Do you get nervous when you see a sign like this?
Smart phones and pocket technology are amazing. We are exposed to and gifted an incredible array of wondrous images and interesting ideas from all around the world instantaneously. We are truly more connected to one another than ever before in history. This is without a doubt a great thing.
But for it to be effective it does require something of us. Because our phones can create barriers between us and the world. I’ve been thinking in particular about how our cameras and this insatiable need to document and often share everything we see is causing us to get in our own way.
Strange New Compulsions
Nic and I recently went to Auschwitz in Poland. She has always wanted to go back after studying the Holocaust during her history degree.
During the visit I noticed something really odd…people can’t seem to put the camera down. Despite signs throughout the indoor exhibits in the museum telling people not to, a huge number were being led from room to room by their phones, viewing the whole thing through the camera screen.
There were times when I don’t think I could have picked a camera up even if I wanted to. A stand out moment was being stood, staring at the mountain of tiny shoes that represented just a tiny fraction of the number of children who had been slaughtered in the crematoria at Auschwitz. I was lost in sadness and the intricate details of the well worn pairs of shoes as I tried to grapple with this horrific truth.
A man pushed into me, held his phone up, took a photo and followed his camera to the next exhibit. I couldn’t see how he could have understood the gravity of what he had just looked at. Maybe he didn’t want to, or perhaps he wouldn’t let himself.
It made me wonder…are we sometimes oblivious to where we are, what it means, and why it matters?
(What) Are We Really Thinking?
My friend Kirsten sent a link to this powerful project where Shahak Shapira had found selfies of people around the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, and photoshopped them into harrowing photos from the war. The most powerful thing is that most of those who had taken the photos were shocked to see how these pictures look when you have some other perspective.
I doubt there was any genuine malicious intent behind any of them. Little more than a disconnected ignorance whereby they didn’t realise where they were, what it meant, and why it mattered.
But this isn’t just some isolated example of a handful of individuals being a bit thoughtless. I’d argue that there is a danger of shaming individuals like this. It’s about all of us. We should all be challenged to think about how we interact with the world through our cameras everyday.
There is a Time, Place, and Approach to Photos
I love taking photographs. It’s one of my favourite things to do, and I love sharing them. I also love scrolling through my Instagram feed and seeing the interesting and beautiful stuff being captured by others. There is something really life affirming about seeing people enjoy the world around them. Snapshots of a life lived and a moment experienced.
So what is the difference? You might argue that the man who barged into me is simply wanting to capture his experience. He is just interacting with it in a different way to me.
I can see how that might be the case, but it seems to me that for many of us the experience is flipped: documenting and sharing IS the experience. We do and see things IN ORDER to document and share the fact that we have been there and seen them.
Does the Camera Enhance The Experience?
If we are consumed by the need to document and to get everything on camera, we don’t allow ourselves to experience the deep meaning in what lies before us. That seems to be the biggest mistake of those selfie-takers in Berlin. Not that they wanted to be disrespectful, but that they were perhaps focussed on the wrong thing and unaware of how it might be perceived.
I felt a weight of responsibility towards doing my best to try and get my mind to understand where I was and what I was looking at in Auschwitz. I needed to feel that stuff. It weighed heavy and in the days and weeks afterwards will continue to do so.
I took some photographs. A panoramic view between the gates and crematoria at Birkenau, as well as footsteps up the railway track. As I looked around I felt compelled to capture this moment. It served as a way to interact with that experience at a deeper level and to remind myself of the meaning behind it all. It helped me process and express the emotions I was feeling in the rawness of the direct experience.
This is something for all of us to grapple with as individuals. To ask ourselves whether we are truly connected to the world around us.
Do we care more about validating our existence and significance by documenting everything we do?
Or do we document snapshots of our lives in order to creatively enhance and deepen our understanding of the meaning behind our experiences?
This age of pocket technology is amazing. It can enhance our lives in so many ways. Let’s continue using it and creating beautiful things. But let’s be aware and vigilant about how and why we are using it. Let’s consider how our use of it may impact other people.