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Too many photos, too few memories

By Bernard Toutounji - posted Monday, 21 October 2013

In 2014 it is estimated that 1.5 billion smartphone cameras will take nearly one trillion photos – that's hundreds of thousands of photos every minute (three thousand in the time it took to read this sentence). Three hundred million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day capturing every poignant, funny, strange, exotic and dull moment, from our latest meal, to the TV show we are watching, to the item of IKEA furniture that we just assembled. Every two minutes mankind collectively takes as many photos as the whole of humanity took in the 1800's. While the digital camera of the late 1990's provided a freedom that was never known with film, the smartphone camera has gone even further making every person with a phone in their pocket a photographer and turning every location (from the bathroom to the ballpark) into a backdrop.

So I am just wondering…is there any chance we may be losing perspective when it comes to our photo taking lifestyles? Are we taking photos at the expense of creating genuine memories? At a recent Beyonce concert in Atlanta, as she was sharing the microphone with some of those in the crowd, the singer scolded one fan who was preoccupied recording the show on his smartphone, "Put that damn camera down…see you can't even sing because you're too busy taping…I'm right in your face, baby. You gotta seize this moment". And from the secular to the sacred, when Pope Francis first came out onto the balcony after being elected in March of 2013 the packed St Peter's Square was literally a sea of tens of thousands of screens facing up to pixilate the historical moment.

There is of course nothing wrong with taking photos; if I was at that concert or in that square I'd probably have my own iPhone out snapping away and uploading to Instagram. The problem with our photographic obsession though is that we become less interested in 'living' the moment and more interested in 'capturing' the moment. Life however is meant to be lived, not tied down to eight megapixels for all eternity. Life is a movement. You can't hold onto one note of Beethoven's fifth symphony and claim to have experienced it. You must move through all four movements. You must sense the music within your being. Life is the ultimate symphony, it must be seen with our eyes, it must be smelt, heard, tasted and touched.


The more we obsess with taking a photo of every moment in life (moments that more often than not have no need of being captured) the less we have the chance to live that life. Instead of enjoying and experiencing memories as we move through them, we flat pack the moment for two dimensional enjoyment at some later stage. The man at the Beyonce concert would only have been able to remember that concert through a digital image rather than within his experience unless Beyonce had told him to snap out of it! It is as if we are tying down our life into one spot, pegging our images to the earth in one massive digital album. How many babies are themselves treated like celebrities by over-eager parents who insist on preserving every smile, wink and laugh in full digital colour? How tragic if the baby missed out on looking into its parents eyes when it smiled for the first time and saw only a camera lens.

Even if our photos could more completely capture an experience they would remain lacking because we most often avoid photos of the difficult times in life. Would we want to be photographed when we are in tears, when we have been let down or when we have been dealt a difficult hand in some aspect of life? Not likely, but suffering is all part of the tapestry of life – to be faithful to life it must be included. But who pulls out their phone to take a few pics of the dying, the elderly or the incarcerated and then upload them to Flickr?

The advent of highly accessible digital photography will surely be one of the most notable developments marking the start of this century but let it not be a chain that ties us to the moment and stops us moving forward with hope and anticipation. If we want to truly seize the moment and live a life that is full and rewarding it will not be done through the screen of our Samsung Galaxy. What will last is the memory we have created of events and moments, loaded not on a 'memory' card but deep within our hearts and minds.

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About the Author

Bernard Toutounji is a freelance speaker and writer. He has a theological formation from both Australia and the USA, and has particular interest in questions of anthropology, morality and truth. Bernard writes a regular column,, in which he takes a contemporary issue and examines it through an alternative lens. Bernard tutors in theology at a university level and speaks at conferences when requested.

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