“To be or to photograph?” That is the question pondered by today’s guest contributor, Sophie Breitbart. Writing from London, where she has been studying abroad for the past semester, she offers reflections from her travels on how to balance living in the moment and preserving it for posterity, just in time for summer vacation…Take it away, Sophie!
Resting in my hands lies a cloth-bound Lord of the Rings novel. Birds perched on the hedges fling their melodies in all directions, interrupted only by sheep conversing across the lane. The six o’clock sunlight is waning, and convinces its warmth to recede with it. As I sip some locally made, fresh-pressed apple juice, the noticeably mild air reminds me of my exceptionally remote location in Devon, England.
The scene is almost laughably idyllic. However, my mind is struggling to appreciate it. Soon after I begin to embrace the beaming greenery, merry faunal choir, and peaceful atmosphere, I feel compelled to exit the moment so I can document it. Please, my mind begs, try to capture this place with pictures, videos, even notebook scrawls… and with your happy face in the center! Then, I come to my senses. This is nuts. I’m stuck in a perfect moment and all I can think about is how to exploit it!
I know I’m not the only one who has wrestled with trying to appreciate a moment while being bombarded with questions about how to best live it. Maybe you’ve asked for a second seaside photo for the sake of a new profile picture, or taken 17 pictures of ducks because of a nagging fear about forgetting details. Today’s generation keenly perpetuates the idea that if you don’t “properly” document something (that’s a loaded word), it didn’t happen. So, how does one maintain balance when they’re experiencing what will soon be a memory?
When I was young, my parents brought disposable cameras on vacations. They captured the fleeting moments of my childhood, visits with extended family and friends, and maybe took a few shots of our location. Limited by about 50 exposures and concealed film, they were released from today’s constant pressure to critique images and dwell on the degree of their Facebook-readiness. We didn’t pose again and again in pursuit of the optimal shot. Instead, we could actually heed the verb in “vacation” and vacate our normal expectation-filled lives.
Today, more so than ever, we use photos to promote our personal brand on the internet, hoping to impress our peers and raise our virtual social ranking. We reason that posting vacation pics online allows us to maintain relationships with distant friends and family members as well as support our roles as travel ambassadors who courteously lead our “followers” on our lives’ adventures. We snap shot after shot after shot of the Eiffel Tower, checking off the “must do” activities imposed by society on our already-packed itineraries.
And yet, even in the digital age, I think it’s still possible to balance being in the moment and documenting it. Aside from reverting to the disposable camera, there are plenty of other ways to prevent forgetting, such as videos, musical playlists that encapsulate the vibes of the time, poetry, art, collages, and scrapbooking. Emotion-fueled travelogues age impeccably and, if written with care, can transport you back in time. Rereading the notes I wrote on a trip to Prague reminded me of the emotions I’d since forgotten: how it feels to first travel without “supervision,” the joy of realizing that I’d found someone I just knew I was going to love, and the evanescent details of first impressions. Finally, two basic questions have saved me from many a psychological pickle: “If I’m not satisfied with any of these pictures, should I just defer to Google Images?” and “What’s the main reason I’m here- to be or photograph?”
If all that fails, I have one last word of comfort: Some things aren’t meant to be recorded in the first place. Lying in the grass of London’s Victoria Park, I spot a tiny daisy gleaming in the sunshine. As this philosophical biologist is liable, I experience a brief spell of clarity about the scalar proportions of space and time. As the events of this moment overpower the strength of words or photographs, I abstain from attempting documentation. So be it if my Facebook friends can’t benefit from my little moment! A beautiful thing happened and I was fortunate enough to experience it. And in the end, that’s what matters.
“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.” -Toni Morrison
Sophie Breitbart is a junior at Wesleyan University studying evolution and biogeography. In June, she wraps up a 5-month stint studying abroad in London. You can read more about her time there, her quest to learn more about the Big Themes of life, and her never-ending war with social media over at Clotted Cream Dreams.
Feature photo published with permission from Mandy Lynne.