As a photographer, I’m rarely without my camera. Wherever I go, my beloved Nikon is always slung around my neck or nestled in my backpack. On the off-chance I don’t have it with me, I opt for my iPhone instead, snapping pictures handily but without the satisfying kuh-ch of the shutter. The point is: I’m never not taking photos, a fact that has slowly ignited an internal struggle about how I live and document my life.

There’s always a part of me that wonders if I’m actually missing a moment by photographing it; what if documentation limits the very experience I’m hoping to preserve? Does diligently documenting my life mean that I’m not truly living it? Looking back, though, some of the best moments of my life are the ones I’ve captured on film. To what extent are these memories preserved only through photography, and would they be as important or vivid to me if I hadn’t released the shutter? Would I remember them the same way? These questions are at the back of my mind whenever I reach for my camera, and even in the rare moments when I choose not to. In mulling over this personal turmoil, I sought to know more about how documentation affects experience and memory.

A suitcase neatly packed with sweaters, a camera, and a passport
Photo by Hope Allison

With the proliferation of cell phone cameras in recent years, the topic has become a hot-button issue of societal discussion. The New York Times estimated that humans took 1.3 trillion photos in 2017 alone. With such an unfathomable number of images captured each year, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that photography has become too pervasive, and that this constant photo-snapping diminishes our experiences. Some worry that this shutterbug behavior is unnatural to us, that it runs counter to how humans have always lived and how we “should” be living. But a study conducted at Yale University, in which participants were randomly selected to either take photos or not during an event (e.g. a bus tour of Philadelphia), found that taking photos did not inhibit participants’ experiences; in fact, it enhanced them. The researchers concluded that photo-taking increases engagement, which in turn increases enjoyment of a positive experience (equally and inversely, their results also found that photo-taking can make negative experiences seem even more negative). Though these results may surprise the hand-wringers among us who worry that phone photography is a detrimental development, the findings actually fit into a broader pattern of behavior.

Two women take photos on a safari
Photo by Kate Gazaway

Because sharing our experiences with others is so prevalent (Instagram reported that around five hundred million people post Stories daily), people have begun to wonder how the practice affects our own experience and memory of an event. According to research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, wherein participants were told to either record, share, or not document an event, documentation can inhibit memory of the very experience you’re trying to preserve. Although participants reported being just as engaged and satisfied with the experience, those who used media to record or share it “externalized” their experiential memory, storing it in their camera’s SD card as opposed to their own minds. Other research from NYU found that taking photos explicitly with the intent of sharing them on social media decreased enjoyment of the experience.

While the ubiquity of social media is a recent development, the human tendency to document our lives isn’t new at all. From cave art that dates back to the Ice Age (roughly 40,000-14,000 years ago) to the innumerable drawings, sculptures, and paintings that predate photography, humans have always had the impulse to capture and preserve their lives; experiences ― and our memories of them ― shape our identities. As we live, our experiences accumulate within us, each one changing who we are in its own small way. By cataloguing these experiences, we are able to capture and cherish bits of ourselves.

Likewise, photography plays an enormous role in our lives and in how we construct identity: photographs of our ancestors and families, of our birthdays, weddings, and graduations ― all of these are artifacts that help us tell the stories of our lives. But in modern times, photography has become daily and ubiquitous, used to capture (and share) meals, concerts, and even mundane, everyday activities. This shift in how photography is used ― from special-occasions-only 36-exposures-per-roll, to the iPhone’s “burst” mode at brunch  ― highlights our desire to document and save all of our memories, not just the milestone ones.

I should note that this paradigm gets complicated with the advent of Stories on Snapchat or Instagram, which allow users to take photos that disappear after twenty-four hours. The images captured this way are not meant to be treasured or saved as personal effects, but instead to be shared briefly with others. They are a means of communication, of telling stories about the Here and Now. In total opposition to photography as it was once used, these photos are as ephemeral as the experience they capture.

Two women take photos of a tree
Photo by Zach Fackrell

So, where does this leave us? What are we ― the photo-takers, the image-makers, the visual storytellers ― meant to do with this delicate balance of experience, documentation, and memory? Personally, these research findings leave me feeling adrift, especially in the era of social sharing online, where I often find myself drowning in an oversaturation of images, bombarded by others’ experiences as well as my own.

I sometimes feel like a spectator in my own life, unsure whether to document it or simply live it. I’ve learned that it’s important to find a balance. In these moments of limbo, I’m forced to reflect on the reasons I pulled out my camera in the first place.

I photograph because it’s in my nature to try to document my life. I write, map, and record the sounds of my travels. I do these things to help me understand the world around me and process my experiences; despite its drawbacks, documentation helps me slow down and be more mindful of what I choose to capture. Even when I leave my camera at home, I see everything through my imagined viewfinder, making sense of the world through images. I, like so many others (even those Ice Age hominids tracing their hands on cave walls), use art as a form of expression. It’s communication and connection. It’s The Decisive Feeling. It’s nostalgia in real-time. It might not be for everyone, but I can’t imagine living without it.

Three men look down the lenses of their cameras while sitting on a rock wall
Photo by Matthew K. Firpo

Interested in documenting your travels? Learn how photography can shape your journey, and why you should journal while on the road.

Cover photo by Rhendi Rukmana