The philosophy of photography

Why our generation takes pictures

By on September 30, 2014

Last week in my English 101 class, we began to discuss a new piece of literature – an essay by Walker Percy titled “The Loss of the Creature”. The central focus of the piece was on human experience in an evolving world – whether we see our surroundings or see nothing more than the ideas of our surroundings that have been presented to us.

Pretty philosophical stuff.

During the discussion, there was a passage from the essay that caught my attention as Percy weaved a hypothetical scenario in which a sightseer visits the Grand Canyon.

“Instead of looking at it, he photographs it… For him there is no present; there is only what has been formulated and seen and the future of what has been formulated and not seen. The present is surrendered to the past and the future.”

Not only did this quote resonate because I had to reread it a couple of times before I actually understood it, but also because it made me think about the photos I have taken, and the ones I see on a daily basis scrolling through social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.

Then came a question: why is my generation taking pictures?

I’ll try to create a scenario, which I admit is quite accurate based on my Instagram profile.

Say I’m up at York Hill one evening, and I’m waiting for a shuttle when I notice that the sun is beginning to set. I look at the view briefly, and within moments I take out my phone and take a photograph.

Why did I take that picture? To remember that one fateful sunset for the rest of my days? Probably not. Chances are that a few hypothetical minutes later, on the shuttle back to the Mount Carmel campus, you would see me post that photo of the sunset on Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook, or, in other words, online.

I have no personal vendetta against social media, I actually praise it for the ease in which it allows me to share my experiences with my friends, many of whom are now hundreds of miles away.

What I am saying however, is that our generation has used it to push photography further from being a tool to encapsulate memory and history and closer to a creature of popular culture; an “artsy pic” worthy of at least 11 likes. Like Percy’s Grand Canyon tourist, we have surrendered the beauty of the present – replacing it with a magnet of attention on a digital news feed somewhere.

There are professional photographers displaying their life’s work online, and there are friends sharing memories and experiences to look back on. And the fact that the digital age allows us to do this is a beautiful thing. Yet with every passing day, I feel as if the pictures I am seeing and taking are becoming less about the moment they capture and more about the number of people that smother it in thumbs-up, stars, or hearts; like stickers on a spelling assignment from the first grade.

All that I ask is that the next time you see or even participate in something you feel is memorable, special or just plain awesome, try to take a moment to genuinely experience it. Appreciate it for what it is – for its uniqueness from your usual surroundings. Appreciate yourself – for being fortunate enough to have taken the steps in your life that led you to it.

Just take it in – before your cell phone is taken out. Experiences are far more beautiful in the moment than in your camera roll, no matter which model of the iPhone you may have.

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About Sal Siciliano