was fully, totally present. I really experienced it.


Eco with his better-viewing device.

A friend of mine recently told me that she had stopped bringing a camera to her children’s events, even though her parents in Bulgaria anxiously expect pictures. Somehow she had found she couldn’t do two things at the same time: taking pictures and seeing the performance, in the moment it was happening. She was not giving the most precious thing she had to offer – her time and undivided attention – and was not  enjoying the moment. The best pictures are those we keep in our mind.

Somehow I feel that the crowd at the new pope announcement in 2005 seems more inspired than in 2013.

6 thoughts on “Let’s say NO to the camera

  1. Interesting topic. It seems… by taking a photograph of a captivating moment, we’re striving to own it, maybe share it. But the effect is often temporary; a stored memory. Whereas, through focusing on the experience itself, we truly appreciate its overall impact on our lives — as both transient and long lasting, as an experience. As our culture places more value on owning and sharing, ‘seeing there’ replaces ‘being there.’ Imagine if mankind’s early explorers said, “you don’t need to visit that village, I’ve got pictures.” 🙂

  2. Well put. We have to rethink the concept of ownership, in this case. And I speak as someone who is part of this whole mess, being a photographer myself, trying to take responsibility. The problem with the picture as a replacement of the experience is that everyone will want to take it. We are not satisfied with looking at other people’s pictures. No, we want our own pictures 🙂

  3. A very good article. I agree with it. But on the other hand, sometimes the photographer’s sacrifice (as you aptly call it) makes an image which will one day be someone else’s transcendental experience, or at least transfix some meaningful memory in their minds. This is what we hope for so there are also times when we can say YES

  4. Absolutely! There are times when the sacrifice is worth it. I am the first to say that there are images I’ve seen that have changed my life just as much as the moments in which I’ve been present without a camera. The difficult part is to figure out when. I can’t say I’ve figured that out for myself. All I know is that with time, my pictures are getting fewer in number. Hopefully better in meaning 🙂

    • Good 🙂
      But also, let’s not forget that we always experience an event AS something. Umberto Eco experienced the death of
      woman as a child, not as the husband or as the bus driver. Similary, when we photograph we experience the event AS a photographer. If your heart is truly in that experience and you are present, it can be just as fulfilling as any other mode of experience.

      • This could help 🙂 to be aware of yourself as a photographer and accept your role as a witness instead of a participant (the sacrifice I was talking about). But personally for me there are so many occasions in which that line between being a witness and a participant is blurred. Or rather, in which I start as a participant and then something moves me to record it for witnessing purposes. Maybe I should rethink those moments of transition, why and how they happen. And mind you, I rarely use a cell phone camera like the people on St. Peter Square, so when I take pictures it’s always intentional. How does it work for you? Thank you for your thought provoking comments!

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