The Joy of Choosing the Moment


Recently we had a family sort through of our vast collection of photographs. Not cardboard boxes full (I think we have one or two of those in the attic), but memory cards and sticks full of them. Literally, tens of thousands of them, ranging across the last couple of decades.

We haven’t even started really, it’s a fairly tiring and seemingly endless process, finding those golden nuggets of memories amongst the relentless snapping, nearly all of which elude my memory.

The smart phone – which gets smarter each year – has been there for at least a decade of those twenty years before being preceded by digital cameras of varying pixelated clarity and reach. We’ve even scanned in many of the older paper-based memories.

Always there, at hand, ready to capture the moment. That really is a technical miracle. There’s an old film in the UK called Carry on Spying, a spoof spy movie from the late 1960s. In that film one of the characters (played by Barbara Windsor) has a photographic memory. She blinks her eyes, we hear a camera-click sound effect, and she has captured an image in her head of secret plans or shady characters.

Who’d have thought we’ll all be doing that with our augmented reality spectacles and even digital eye implants? For now we grab our smartphone, as if it were a prosthesis, or even part of our senses, and snap, snap, snap.

The result? A stream of images, ranging down the years. I’m glad we do have some of those images as we sort through the years. I also wish I’d been more selective, more conscious, more present when capturing them. How many family moments, and chances to encounter breathtaking waterfalls, rainbows and sunsets, did I automatically view, squinting through a viewfinder that simplified the colours, distorted and changed them so that I beheld shadows, poorer versions or the original before me, and so missed the splendour of the real thing?

Is there any value to be had from those digital images and memories now clogging these memory cards? Yes! Some jump out at me from the screen. And I realise they are the ones where I used my will force – where I took care and became mindful. Where I really looked first, drank in the scene, and consciously chose the moment to “click” (and to not click, to hold back). Here the camera became a tool for my own decision of when and how to gather in the scene. The digital device served me; not a hundred clicks or intense staring and squinting into a viewfinder, but a direct encounter with people and place, and then a decision. The exact moment, delivered on the wings of me at my creative best.

How often do we really do that? I think good digital photographers do that a lot. They have claimed their cameras as a tool, not as a gadget that calls on them to keep constantly clicking.

As I look at those photos now, I remember some of the moments fondly, glad of the reminder. Some of the images are beautiful, stirring and will be stories to share with grandchildren.

But too many represent lost moments. I have the after-image but no visceral memory of being present when the eclipse happened, when Freddie stepped, live onto the stage, when the baby took tentative first steps. For I was not a truly direct witness – I was the camera man, zooming with my gadget, and not my feet or my imagination. Even as this technical miracle enabled me to capture and document the moment, it captured me as well, caged me, so I looked on what was in the precious “now” as if locked behind bars, squinting through them. I saw pixels, representations, not the immediate, utterly directly accessible real.

The advantage of those pre-digital cameras was that you had only 12, 24 or 36 pictures per film reel and you had to look up more often, to wait and choose your moment exactly. Even then at least half of your attention was on the device and not the unfolding physical drama before you. But you did look up more. You used your senses more.

Even as augmented reality adds to what you can see – zooms you in and focuses, adds clarity and re-colours, you send some of your own attentiveness to sleep. By not penetrating the physical moment with your own gaze, you end up doing what Goethe once called “living your life with a gaze that stops at the eyes”.

Each photo down the years has become clearer as the technology has improved…

And then I look in an older cardboard box of paper photographs. Some were taken in the 1960s, some in the 1970s. Many lack the clarity of even the earliest digital cameras. Yet, as I look through them, memories come bubbling to the surface (certainly not from all of those pictures and not in equal measure), but I really can smell what there was to be smelled, remember the atmosphere and the feel of that moment when I ran into that sea on the Costa Brava, or when I tasted that wine on holiday in Slovenia. It may be imagined memory, but it comes into my awareness more easily, and my smile or frown feels more intense. Perhaps it makes a lasting impression?

I have ten thousand digitally captured memories before me. I look at most of them bemused, unable to grasp myself in those moments in time. I’d swap them all for 36 taken in full consciousness. Taken by me. By me.


About Paul Levy

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

Posted on October 14, 2014, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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