Sometimes, Put Down The Camera
A memory: I pull shut the rusty iron gate of my hostel compound as I begin a downhill walk to the bustling Chang Spa market in Leh, Ladakh. It’s 10:00 a.m. and there’s a slight breeze that ruffles the scarf around my neck. The snowcapped Stok Mountains glisten in the morning sun, and a black-billed magpie swoops over the landscape. Somewhere, in the back of my head, a little voice says – Camera! – but I drown it out. It’s right here, in my bag, but something tells me it should stay there. A digital image cannot do justice to this view, this moment, and this feeling. It’s a memory I’ll have to store for myself.
One of the drawbacks of digital photography and video is that we’re starting to forget about the recording device of infinite capacity with which we’re pre-loaded: our memory. There exists no device that can truly replace it. When I revisit that beautiful walk, in my mind, it is multi-dimensional. I am transported back in time to the smells, the sounds, the images, and the feelings of that moment. A photograph could never do that for me, nor could a video. Because in my visual memory, I am also part of the picture. That’s the other thing with memory; it is equal parts remembering and equal parts imagination. You fill in the gaps of what you cannot remember, and this supposed inauthenticity makes it no less beautiful. After all, we’re all looking at the world through our own, unique pair of lenses.
None of this is to say I don’t love preserving moments on film (or SD card), however. I am an enthusiastic photographer – I once waded through a dirty stream in pouring rain to get a picture of an oddly coloured frog – but I am equally conscious of the need to put the camera down, on occasion. It’s a realisation that dawned upon me over time. I remember returning from a trip to Spiti, years ago, and looking through my photos with no recollection of the moments captured. Because in the same way that you can’t take a video and a still image at the same time, when you use a camera, your brain memory switches off. Maryanne Garry, a psychology professor at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, has spent years studying the effects of photography on childhood memories. She says parents today are paying less attention to the moments large and small in their kids’ lives, because they are so busy photographing them. This means that the things we want to remember most are fading away even as they happen. In an era of obsessive digital documentation, I’d still trust my memory more than a camera; photos go unprinted, hard drives can crash, and memory cards can get corrupted. But a special moment that you remember, right down to the feel of the dewdrops on your skin one freezing winter morning, is something that can’t be lost.
I’ve made a conscious effort to leave some of my best travel moments unphotographed. It’s almost a relief not to be fiddling with the aperture and shutter speed, lining up that perfect composition, and reviewing the image, but instead be absorbing the place into a seamless memory. Which makes one stop and ponder: Where does this drive to document each moment so obsessively come from? In the age of social media, so much of what we do is for public appreciation. And it’s hard to escape from that. I, too, return from vacations and upload photo albums to Facebook so all my friends can see where I’ve been, what I’ve done. But we need to assess how much our actions are governed by our online personalities and draw a line between the desire for a new profile photo and a meaningful experience. Catching hold of a monk at a monastery to click a selfie with him for a Facebook post, in my book, is going too far. I’d rather have a real conversation with the monk. I’d rather have a real conversation with anyone.
There is something special about memories that aren’t tangible, that won’t go up on my Facebook page. Those are the experiences that will someday be recounted to a close few in coffee-table conversations. I will have to find the best words I can to paint my friends a picture, and in doing so, the moment becomes heightened – the sky becomes azure, not blue; the morning air becomes crisp, not freezing; my breath becomes a cloud, not invisible. And those friends will listen, and save the memory to their own internal hard drive. They’ll mix with it their own interpretations and fill gaps in their own unique way. Maybe they’ll even make it their own entirely in a retelling, making memories of memories. And one day, when we are old, we will swap stories and discover the diversity of our recollections, laugh at the discrepancies, and smile at the similarities, knowing that a photograph would not have made so much magic.