How Capturing the Moment Digitally Makes the Physical Moment Elusive


The Vital Moment

That moment when the sun sets, That sudden glimpse of a rainbow. The moon in front of the sun. The baby standing up for the first time…

Mobile phone makers have sold their devices as cameras as much as tools for connection and communication. Megapixels are as important, of not more important that the ability to make a crystal clear call.

We no longer need to even carry a camera with us, when all we need to do is simply whip out the phone and capture the moment.

Artists were doing it before even cameras appeared on the scene. A sketch book would be opened a some quick rendering into pencil or pastel of the glory before them, would also capture the moment, perhaps for fuller, later elaboration on canvas.

The Old Days

When cameras were restricted to a max 36 exposures, we were perhaps more mindful and selective of what moments we captured, reluctantly allowing many to pass by.

Now we can click thirty-six in a few seconds, and even for the most unskilled photographer, one of them (even from accidental good luck) is bound to be a masterpiece. In fact, the least confident or able snappers among us, tend to snap as many as possibly in order to strike digital gold. We then rifle through the results deleting all of the blurred ones in the hope of – “there it is!” – stumbling upon a keeper.

Photography is distraction, except for the most rare of photographers who have learned to behold as well as to capture.  Most of us view the precious moment through the digitized, simplified, rendered viewfinder, or with our gaze torn, split between the physical reality and the digital version.

As digital technology currently stands, cameras catch versions of the reality, the light and colour are never quite the same; we gaze into a poor copy, often a brighter copy; we watch a live televisual broadcast of the genuine magic before us. The rainbow is seen in pallid shades on a tiny screen as we flit between digital and physical.

Fear of Losing the Moment

We fear to lose the moment; it becomes like a beast trying to escape, we the hunter, our device the gun or the catching net. We can’t afford to stand there, still, and just behold, prepared to let the moment pass, to drink in the scene, rather than grasp at it with fifteen clicks and a wow.

Over time, we groom ourselves to be impatient with the pace of Nature herself. We capture the sun set and move on quickly, looking for the next thing to grab. We forget how to simply look, and to enjoy the sometimes healing, calming, exciting or inspiring aspects of the beautiful world around us.

Our child takes her first steps in the world, and we view it all through a two by two-inch, tiny screen, and that part of our attention that we ought to be giving to our child in proud, encouraging, celebration – we delay, and give that attention instead to capturing and storing it into a version, for later viewing and almost definite archiving; we worry more about not shaking the screen than allowing ourselves to tremble with delight.

The Virtue of Waiting

As many a fine photographer will tell you, beholding and patience are vital virtues of recording and rendering the world into recorded and rendered image. They wait. They watch. I’ve watched photographers recently. A few of them really do give their full attention to the world before them. The camera rises, seemingly of its own accord, and one or two images are taken, but there’s a sense that the observer is really immersed in the scene and the process of looking, or beholding. I’ve also observed many more photographers who click, click, click! Gotcha!

Is this an old-fashioned view? Perhaps. Yet, I’d also like to suggest it is a modern view. We engage with the digital realm clumsily if are aren’t able to consciously manage the border between the digital and the physical. We don’t need to trade one for the other. It’s a clunky view of the digital and physical realms to set up a polarity, in which, in order to fully enjoy and get the best out of the digital real, we must somehow always sacrifice the physical.

To lose the ability and the patience to enjoy and be genuinely affected by the physical world of the senses – the nuance of colour and texture, of touch and smell, of sights and sounds, is a critical, essential loss.

The Sense World Awaits

It is possible to really penetrate the world with our senses, a place of infinite possibility and subtlety, not yet simplified by pixelation. We can really look, where that looking seems to reach out, beyond, into the things we are beholding. We can go out of ourselves and find a diversity and a richness that seems to enrich we, the observer, in the process. Many have lost, or never really experienced that ability. You can try it looking at a painting in an art gallery, you can try it walking through a forest or looking out to sea. It can be a wonderful thing to do with your five-year-old son or daughter, looking at boats on the ocean on a sunny day, or looking at the stars in the night sky.

It is also possible to allow the world to impress itself on our senses. We find a place of calm attention. Again, many have lost this through flitting, digitally-groomed impatience. We sit still, in a kind of meditation, and the world around us impresses itself on us. It can relax, it can inspire, it can reveal, but most of all, it can calm  the soul. There’s nothing mystical here; it’s simple a state of openness, and it reminds us that we are part of a greater whole. So often, it can fire the creativity and become a place from which new ideas and impulses come.

Just Press Your Finger

The devices are now poised and ready, the smartphones primed for instant image capture. Even as the visceral moment presents itself, the screen and the distraction of clicking dilutes the attention; even a tiny bit of distraction can render the moment elusive. We then “capture” it and, when we later look at what we have caught, it is often as a dead fish to the one who was, only moments earlier, swimming, glinting silver, in the flowing steam of musical water.

We can, of course, dive into what the digital who has to offer. Who can regret being able to look again and again at the moment the bride and broom kissed, or to tell the story of how we captured that miraculous sunset, now blown up onto stretched canvas, above our mantelpiece, constant reminder of that holiday in heaven? Smart phone cameras give us the ability to all become photographers, moment to moment artists, able to document the best moments of our lives. Yet, I suggest that the process of diving into digital image capture should be as much of a mindful choice as it was for an artist with a sketch book, and not a habitual, almost compulsive default.

Betraying the Digital?

It isn’t a denial or betrayal of the digital to leave the phone in your pocket as you gaze at a flock of flamingos rising into the morning air. It is an affirmation of you, a conscious decision to fully engage in the present, because it might just be good for you in that moment. In the long run, plenty of other moments will present themselves to “capture” an image. In this moment, you simply decide to give what is here your full attention for the full benefit that will come to you. You simply decide to savour it utterly and let it resonate, not on your timeline, but in your own memory. These are the moments that will visit you selectively with smiles as you grow older, and when you look back over your life. The photo albums will help, but they will not replace the golden value of direct experience.

Instant Reality Capture

The “instamatic” camera and the Polaroids were miracles of innovation. The moment need never be lost again. I remember looking for the right moment, knowing I only had a few shots left in the camera, and aware of the cost of a dud snap. Even in those days, We’d wait, looking through the tiny viewfinder, waiting hopefully for the moment when the plane would leave the ground, or the Queen would wave in our direction. Squinting, staring through distorting glass, sacrificing the direct view for the chance to capture for posterity, for the album, to show friends and family later on, or even to sell.

The Lure of Infinity

And now that innovation has created almost infinite resource. We can snap, a dozen to the second, and never run out of memory. We can store in endless vaults and there are no technical or economic consequences to staying glued to the viewfinder, with a device which can intelligently autofocus and enhance, zoom and stitch together into a panorama.

What do we lose? We lose quality of experience, though we may not appear to lose anything quantifiable. The rainbow through the viewfinder, later viewed on a laptop or printed out is not the rainbow that touches our breeze-blown eyes. The vista that opens before us in direct sensory relationship to the physical world is fundamentally different from the distraction of the capturing device.

The telescope brings the moon nearer, but (as those who first saw the earth from the moon -the astronauts – will tell you) a direct encounter with the light of a large, full moon, always stirs the soul.

Rendering Reality

Reality rendered into pixels loses a quality that feels so elusive as to even be non-existence, a folly, to those groomed from birth in the digital realm. But just a few hours back in the process of attentiveness, openness and pure observation in sensory Nature, will reawaken a kind of sixth sense: the sense of the value of direct experience. When we are fully awake, we are more conscious and open and we can experience ourselves more vibrantly – our selves revealed to ourselves in the mirror of the world around us. And that is still not mystical – it’s real. There’s an elusive quality to the wet paint that is never quite replicated in a digital art app or program. It’s an emergent property, and it seems to require an observer for its essence to truly show itself in the delight and sharp intake of breath of a human observer.

So, what can you do if you feel your precious moments are too often lost by your own compulsive attempts to capture them on your IPhone?

Things to Try

Here are a few practical things to try…

1. Try an hour with your phone switched off. (Or even longer). The next time you head down to the sea, into the woods, simply observe. Take an hour off from capturing anything except using your own powers of pure observation and memory. You’ll feel the itch for the device, the ache for the power to “capture”. After a while you’ll get used to it and develop something you may have lost: The Power of Discernment; knowing when it is better and more nourishing to capture nothing and to let the moment simply impress itself on your senses and into your imagination and memory. The precious moments will gather together over your life. They will not do that so easily if you try to hoard them on a memory card

2. Take less photos of a chosen moment. You see a flock of birds. Look, be patient, wait and observe. Let your instincts find the moment to take no more than three pictures. Treat each “snap” as if it were scarce, precious, important. Practice doing this. You’ll soon develop The Ability to Choose the Moment to Act. Instead of reacting, almost in a click-clicking panic; you’ll mindfully press the capture button at the moment of your intuitive choosing. In that moment, you’ll be the one who lays claim to the act.

3. Dive in fully into the digital, but place it mindfully. Allow yourself to really enjoy seeing the world through the viewfinder, for a whole day if you want. Surrender to it. Enjoy it. Snap to your heart’s content. Later, go through the images and choose the ones to keep. Delete the others. Savour the images, spend time looking at them. And don’t do it every day. Choose a day or a few hours to immerse in the digital way of capturing images. But then step away the next day. Then you’ll develop the Power of Placement – deciding when and how you see the world through digital eyes.

4. Prune and tend your digital garden. Many people have the digital equivalent of a vast chaotic warehouse of images and this can overwhelm us. Just as if you were clearing out a house or an attic, get editing, deleting, organising and keep only the images you truly choose to key. Put value into the images by organising them, refining them, selecting them. Get 1 million down to a hundred.  Then you’ll develop the Ability to Organise and Value.

The Journey Home

These little “exercises” can bring you into a more conscious and self-disciplined relationship with the borderland between the digital and the physical realms. The devices have a technological possibility that is tempting to use habitually. When we do, we are robbed of direct experience and the often elusive, nuanced but priceless value of our sensual relationship with the physical, material world. We find our way home, from version to veracity, from rendition to reality.

And that journey home is really worth it.



About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on April 15, 2014, in How Capturing the Moment Digitally Makes the Physical Moment Elusive. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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