On Recording vs. Experiencing

Amsterdam Tower

One of the earliest discussions to emerge during the Zap conference centered around the what seems to be a growing drive to record everything and every moment (by twittering it, Plazing it, photographing it, etc.)

The questions that emerged were: Does recording the moment change it? In recording it, are we essentially mediating it for ourselves, taking a step back and observing rather than simply experiencing? Are we stepping outside the moment in the act of recording (or thinking about recording) it, essentially separating ourselves from the experience to a certain degree?

Opinions were mixed. Thinking about it more, I believe that recording a moment does, in fact, separate you from it to a certain extent. And I think that the more you record or think about recording, the less present you actually are.

A few years ago I was in Amsterdam to attend a conference. Naturally we went a little early and stayed a little late so we could take time to experience the city, and during that time I took hundreds of photographs, most of which were just terrible. In spite of taking all these photos, however, my most memorable moment in Amsterdam was when I encountered the works of Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum. They are absolutely breathtaking. Looking at prints in books just doesn’t come anywhere close to the experience of seeing the originals. It was overwhelming and deeply emotional and really quite astonishing for me. I have never had so visceral a reaction to art before, and it was entirely unexpected. I will never, ever forget that experience. And I didn’t take a single picture while I was there. Not one. And my other memories of Amsterdam are of moments where I wasn’t bothering to take photographs. Dinner with friends and coworkers. Having drinks with Rob at a small side street cafe. Talking to some locals while exploring the city’s nightlife. Almost getting killed by a ravaging horde of cyclists before I figured out how traffic worked. Sitting in the lobby watching people walk by the hotel in the morning, drinking insanely good coffee.

The photographs I took? I don’t remember experiencing the thing in the photo, I remember taking the photo. Recording the moment separated me from it, and it now feels almost fake.

We’re going to France soon. We’ve never been before, and I’m really excited about the trip. While I expect I will take my camera with me wherever we go, I am going to be much more deliberate and thoughtful about what I photograph. Rather than taking hundreds of photos of everything, I’m going to take only a few — and only if they’re worthy of being photographs — and spend more of my time actually being in the moment, paying attention, experiencing. What I learned from Amsterdam is that the strongest memories are made this way, not by flipping through a shoebox of pictures when you get home.


6 thoughts on “On Recording vs. Experiencing

  1. Excellent article. I find photographs sometimes very dry after the trip itself as well. It's like you're trying to capture the “moment” or “picture” just so you can sell the photo later or something like that. Rather than just breathing in the fresh air and looking around with your own eyes, which will /never/ compare with film and photos, we tend to take our camera everywhere and try to record every minute of our lives. Or maybe not – maybe just the minutes that seem the most important to us back then, like standing in front of a famous statue – which really, aren't all that interesting when you look at them again.

  2. Oops. Hit post a bit too early. I think it's possible to do both. But it involves some compromises, on my trips, I try to schedule in sights that I want to photograph and somehow am still able to have some great experiences. I rented a van in New Zealand and drove from Wellington and Auckland. Probably some of the most enjoyable 4 days I have ever had. Met some great people and got some great pictures. Looking forward to seeing your France pictures =)

  3. I think you're right. I tend to take only a few photos of the areas I pass through, sort of mementos to remind me what it was like, in broad brush strokes. Sometimes a couple extra shots if I see something funny. Then I try to put the camera away and enjoy what I'm doing.

  4. I had this internal debate a few years ago and essentially gave up on taking pictures. It was too easy to hide out behind the lens and miss out on all the action/fun.Nowadays, I take the occasional picture, but mostly I'm in front of lens playing with the kids. I am grateful that my wife still keeps snapping away, and I try to make sure she gets in her fair share of photos too.

  5. You make a good point of feeling seperate,. we recently returned form Amsterdam and after looking through our many hundreds of photos (Just like yourself, we took hundreds, even though many turned out alot different to how we expected.) Realized that i some how felt seperated from the place i was at when i took it. Almost like i was trying to get the place i was to pose for the camera, (Sounds crazy i know).One way to avoid this feeling, is to only spend one full day taking photos, prefferably your last day. I suppose if you manage to do that. Then you will have already experienced the place your snapping with the camera, and be able to enjoy botht the moment of taking the photo. And the moment of been there.Hope you have a great time on your holiday to France.

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