Forgetting the camera and gaining a formative experience

October 15, 2014


Forgetting my camera was the best thing I ever did. 

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2011. There was an exhibition of world-famous artist Dale Chihuly’s extraordinary glass sculptures—elaborate, life-sized figures that filled a series of rooms. As I wandered through Chihuly’s display, I found myself immersed in a brilliant, glowing jungle of glass shapes rising from the inky blackness of the gallery rooms. Plant-like protrusions created a veritable night jungle in one room, while in the next, a “Persian Ceiling” of sculptures arranged like a stained-glass window to shine down upon the viewers diffused my head in multi-colored light. 

Every corner and every angle of the exhibit was a feast for the eyes and my fingers were itching for my missing camera. I could have walked through the whole exhibit with my eye to the viewfinder. 

It was then I realized that many people around were doing just that—experiencing the entire exhibit through the lens in their cameras. My jealousy of their constant clicking and flashing suddenly evaporated. There I was, walking through this otherworldly display, soaking it all in, while almost everyone else was lugging around their camera and spending a third of their time with their eye pressed to a tiny screen.

I stopped feeling regret. I was thankful that I had forgotten my camera. If I had had the device with me, I could never have resisted the urge to pull it out just once, or twice, or just every few minutes. Without this option, I was forced to be completely immersed in my experience. There was no lens between the art and me. Because I knew there would be no way for me to see it again, my attention was focused like never before. My memory became my camera, and the impressions that I retained that day are stronger than many of my memories from a few weeks ago. 

Even more than creating strong memories, however, the absence of a camera removed my ability to try and document everything I was seeing. Instead, I was forced to remain fully aware in each moment and experience it fully in real-time.

Buddhism is aware of this phenomenon. It warns against holding ephemeral experience, rather than letting go and fully experiencing it in the present. This desire to capture certain moments is human: parents take thousands of baby pictures and the internet is flooded with pictures of sunsets because both are transient; both are beautiful, but in no time, both are gone. 

It is natural to want to capture beautiful moments that disappear all too soon, but the abundance of platforms like Tumblr and Instagram adds fuel to the flames of our trigger-happy mentality. These kinds of platforms make it ridiculously easy to filter your life. 

I do not mean to say that these sites are bad—I, myself, am a devout user—but it should be noted that they encourage the creation of a certain public façade. Of course, social media is also a wonderful tool for creative expression and inspiration, but I would caution you not to forget that it in no way provides an accurate depiction of real life. Pictures on Facebook could be said to be put through a kind of happiness filter: they usually show people surrounded by friends and having fun, not when they are sad and alone, or going through a hard time. Social media platforms are just collections of photos, after all. As is their nature, they show only a snapshot or moment in time.

I’m not trying to tell you to delete your Facebook (or Instagram or Tumblr) account. Nor am I telling you to start spouting off about how horrible your day has been. All that I would like to point out is that we live in a Snapchat culture: one that glorifies the fast and the superficial, and filters out the hard and ugly parts of life. 

It is precisely these dark spots—these ugly moments—that bring out the beauty of other moments by contrast. It is precisely this contrast that makes life so tragically, heartbreakingly beautiful. Don’t be afraid to embrace the “#nofilter” philosophy, or even the “#nophoto” philosophy. Live as deeply and authentically as possible, raw and aware in each moment.


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