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February 21, 2024

How Photos Can Make Life Phony.

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Everyone takes photos.

Since the inception of the smartphone, everyone has become a photographer, of sorts. Not only that, we have reached the era of hyper-photography where every moment is one worth capturing on camera.

But is this obsession with photos a healthy one?

In one sense, there’s nothing wrong with taking photos. Just like previous generations who captured moments on film, we can take time with our loved ones to reminisce about the past. We can take a trip down memory lane and relive beautiful experiences. We can see more vividly what our memories fail to configure up for us with clarity.

But there are some downsides too.

Nostalgia

One thing is that looking at photos too often can make us over-nostalgic for the past. We may find ourselves yearning to be back in a previous time because we think we were happier then. This is problematic for two reasons. One, we may not have been happier then. Despite having the photos in front of us as “proof,” we may have been more miserable inside than the pixelated moments of time appear. The other reason is that even if we had in fact been happier in the past, the harsh reality is that we can’t go back; we can only go forward.

So to yearn to return to a previous time is obviously futile and will only make us more discontent with the present. The best a photo can do is to help us remember an aspect of ourselves that we may have lost touch with so that we can rekindle that moving forward.

Denying the present

But if we end up getting sucked into unremitting nostalgia, we may end up living in total denial of the present moment and the flux of life. By looking at photos of the past, we can naturally compare them to the present. “Wow, look how thin I was then. Now look at me!” This can make us feel discontent with how things are, now.

Of course, it could be the case that we used to live a healthier life and looking at photos of that life may inspire us to get back to healthier living habits. And that is great. On the other hand, it could simply be that our bodies have changed, and no matter what we do, we can’t go back to our old figure, and trying may only end in shame. And that’s no good.

Life changes as do we (because we’re part of it). But photos can give us the impression that things are permanent or at least recoverable, when not all things are. Accepting the flux of life is important, so we have to be careful that photos don’t impede this acceptance of change.

Not being present

As already touched on, photos can make us deny the present. But this is especially true of the act of taking photos. If we are constantly taking photos, then it is harder to be fully in the moment. Instead of enjoying the waterfall in front of us or the party we are at, we might find that we are more concerned about taking photos of these moments.

Some people might manage to maintain a mindful approach to the moment while taking photos of it. Others might be so fixated on getting the photos right that they become separated from their surroundings. Also, because of social media, we might not just be thinking about taking great photos; we might also be focused on sharing those photos. That means that our focus has shifted from the present to the future.

Exhibitionism

This leads to another problem. By thinking about sharing the photos, we have moved away from a personal experience of a moment to the wish of showing other people this moment. This is not always a bad thing, but if it becomes a habit, it means that we no longer have private, personal experiences. Even when we are alone in the woods, taking a picture of a beautiful tree is tainted by the intention to share that photo with others. It’s not an experience of the tree anymore; it’s me thinking about what others will comment on my photo of the tree.

Egoism

This leads to another issue: egoism. The combination of photos and social media is a perfect way to magnify our egos: “Everyone, look how amazing I am.” This doesn’t mean to say that taking a photo of something and sharing it with others is intrinsically egoistic. This is what photographers have been doing since Day One and thanks to them the world has been able to view so many amazing images. It’s just to say that we run the risk of inflating our egos if we approach sharing photos with the wrong intentions.

Clearly one of the most egocentric photos is the selfie. Again, it’s not intrinsically egoistic. But with the proliferation of selfies, social media abounds with images of people showing a photoshopped and cropped version of themselves. And everywhere they go, they face the temptation of touching up their faces to show the world what’s going on in their make-believe-world, instead of being who they are in the world that is.

The photograph was an amazing invention—mesmerizing and miraculous in fact. But it can’t be denied that an addiction to taking and looking at photos does pose risks to our inner development.

The main thing is that we take a conscious and moderate approach. Photos offer a snapshot of what was on the surface, not an experience of what is now.

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