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Life through the lens

By Taryn Dryfhout

My dream as a child was to go to Disneyland. I spent my childhood watching documentaries about the Disney parks, wondering if I would ever make it. When I was 27, I finally had the opportunity to go – an event made more exciting by the fact that I was able to take my then six-year-old who had developed his own obsession with Mickey Mouse. Preparing for the trip, I spent most of my time figuring out how I could capture as much of the trip as possible, on video or in photos. I’d waited a long time for this, and for all I knew it could be the only time I ever got the chance to go. I had to ensure that if I brought back nothing else, I would at least have a lot of memories, in photographic form.
The trip was three weeks long, and I spent most of it behind a camera. We’d leave the hotel every morning with the digital camera and camcorder fully charged. I’d start the day with the camera, taking pictures of everything, and when that ran out of battery I’d start videoing with the camcorder. The ride I was most excited about going on was ‘Ariel’s Undersea Adventure’, so naturally, I got the camera turned on before we even boarded and videoed the ride from start to finish. Of course, when you are videoing, you have to keep your eye on the viewing panel to ensure that you are shooting the right thing, and that the object does not slip out of the frame. When we got off, I realised that I hadn’t really seen the ride with my own eyes. I had watched it through a screen, like I had as a child, watching television documentaries about how it was built. Filming the ride took away the enjoyment of the ride, because I felt that I had missed out on actually experiencing it. Determined to enjoy my time at ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’, I put the camera in my bag and got on the ride again, this time enjoying it, in person.
Despite realising that watching my dream holiday through the lens of a camera had taken away from the experience, I haven’t learnt my lesson. A few weeks ago, we took our kids to the park on a Saturday afternoon. They were happy and getting along (a rare moment) so naturally I pulled out my phone to take pictures. I spent the next hour taking photos until eventually my husband pointed out that I had spent almost the entire time being a photographer, instead of playing with the kids and enjoying the afternoon out of the house.
I dropped the ball again last month when my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary. We don’t make it out of the house on our own very often so I made sure we had photographic documentation as we headed out as a couple. I asked the waitress at the restaurant to take a photo of us at the table, and then we took photos of the food when it arrived. After we finished dinner, we went sightseeing and took selfies of us enjoying Auckland (hey, look at us – out on our own). By the time the night was over, I realised I had hardly put my phone down. Did I do this anniversary, right? I somehow felt more like I had watched it through a screen, than lived it.
While my efforts to document every moment at Disneyland were motivated out of the deep desire to remember this once-in-a-lifetime trip, the pictures at the park, and on my anniversary, were motivated by something else: social media. More than once, I’ve even been in a situation where someone has said “let’s take a photo for Facebook”. I’ve had to acknowledge that sometimes, I take photos, not so that I can remember, or capture the moment for our photo albums, but so that I can show people online what we are doing – how we are living. Am I okay with losing out on enjoyment so that other people can see my life? I feel like I’m watching my children grow up through a lens – that I’m living my life through a lens, and I fear that using social media has conditioned me to be okay with that.
Worse than that, I’m conditioning my kids to be like that too. Our children’s lives are being documented more than ever before. Last year, my mother gave me all of my childhood photos. She took, what would be considered a large number of photos for the time, yet they all fit into a 32 litre storage container. When I was a child, taking photos was not a cheap endeavour. Firstly, you had to buy film, and then you had to pay for the film to be developed. This meant that you were more careful about how many photos you took. You also couldn’t see the photos until they were developed, so you had no way of knowing if they were good right away. My kids are still little, and I already have a 1 Terabyte (TB) hard drive full of photos that’s almost full. While modern technology has allowed us to take photos more frivolously, I have to wonder how many of that 1 TB of photos were taken for us, and how many were taken for social media. Our modern photography obsession – both taking pictures, and viewing them on social media – means we are watching our children grow up on a screen.
While we will, undoubtedly, look back on these photos and videos and enjoy the memories, I fear that this is not the primary reason we are recording them. These moments, which we used to enjoy in their own right, are now being taken to register a moment of life – to show others that we are living, if that’s what we can call it. Human experience now needs to be uploaded onto Facebook for it to become real. If it hasn’t been captured in digital form, then it didn’t happen. Has technology caused this devaluation of life, or have we devalued life by pasting it up on social media for everyone to look at? People raised in my grandparent’s era, did not need to know that strangers ‘liked’ their chocolate cake, before they enjoyed it at lunch. It was un-photographically delicious, and they knew it. They didn’t need to look at it through a lens, and have others view it on a screen, to know that eating chocolate cake, was life.
As a modern society, we look back at human errors such as Western colonisation or the holocaust with embarrassment and shame – finding it almost painful to understand how our actions could have been so far off the mark. I fear that our obsession with this online documentation will also one day be viewed with embarrassment, and will be exposed for what it really is – a futile attempt to show others that we are living, when in fact, what we are doing is experiencing a substandard kind of life, through the lens.

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