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how to photograph events yet still be present - collage of night time drinks reception at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh

How to photograph events yet still be present – IS it possible?

At a party the other weekend …

The cold fear of dread snaked up from my stomach and coiled itself round my throat, squeezing, daring me to protest.

I didn’t have a mirror, but if I had, I’m sure I’d have seen my face turn white and clammy. Nausea boiled and rolled in my stomach.

Selfie! You need to take a selfie!

My neighbour at the table urged me, “It’s so we all know who’s who!”

The snake slithered away into the mist and the nausea calmed. My as-yet not particularly white visage relaxed into a wide relieved smile.

I can’t. I left my phone in the car.”

I’m not sure whether it was relieved smile or a smirk which settled on my face.

Horror gives way to bogglement

My initial horror at having left my phone in a car park about a quarter of the mile away was completely eclipsed by my boggling that I’d been asked to post a selfie (which I detest doing anyway). A selfie in a Facebook group so others in our 30-strong group could identify me.

My phone goes everywhere with me. Not for the text capability, nor yet the phone function, nor even for the internet connectivity. It’s for the camera, see? Because I use it … *cough* … too often.

Being asked to post my selfie in our Facebook group rather than just, well, speaking to people  threw me.Edinburgh Photographer - people at dinner outdoors taking photo on smartphone with selfie stick

Yes, we were a group of 30 folks who only “knew” each other via Facebook. And some didn’t know others well at all.

But it struck me as particularly odd that it was the done thing to identify yourself online rather than in person. Presumably so you could look over at a face at the next table, check the Facebook group (on your phone! At the table!), and think “ah yes, that’s so-and-so”?

Realising how unsettled I felt upon realising I was going to sit through a whole dinner and drinks WITH NO PHONE appalled me at first, but then after a moment of extreme chuffedness that I’d manage to dodge the selfie bullet, I decided to people watch and roll with it, see what happened.

What happened was … strange

And it was rather an eye-opener. There was a LOT of Facebooking going on. Selfies galore, particularly with the wee rabbit ear overlays or crowns of flowers. At the table!

I boggled again. Pairs and trios in the group were poring over phones, laughing with each other, posting photos, tagging others in the photos, snapping more selfies, uploading, checking … And so it went on.

Not having my phone with me excluded me from this, though to be honest, I wouldn’t have joined in anyway. My first reaction was wow, how rude, but pondering it a bit more, it occurred to me that actually, maybe it wasn’t.

Maybe it’s just the new way of interacting, of socialising?

Why do people do this?

Which then led me to wonder why people do this. It almost seems as though if we don’t document an event we’re at, it didn’t happen; we didn’t experience it.

Bridegroom leaning past guests at his wedding with smartphones so he can see his bride walking up the aisle
That poor man in the blue suit is the bridegroom, and he’s having to lean over to get his first glimpse of his bride walking towards him. Because people and their phones are in his way. Just … wow.

So do we experience the memory event itself, or do we experience the memory of the image of the event?

Would we remember the feelings evoked, the atmosphere, the details, if we hadn’t photographed that concert, that meal, that sight-seeing visit, that beautiful place, that WEDDING?

How does this affect our memory?

If not, does that mean our memories are becoming poorer and more reliant on photographic documentation? Without the image as a catalyst, would we still remember the experience around the image itself? The details and feelings not captured in the image, but floating round its periphery?

Put to the test

Professor Linda Henkel of Fairfield University in Connecticut conducted a psychological study on all this in 2013.  It suggests that “photo-taking-memory-impairment” is real, and that incessantly taking photos can actually impair your ability to recall details of the event later, despite – and likely because of – the effort spent taking excessive photographs. Which makes sense, as your attention is completely divided, isn’t it?

Further, “What I think is going on is that we treat the camera as a sort of external memory device,” Henkel says. “We have this expectation that the camera is going to remember things for us, so we don’t have to continue processing what’s before us and we don’t engage in the types of things that would help us remember it.”

A glut of images

With so many images being taken every second of every day, far more now than in 2013, imagery and memory are becoming ever more inextricably linked.

The idea of incessant posting to social media is easier to explain: it’s a way of connecting with others and expressing ourselves. Some, like the obsessive social media dependent who can’t separate capturing the moment from the experience itself, seem to need to memorialise and showcase the event to prove their very existence.

Don’t be That Person!

How do we safeguard against turning into That Person? The one who experiences events only through the lens of a smartphone and judges it by the likes given on Facebook? How do we walk that line of immortalising the event highlights in photographs yet still be fully there in the moment to enjoy and really experience it? Can it even be done, or have we gone too far?

It’s entirely possible!

And I’m going to tell you next week exactly how, so don’t forget to check back here! But if you’d rather not rely on your memory alone, why not sign up below to get emails from me?

Update: click here to read part ii of “How to Enjoy the Moment and Photograph It”

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