Are We Capturing Moments? Or Are We Hostage to Them?

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In 2013’s underrated The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, famous photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) watches a rare snow leopard in the Afghan Himalayas, camera in hand. Walter Mitty—who’s traveled literally halfway around the world to find Sean—wonders why he’s not actually taking a picture of the elusive creature. After all, that’s why Sean is in Afghanistan: to capture these beautiful creatures on film.

“If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera,” Sean says. “I just want to stay in it.”

It’s a beautiful moment. And thankfully, we all know about it because someone caught it on film.

In some ways, that paradox gets to the heart of one of the great joys and most vexing challenges of our modern age: our ability to capture every precious moment on our phones.

Color me guilty: My wife and I recently took a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine, where scenic vistas and bucolic walks lurked around every bend. And I took pictures of pretty much all of them. I’m not going to say that I have pictures of every square foot of the place (given that Acadia encompasses nearly 2.2 billion of ‘em), but Cadillac Mountain? Yeah, have that pretty well documented.

But experts say that taking a bunch of photos probably isn’t the best use of my vacation time.

“We get so focused on picture-taking, we miss the experience itself,” says Robyn LeBoeuf, who teaches marketing at Washington University and coauthored a large study on how taking pictures impacts our experiences. The answer, according to this five-survey study? Doesn’t look great for picture-taking.

One survey had participants watch a “highly enjoyable video,” with half of the participants allowed to just watch while the other half was instructed to take photos of their favorite moments (“Like we often do on, say, vacations,” LeBoeuf said) using an onscreen button. Those who didn’t take photos said they’d give the experience about 73 points out of 100 on an enjoyability scale. Those who took pictures? Their enjoyment was down to fewer than 64 points out of a 100-point scale.

“When you take pictures, you tend to enjoy [the moments] less,” LeBoeuf said. “Taking pictures hurts.”

Another study found that the enjoyment level went down even further when participants were taking photos mostly for social media instead of their own personal enjoyment. Participants who just enjoyed the survey’s given experience pegged their enjoyment level at around 83.7 points out of 100. Those who took photos for themselves: 76.2. And those who were taking photos to share? Down to 73.5 points.

Researchers say that we’re often so preoccupied with what we’re seeing through our screens that we forget about what’s going on right in front of our eyeballs. We take pics of our friends to prove to the world we’re having a good time, but sometimes those pics can prevent us from actually having a good time.

Now, naturally, we do want to preserve some precious memories for ourselves and others. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking pictures. I love going back through time and seeing my kids when they were younger, enjoying moments long gone.

But for kids who’ve grown up with camera-endowed phones—especially kids who may be inclined to document their lives on camera and disseminate each and every moment to their online followers—Sean O’Connell’s message might be one to mention. It’s great to have a document of our most precious memories—but not at the expense of the memories themselves.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.