This week I was invited to my nephew’s graduation from medical school. I went armed with my new smartphone so I could take photos of this meaningful event.
So there I was, along with half a dozen relatives holding similar phones and cameras, all of us poised to memorialize the big moment, The ceremony had gone on for a numbing three hours of speeches, but now it was time for the moment we were waiting for. As each name was called the graduate ascended the few steps to the stage, was “hooded” – officially becoming a doctor – and walked off to ecstatic applause from family and friends.
It seemed forever before our particular actor in this drama was called. Finally his name ! I began clicking away, desperately trying to get him in focus. But I was far from the stage and the newly baptized doctor kept walking, so all I got was a series of blurs. Frustrated by my failure, I kept looking at the useless photos, trying to recapture a ceremony I could barely remember.
Then I realized that while busy trying to get pictures, I hadn’t really seen my nephew’s victory walk. Did he smile, despite his disdain of ceremonies? Did he amble as usual or walk swiftly to get out of an unwelcome spotlight? I will never know, because I was so busy trying to photograph a moment I wasn’t really in.
It’s haunted me the past few days. I realize I have a lot of company in this, for don’t most of us try to get images of an experience we aren’t truly there for?
Several years ago BBC did a documentary about this very topic. Linda Henkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University in Fairfield Connecticut, took a group of students to a museum. They were instructed to take photos of some of the art, but only look at others. Tested the following day, they were les able to recall details of the objects they had photographed than those they had “just” looked at. According to Dr. Henkel, this is because we unconsciously expect the camera to do the remembering for us.
My son discovered this years ago, when he went on a hiking trip and found that he’d forgotten to pack his camera. Since there was no way to conjure up one, he concentrated on looking at the stunning mountain scenery. He doesn’t have an album to flaunt, but –as he says – “I still see it in my mind.” Probably more indelibly than if he’d been distracted shooting pictures.
Of course, I’m not recommending never photographing. It feels a little too Spartan to think of coming home from a vacation with no pictures to show for it. But maybe it’s a good idea to limit the amount of hours behind the camera and take time to absorb the moments.
This is dramatized in the 2013 remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” A professional photographer (played by Sean Penn) is tracking snow leopards. He sets up the camera, waits patiently, and a majestic animal stalks into view. But Penn doesn’t take the photo! When a perplexed Mitty (Ben Stiller) asks why, Penn replies, “If I like a moment I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”
“It?” asks Stiller.
“Yeah,” Penn says, “Right there. Right here. I just want to be in the moment.”
Since this is a blog for writers, I’ll add a dose of authorial advice: If you were to emulate the Penn character, you’d find you forever own your view of the leopard (or graduate or ocean or whatever) – and be able to write about that momentary connection from a uniquely personal view.
Memorial Day weekend is around the corner, launching vacation season. Go, enjoy, bring your camera or phone and take a few pictures. Then put that instrument away and be in your experience.
Books: “Widow’s Walk”- available through iUniverse.com; “Turning Toward Tomorrow” – Xlibris.com; “Ten Women of Valor” and “Role Play” – both through Amazon.com and Amazon Kindle.