There are countless reasons why we take photos: To tell a story, to share a big moment, to convey our emotions, to demonstrate how fun we are, or to help remember an event.
The last reason is what many casual photographers tell me is their main one. And if “to help me remember” is also why you take photos, you might want to pay attention. Because your photo-taking might be doing the exact opposite.
The evidence comes from some recent preliminary research findings by neuroscientists. And since it supports my anecdotal experience (hurray for confirmation bias), I decided it was important to discuss the results.
Which are basically this: When people take photographs without much thought or intention (ie ‘happy snapping’) it reduces their ability to remember that scene. The scientists call this “photo-taking impairment effect” and comes from your brain relying on your camera to remember the scene for you. This reduces the mental processing that would normally consolidate experience into memory.
I won’t go into too much detail on the study (you can read it here), but instead tell you why these results are important, and how you can prevent it.
The double-ironic reason why these results are important
To explain this, I’ll need to first take you back a few years.
Remember when photography required film? Some of you probably don’t. Well believe it or not, film actually cost money; and you had to visit a shop to buy it. After taking just a few photos, you had to remove the film, deliver it to another shop, pay again, and later visit again to retrieve the prints. One roll, two payments, three visits. What a pain in the ass.
You might’ve already figured out that in those days, photographs were taken carefully – you only got 24 shots per roll. (Nowadays one might take 24 bathroom-mirror selfies before they get just one that does justice to their duckface). The prints were later often curated, captioned, and arranged into a physical album or slideshow (to bore the grandkids). All this intention (and attention) helped people evoke emotions from their photos, plus retrieve and consolidate memories.
Now (as we all see regularly on Facebook) some people will share 100 photos from a single day – photos which they often haven’t vetted for duplicates or those hopeless blurs I’m hoping were accidents.
The double irony of this mindless photo-taking (aka “being in a state of distraction”, as Dr Henkel calls it), is that the people who want to remember the scene by taking photos in this way are not only failing to achieve this outcome, but worse, they’re actually impairing their memory!
There’s hope, but it requires a bit of mindfulness
In the second experiment Dr Henkel ran, instead of asking them to just “take a photo” of the scene, the students were asked to only photograph one small aspect of it. This subtle change completely erased the “photo-taking impairment effect”. In other words, taking a photo intentionally of a specific element in a scene preserves the memory, not just for the element, but for the whole scene.
Granted there are some of you who aren’t taking photos for memory-reasons. You might instead be showing off your beach holiday or your latté foam (we’ve all done it), or one of the many other reasons I opened with. But what I glean from the research is this:
If you’re taking photos to help “remember the event” – and you’re taking them without much attention or thoughtful composition – you’re not only distracting yourself from being present in the experience, but you’re impairing your future recollection of that experience too.
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So please, either put away the camera; or compose thoughtful photos, organise them intentionally, and share your best for us all to enjoy too.
P.S. There are so many reasons why we take photos. Please let me know in the comments what motivates you to.
P.P.S. I’m planning to offer a travel photography course online late in 2015. If you want details please join my “photo news” mailing list and I’ll keep you in the loop.