This photo of people taking photos haunts me

A music festival took place in London’s Finsbury Park this weekend, and the organizers, perhaps confusing me for a writer for Verge Magazine, sent me photos from the event. One of those images has stuck with me, haunted me, since I first saw it. The photo shows one half of the Rae Sremmurd duo mingling with excited fans… none of whom appear to be looking directly at him. A couple of faces in the crowd are looking at the camera taking the photo, and everyone else’s gaze seems fixed on their phones, trying to capture either photos or video of the rare occasion.

It’s such a remarkable phone zombie moment. Exactly like the undead in movies, the fans are grabbing and clawing for the artist, but there’s no eye contact, scant human interaction to be had between them. The reason I find this so evocative is because I see myself in that zombie crowd. I’m the same sort of person, documenting every pretty or remarkable scene around me — buildings, sunsets, plates of nicely ornamented food — as if the memory would perish if it didn’t get “clicked.” It’s gotten so bad, I now realize, that I’m not really sure I’d be able to enjoy sightseeing without my phone. I experience a sense approaching guilt or failure if I enjoy something and don’t capture a photo of it.

This is, of course, no radically new revelation. I have already written about how we should use photos sparingly, as mementos triggering a memory instead of as substitutes for the memory. But, having amassed nearly 6,000 photos in the 18 months since I wrote that article, I’d say I’ve definitely failed to live up to my words. The incentive from social media, which giddily consumes and rewards pretty pictures from exotic places like Tokyo, is too strong for me to resist. Every person in that festival crowd on Sunday was probably driven by similar social urges, a real-life version of “pics or it didn’t happen.”

Photo by Ashley Verse

The problem is that you can get so immersed in the picture-taking activity that the “it” of the memorable event might never even happen for you. If you saw Drake performing on Sunday, but solely through the frame of your phone, how present were you at that event? We know the artist was there, we know you were physically in attendance, but what exactly is the memory that remains? In my experience, I can’t focus on both capturing the best possible photo and the subject of the photo. And so, when doing work photography, I can often end up feeling like I barely saw the thing I’d been looking at the whole time.

We’ve outsourced so much of our thinking and recollection processes to our devices that serious academics are now discussing an extended mind thesis that includes our phones, together with our biological selves, as an integral part of our minds.

Call it quixotic, but I want to row back against this tide. I don’t want to be a mere biomass transporter for my all-knowing phone and its all-seeing camera. And I really should relearn the lost art of enjoying a moment without trying to strangle it into captivity within the rectangle of my phone. Seriously, phones are the most amazing human invention, but we should live our lives with them, not through them.

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