Cameras and Attention (Redux)

A mild “yes/and” on a theme often highlighted by contemporary tech critical commentary.

Assumed audience: Folks willing to think a little bit harder about attention — something we all need to get better at — but particularly those inclined to be critical of technology in the context of daily life.

Epistemic status: Still feeling this one out.

I wrote what follows to a friend after reading one of the many bits of commentary I’ve seen over the last few years which was (lightly and thoughtfully!) critical of taking photos of our experiences — of family, in nature, etc. — and which in turn prompted comments which were much more strongly against it in at least their own personal practice. As I put it to that friend, none of what follows is really an argument against the insights in the original post (I agreed with much of what Gracy Olmstead had to say in that piece!) or those like it so much as it is a yes, and…” expansion on them.

On the one hand, I recognize the particular temptation to Instagram one’s way through life: to see every moment not as a thing to be appreciated in its own right, but one to be captured in photograph, and shared on social media. This can indeed be terrible.

On the other hand, I have come to appreciate increasingly over the last few years the way that a camera in hand can actually focus my attention – to help me see things, and be observant to things, I would not otherwise have seen or been observant to. (I wrote about this here, a few years ago now.)

Too, as the unofficial but very actual family photographer at this point, I have come to value the way that photography can serve others: by sharing the memories and helping us reaffirm the goodness of an event past. And, in a strange way, having a camera in hand has made no few family social situations tolerable and bearable for me which would have otherwise been nothing but exhaustion: because there was at least that joy, of the work to find and catch beautiful moments along the way (again, rightly drawing my attention), even if everything else going on was deeply frustrating at best.