I Set Down My Camera Today

A photograph of the giant reclining Buddha. One of the last images that I expect to take. Note the gorgeous walls, pillars, and ceiling.

A photograph of the giant reclining Buddha. One of the last images that I expect to take. Note the gorgeous walls, pillars, and ceiling.

I’ve long been concerned about technology interfering with my real-life experiences. I gave my Apple Watch to a friend after owning it only a few months because it vibrated, burped, and giggled too much (and, to be blisteringly honest, it’s just an ugly watch!), and I found it too distracting.

Similarly, my iPhone has the opportunity to distract me, with its ability to make noise or vibrate any time a text, email, phone call, or an alert pops up. The idea that I could be having a conversation with someone and that my phone might pull me out of the conversation is antithetical to my belief system. I’m seeking to immerse myself when I’m speaking with someone, not manage distractions. So I always kept my iPhone in Do Not Disturb mode, ensuring that, except for alarms set using the phone’s Clock app, that I can carry my iPhone in silence, resting comfortably in my right front pocket.

Today, while visiting Wat Pho, I realized that my phone has still been deeply intruding on my life. I’ve been using it to photograph too often, and as such, it has become a surrogate for my real life experiences. When I see something interesting, I stop and snap a picture, tripping a flag in my mind that says “don’t spend any more time here, you have a picture to review later, move on to the next opportunity.” And at that moment I deprive myself of the real-life experience.

This turning away from experience became apparent to me as I watched others walking around with their cameras and selfie-sticks, looking for photo ops rather than examining the Buddhas and Buddhist art. While I can’t definitively speak to their experiences, it sure seemed clear that photography, not mindfulness, was their immediate goal.

There’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s a conscious choice, and that's not the approach I’m choosing to take. Pilgrimages by their very nature demand presence. That’s what separates the pilgrim from the traveler, and in realizing that the phone is interfering with my experiences rather than enhancing them, I’ve recognized that it’s time to set it down. I’d rather journal about an event, which deepens my understanding of it than to photograph it. Writing about something forces the writer to inhabit that space, to explore their experience more deeply and profoundly, and with meditation. Photography can work in the same way, but most often doesn’t, and it certainly doesn’t involve me as thoroughly as writing does.

In watching people use their cameras these last few days, I’ve become more aligned with Sally Mann’s argument, made in her memoir Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, that photographs become more real to us over time than the events that we experienced when we photographed them. So the image that I capture of a high school graduation will rewrite my experience of the commencement as I view it over time until the photograph becomes more real than my actual experience attending the graduation.

If the world is merely a photo opportunity, something to exist in the background of our portrait or our selfie, or a quick trophy to be grabbed, instead of to be experienced as a destination or an end in itself, then the resulting photograph becomes our reality.

That’s not what I want. So my iPhone, which I find to be a fantastic device (I mean twenty years ago who could have imagined a device that fits in your pocket that houses your music collection, your audiobook collection, your book library, comic book reader, and more? Not I.) now stays in my pocket when I visit grand places. I won’t be using it, or anything else, as a camera.