With My Eyes or a Camera?

“Are you taking lots of photographs?” my friend Mary asked during a telephone conversation with her granddaughter, Melissa, who was traveling in Italy.

“No, Grandma, I’m not taking photographs,” the experienced, young traveler replied, “I decided on this trip I’d be in the moment.”

Her response highlights my dilemma: I don’t travel with a camera and rarely take pictures with my phone. I tell myself I prefer to use my senses to soak up sights and experiences, that a camera would require me to frame, focus, consider lighting, and tell people where to stand.

Seeing with my senses rather than a camera has advantages. A few years ago, Joel and I drove home to Craig from Denver and saw a tower of gentle flame on top of a mountain pass at dusk: a great pillar of rainbow standing tall among snow-glazed trees, its vivid hues illuminating the the shadowed sky and mountain. I focused on the sight for several long moments, memorizing its details and capturing its splendor.

I still see the vibrant column; and it’s brighter, bigger, and more colorful in my mind than than in the photographs Joel took with his phone. Photographs sometimes disappoint.

tower of flame on Rabbit Ears

On the other hand, I spend long minutes studying the excellent photographs taken by others; and I enjoy the glimpses of a photographer’s mind my blog friends provide when they explain their planning, processes, and problems. I happily peruse pictures my friends post on Facebook and treasure the photographs I have of my family and friends.

Photographs record more accurately than my mind. Too often, when I look at an old photo, I discover my memory deceives me: The battered family car my sister and I stood in front of was blue not green; and, though I smiled as I held Barbara’s hand, it was not the sweet moment between sisters I remembered: instead, Barbara was acting like I was Godzilla: struggling to escape my iron grip and scowling defiantly.

Frankly, old though I am, a few years ago when I saw the photo, I wanted to pinch her.

Photographs also allow me to experience sights I will never see.Without family picture albums, I would have no idea how Mom and Dad looked during my early years. I have a sense of them — their presence and voices — but it is through photographs I see the people they were when young. I used to scrutinize the photographs of my parents, looking for signs of myself in them, so I could be sure I wasn’t adopted. Like Barbara.

I seem to need both photographs and the freedom to exist  in the moment. So I’ll continue observing as keenly as I can and spending time reflecting on the photographs taken by others.

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37 thoughts on “With My Eyes or a Camera?

  1. “Like Barbara.” Ha Ha Ha. From your description of the column, I think you got it right. ” . . . shadowed sky and mountain.” I love it. Your descriptions and humor come through. Wonderful, as always. 🙂

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  2. After reading this, I took some time to think about it. I crafted a lengthy response, and then realized, that my response was probably exactly what you were trying to get across. Which is what is so great about your writing! You broach a subject and then give us, your readers, something to ponder. Writing is yet another form of “experiencing.” We don’t have to choose between existing in the moment, or crafting it from behind a camera lense- we can also recreate it later through the magic of our words. Thank you Janet for a ponderific subject this morning!

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  3. I think as with everything there is a balance. I never took a second glance at a camera before I had my boys. I think part of it was that until I had my babies I was never in one place long enough to see it fully and want to capture it’s details.
    Now, I go in and out of wanting to see the world through my lens and at other times my camera stays home so I can see and be present with my family. My husband used to document all of our adventures until our boys were born…now the roles have reversed. I do love looking back on years past and see things in an image I didn’t notice before! They are like special gifts. But, I totally agree in that all moments don’t need to be “captured” with a lens, your eye and mind make beautiful memories as well and sometimes those are the most important to pass on through stories and tales.

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    • I’m so glad you responded to this post, Carrie, because you are on of the finest photographers I know, and yet, from following your blog, I see how you also use words to capture the essence of things; I’ve noticed how sometimes you just concentrate on the experience you had with your family. So, yes, balance, as in most things, is the key.

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  4. The only material thing I will never part with is the camera I spent my entire, first real pay packet on, in 1979. I carried it everywhere, for 30 years, froze it, dunked it in water, “Relic” endured all, and still takes a fine photo. I do not know why I ceased to take photos, but can at will summon the smells and times the camera could not. This was a lovely post, thanks Janet, and thanks for sharing the photo, love those kind.

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    • I like picturing you and “relic” having adventures and capturing moments. Like you, when I concentrate fully in a moment, I can call back the smell of the sun warmed pine trees and the feel of the air on my face. I like being able to do that. I’ll tell Joel you liked his photo.

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  5. A good balance of both is fine.
    I had many photo albums of my kids and family which took me many years to compile. Im the type to keep clump of baby hair from first hair cut, stump of ombilical cord, tag worn by my baby at birth in the hospital…. The little things that bring back potent memories. Well due to my life being turned upside down 3 yrs ago I lost it all. All those keepsake items that I saved to pass on to my kids are gone. It hurt deeply but it has motivated me to make new memories and live more in the moment so those memories remain fresh in the mind. Of course, I have since started backing up files and other important things like photos in online databases to prevent further loss and of course blogging helps me remember and has created a place for me to store my stories.

    A healthy balance of pictures and living in the moment should do just fine. Enjoy!

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  6. I love the photos that others share when they are travelling. Sometimes they allow me a glimpse of places I know I will never see. Others remind me of places I have been. A friend visited Moscow in winter just a few months after our September kvisit. The buildings were the same in our photos but the snow and lack of crowds transformed the view. When I travel I like to share my experience in words and pictures – but try not to let that overtkE my sense of presence.

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    • You have achieved balance with your approach, Sally. It’s strange that though I usually choose not to take photographs, I love seeing those my friends have taken of their families and their travel. I enjoyed your description of the Moscow photographs and what you saw in them.

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  7. This is a dilemma I have often tried to solve. Photos are just a substitute for reality, but sometimes it’s nice to recall the reality. Being “in the moment” is my preference, but I do enjoy the assisted memory. I try to take one photo quickly, and then spend some time savoring the real vision. Nice post, and tell Joel I liked his photo.

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  8. To take photos or not to take photos… I try to take a balanced approach, take some photos and then put the camera away. I think one of the best things we did as a family in London was pass the camera around (before camera phones were the norm). One would take pictures and then when they wanted to do something else the camera was passed to the next person, I love the pictures from that trip! It was interesting to see what was interesting to others. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

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    • What a great idea, Janice, to share the camera and be able to see what each person chose to shoot, and, at the same time, everyone had plenty of time to just experience the moment. I like that idea very much. I need to ask Joel if he would like me to take the camera sometimes. I’ve never thought he might like a break.

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  9. I look at the numerous photograph albums filled with pictures of trips we have taken and places we’ve seen and wonder who will ever look at them again? Many have no caption telling me where or when they were taken, so I am lost. Family pictures do need identification for the future and I have been trying to take care of those. Your granddaughter is wise, and your memory of the light probably gets brighter each year.

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    • I like the thought that my memory of the light gets brighter each year, because it is true. My mom used to fuss about who would look at the family photographs in the future, but her children relish them. Recently, at a family reunion, we each took three that were meaningful to us, shared them, and explained why we liked them so much. I admire you for trying to get them all identified; our mother was good about that and it increases our enjoyment.

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  10. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I share your reservations about highly manipulated photographs. I’m often surprised when a post I think is too personal to me and not universal touches a chord with many.

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  11. I think I take too many photographs, but I have a tendency to drink in the sights longer than necessary which I think makes up for it. I too enjoy other peoples photography for similar reasons. Sights I may never see and also to remember people, like my father.

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  12. Your words are the picture I ‘see’. As a picture taker, I know often I miss a remark or some detail being busy framing just the right picture! Thanks for sharing your words.

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    • You are welcome, Audrey. I appreciation your taking the time to share your insights with me. And a belated congratulations on the election day outcomes you worked so hard for that will serve our community well.

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  13. I’m so glad that you like living in the moment and absorbing what you do! Loved your comments about Barbara. Pinching and suggesting she’s adopted. I can see sister rivalry doesn’t end with old age! Thank you for making me smile! 🙂

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  14. Okay, I’m finally admitting I’m the grandma that wanted more photos of wonderful Italy!! But, I’m also the grandma that suggested how to be aware and more present during special moments! I sure wish someone had taught me when I was twenty-five, because I was much older before I began to purposefully focus, clear my mind, and absorb the moment. “I’m the family historian and I take my role seriously” describes me. Without my camera in the background we’d have very few (none) pictures of babies, graduations, holidays, etc. The past few years I’ve happily left my camera home, knowing my adult granchildren are clicking away with their phones while I’m enjoying myself.. As other commenters have said, there is wisdom in balance..
    I have to mention that some of my most favorite photos were when, with her mother protesting, I handed my camera to my 3 year old great-granddaughter. The many pictures of feet, knees, and views from her height, are hilarious.

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  15. I can have the same problem with photography… and writing as well. When I turn my eyes away from what I’m witnessing and inward to my desire to capture something. Suddenly I’m not actually seeing anything beyond my effort to claim a moment that has already passed. That said, I really enjoy writing and photography. And I know there’s a balance. I’m learning that it may be in the approach and intent. Perhaps its about working with and adding to the experience rather than trying to stop and capture. Allowing your expression to be an interpretation of the environment and your own sensibilities. Something like that.

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    • Your words make perfect sense to me. I can see the wisdom in “working with and adding to the experience.” When I think about it, I believe I sometimes do that, letting words and comparisons soak into my mind that I could use to help others see what I’m experiencing.

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  16. This has also been a problem for me. I compromise by taking only a few pictures over a period of time. I try to make the few I take good pictures. By keeping this balance, I can be in the moment most of the time but also have a small memento of my experience. I prefer not taking pictures at all, but then I miss the picture memory.

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