Three Questions to Cure Your Camera Phone Addiction

“That’s really neat!” I said to the juggler as he strapped his GoPro camera to his head before taking part in a 25-person juggling pattern at the recent MadFest Juggling Festival.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said with a grimace. “I’ve still got four thousand pictures from our trip to Norway to go through, though. Not sure if I’ll have time to do anything with this.”

Aside from all the twitter and Facebook feeds, we also have been gifted with a camera that can instantly take an infinite number of high-quality pictures. Whether it’s a selfie or capturing video of a grandson who is growing way too fast, there’s a kind of obligation that is felt. Again, it’s not new; I recall my mother insisting on photos every time the granddaughters were around, and really all those “Family Photo” or “Yearbook” photo packages are just a version of the same need to capture a moment.

But in the past, there was a limit – film, memory cards, whatever. It also took time before you could see the image again, whether that was in the darkroom or uploading the images to your computer before printing them out.

Now you can take a picture and share it with the world in a matter of seconds. You can send it to a local store and pick up a poster-sized version in a matter of minutes. And there is no limit. How can we resist the ability to document everything?

The answer is that we rarely can. We’ve all become that stereotype of the tourist with the camera around their neck, except that we’re tourists in our own lives – and each others – with thousands of pictures that we may never look at again.

Then again, is that so bad? There can be a joy to the sharing of images, to capturing the special moments. I enjoy the brief pictures that I get from those who are close to my heart but far from my home, sharing their lives in an immediate way. Photography itself is an art form, and surely that is not something we should discourage?

The trick is figuring out how to tell the difference between the pictures that enrich your life and those that distract from it. Between the things that are best captured forever, immutable in digital form, and the things that are better experienced and cherished as savored memories. There’s nothing wrong with deciding to go out and take pictures, of course – but when every moment can be interrupted by a photo shoot, then this technological gift becomes an interrupting nuisance.

Three Questions to Ask Before Taking a Picture

With a nod to Craig Ferguson’s “Three Things”, I’d like to propose the following algorithm. The next time you’re doing something and suddenly feel the urge to pull out your phone to snap a picture, ask yourself three things.

  1. Does this picture need to be taken? What good is it going to do – is it something that can be hung on a wall, or will be paged through in a printed book? Or is it likely to sit with the 4000 pictures of your vacation on your hard drive? Is there anything about what you’re looking at that will really be improved by being in a photograph?
  2. Does this picture need to be taken right now? Will taking out your camera phone interrupt something? Will it make someone nearby uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the lens? Will it take your focus away from a person or a moment and shift it to your camera, changing it from direct experience to an interaction with a screen instead?
  3. Does this picture need to be taken by me? This especially is worth asking when you are sightseeing. It’s likely that professional photographers have taken a picture of the thing you’re looking at; maybe you could take advantage of that and buy one of their photos and leave your phone in your pocket.

Keep in mind, the answer to any of these questions may be yes or no. This is not about demonizing the miracle of instant photography; it’s about making it more effective, and at the same time improving our everyday experience of life.

Your Personal Media Moment

Best of all, if you leave your camera phone in your pocket, you can still satisfy that urge in a far more satisfying way by applying a bit of mindfulness practice. There’s an algorithm for that, too, especially for these kinds of “I want to remember this moments:

  1. Stop what you’re doing. As much as possible, come to stillness in as many ways as you can. Stop walking, turn off the car radio, put down your fork, whatever you can do to get to a neutral state of being.
  2. Pay attention to your senses. This is different than “pay attention to everything”, because that’s an active thing. Instead, focus on what your senses are feeling at this moment. Visual is likely the main input, so observe the colors, the textures, the shapes and movements. See where your peripheral vision ends, where your attention is drawn. Then check in with your other senses: the smells, the sounds, the feeling on your skin, just giving each a little attention and letting them all merge into what this moment feels like.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions. Now that you’re more directly experiencing this moment, what kinds of feelings are coming to you? Peaceful, exciting, sad, giddy, aroused, wistful – remember, this isn’t about good or bad, but about experiencing the moment and remembering it.

That’s it. You’ve just created a more visceral memory for yourself, and while you may not be able to pull out a photo and show a friend, you sure can tell them about it. You can journal about it in a way that a photo could never convey. Best of all, thanks to the way most human memories work, your brain will hang onto the good parts and let the rest slide. It might even embellish the memory a bit, making it even more fun to remember.

Unlike a photograph – which freezes only one small fragment of the experience – your personal media moment will get better the more you revisit it, a sense-memory that you can keep with you long after your phone is obsolete.

Let me know if you try this different kind of practice – my goal is to have one every day this week, and see if it makes a difference in how much I pull out my phone.

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