I love photos. I do. I love taking photos, and looking at photos, and being in photos. I love family photos, and travel photos, and funny photos, and using photos as a way to share a moment in time or remember a happy day gone by.
But I think we’re all getting a bit crazy with it, don’t you? When a baby dolphin dies of dehydration at a beach in Argentina after being pulled from the sea and passed around for selfies, and two peacocks die of shock after visitors at a Chinese zoo (who are allowed to walk among the birds but not touch them) pick them up and pull their feathers to take photos with them, I think it’s time to recognize that our obsession with being photographed, in the frame, at all moments of our lives, has gone too far.
The internet has been in an uproar about these incidents, and rightly so. I suspect the deaths of these animals is especially galling because they were perfectly innocent–unlike the victims of the absolutely tragic but totally preventable selfie fatalities of recent years, these creatures are completely blameless. They didn’t want to be photographed, and they definitely didn’t want to die helpless and terrified in the arms of smartphone-toting tourists. Their beauty and the rarity of their presence in our lives is all the more reason for us to leave them alone, and if we must attempt to photograph them, to do so at a safe and respectful distance that endangers neither human nor animal.
I get it. Seeing a wild animal is really really special, and being close to one can be an almost spiritual experience. When TC and I were in the Galapagos Islands, we took dozens of photos of sea lions, giant tortoises, albatrosses, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, Darwin finches, and whatever other lovely creature was close enough and still enough to be photographed. Being near them was incredible, and it was an experience we were only able to have because the tourism industry in the Galapagos has a very strict policy about the flora and fauna: DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING. No picking the flowers, no taking a seashell home in your suitcase, and definitely NO TOUCHING THE ANIMALS. The unique geology and location of the Galapagos Islands means that the animals evolved without human contact, and without a fear of humans (this was a trust that led to the devastation and extinction or near-extinction of several species of Galapagos tortoise when the archipelago was first explored and settled, but a trust which the human population of the Galapagos has been working hard to re-earn).
So yeah, we took dozens of photos–after all, we were on vacation in one of the most extraordinary places in the world. But there were also lots of beautiful moments we didn’t photograph–watching baby dolphins leaping from the water alongside their parents, swimming with sea lions and turtles and rays and a shark and multi-coloured urchins, coming up for a breather only four feet or so away from a Galapagos penguin on a rock, seeing the stars from the deck of our ship at night, and so many other flashes of beauty or clarity that made us pull back from the frenzy of our fellow tourists clambering over each other for a good shot of Whatever-It-Was and say to each other, okay, this is just for us. And why isn’t that enough?
It’s high time we remembered how to seek out and appreciate amazing moments for their own sake, and not for the approval of others. Our experiences are ours to keep even if a camera didn’t capture all of them. It’s nice to have photographs to remember important moments, or even just a nice every-day moment, especially if we want to share them with loved ones who are far away. And it’s nice to have photography as a hobby or interest–if you want to learn and practice the art of taking beautiful pictures, you go for it.
But there is no art in allowing a wild animal to die in your hands, just so you can prove you saw it. You don’t need to “own” these moments–just have them, like so many others, and don’t worry about whether or not they’ll look good on Instagram. The camera cannot see what you can and the quest for the perfect photo often destroys the experience. Be open to the fleeting magic of life – hold on tightly when you find it – then let it go. Don’t let a lens come between you and your human experience, or your human decency.