If you don't take a photo, did it still happen?

Remember that old philosophical question, “if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?” Well, if you don’t take a photo, did that moment really happen? 

Of course, taking a photo of something doesn't mean you weren't there, but a recent study is suggesting you might not remember it as well as if you had put the camera down and simply “been present”.

The study by Linda Henkel of Fairfield University studies something called the “photo-taking impairment effect” which seems to indicate if you take a photo, you may not remember it as well as if you had put the camera down and been present in the moment.

Henkel’s experiment consisted of taking students to an art museum where they were asked to photograph some objects and observe others. The next day, the students’ memories were tested and they appeared able to recall details and locations of objects they had simply observed more often than those they had photographed.

“When people rely on technology to remember for them – counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend it fully themselves – it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences,” Henkel says.

Basically, when we are more interested in getting the image than being present in the moment, we miss the opportunity to engage in that moment and form memories. The study also found when the students “zoomed in” on a part of the object, they did remember it better, suggesting they were less engaged when they simply snapped the shutter than when they actually thought about what they were taking a photo of.

In our modern times, we all carry a camera with us everywhere we go – maybe even more than one. Our cell phone is always present and instantly accessible to snap a photo.

While it may be great to share that moment with others, if we are not really present in the moment ourselves, we may be missing real memories.

At weddings and other events, it seems everyone has their camera out, often distractedly so. And the hundreds of pictures they take will be filed away on their computer and likely never looked at again – ever – because they will be buried deep on a hard drive among thousands of other images. Many of them are not even “good” photos – perhaps “good enough”, but not as good as they could be, and likely not worth losing the memory of the event.

This is such a good reason for 1) hiring a professional photographer for your wedding or event and 2) printing the best images either for hanging in frames, or in a book that can be left out and shared with guests. A professional photographer is there simply to take the photos, leaving the guests and the family free to engage their senses and record their own personal memories. From those professional photos, the best ones can be printed in a form that will be viewed more frequently and solidify those memories even further – especially when attention is paid to the details. If the photographer should forget his or her “experience” at the wedding, no problem – they are an important part of the wedding, but they are not there for their own memories, but rather to aid yours.

As a photographer myself, I find I am taking less photos of my family and spending more time with them. On a recent trip to Florida, I enjoyed my times with the camera, but gladly set it aside to spend time in the pool or the ocean waves with my teenage kids. My wife plans on taking those photos and creating a book from them as she has in the past. 

We had a lot of fun before this trip going through the album from the last time we went to Florida years ago. We remembered the fun we had but you can bet we didn’t go back through the hard drive with the hundreds of others. (The photo inset is one of those fun moments from our last trip back in 2007).

Just like the tree that still makes a sound when it falls in the forest even if you are not here to hear it; important moments still happen even if you don’t take a photo. Stop and cherish those moments. Be present with your family and your friends. And if you really have an important event that you simply must have photos of, hire a professional photographer to do the job and allow yourself to make your own memories that those photos will enhance rather than rob you of the experience - and the memories.

(c) 2014 by Gary Scott, www.garyslens.ca


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