Monday, January 13, 2014

An extension of the mind: The photo camera

Carboard pinhole camera: not for a snapshot

More than ever before people tend to make photos of what they see and do. In 2012 even 3 billion photos were taken. And these photos don’t stay in the cameras and they aren’t kept private, for every day 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook. That’s quite a lot! Who would have thought that this would happen when 170 years ago the first photos were taken? Although these numbers are tremendous, I want to put them into perspective, for 3 billion photos taken in 2012 means that not even every second earthling has made one photo that year. Nevertheless it is impressive. Must we be glad with it? For recently I read in a philosophical periodical that photography is bad for our memory. I was shocked a bit for as most readers of these blogs will know: I like photography a lot and I spend much time on it. Therefore I wanted to know a bit more about it and I looked up the source of the message (see the link below).
The American Psychologist Linda Henkel has been taking photos all her life, which she learned from her father (like I did). She had observed that many people today just take their cameras and make snapshots without giving much attention to what they are photographing. They do it almost with an absent mind and the act of taking a photo seems to be more important than the interest for what is taken a picture of. So Henkel wondered whether taking photos had an influence on the way people remember the objects photographed. In order to investigate this question she took two groups of students and sent them to a museum. Group One had to take snapshots of the objects exposed, while Group Two simply had to look at the objects. I’ll skip the details, but when the next day Henkel asked the students to write down what they remembered of the objects seen in the museum, she “found that people performed worse on memory recognition tasks in reference objects they had photographed, compared to objects they had observed with their eyes only. Similarly, they appeared to remember fewer details about what they photographed, compared to the ones they had only seen.”
So far so good, but that’s not the way I take photos, for I seldom take snapshots and I give always much attention to how to photograph an object. Moreover, I have the impression that I just remember the things I have photographed better than the things I have not taken a picture of. Also Henkel realized that there are other ways to take photos, so in a second experiment she asked some test persons to zoom in on specific parts of the objects they photographed in the museum. Also now the result was worrying at first (anyway, I find it worrying): “Photographed objects tended to be associated with a decline in memory about them. But”, so the article continues, “here is the twist: Zooming in on one part of the object preserved participants’ memory about that entire object, not just the part on which the camera zoomed. Accuracy was about the same, regardless of whether participants just observed objects or zoomed in on individual parts.”
The latter result corresponds to my experience: I remember objects that I have photographed better than those that I have merely observed. And this is true not only for objects, but for all kinds of photographed subjects: landscapes, scenes, townscapes, people, and who knows what more. This is in keeping with Henkel’s explanation: “When you zoom in on part of an object, it’s drawing your visual attention there, but you’re also thinking about the object as a whole.” This is so because photographing attentively stimulates your brain. It intensifies the experience of what you are doing, and the more intense an experience is, the better you’ll remember it (this is true for experiences of any kind).
Yet there is more, for Henkel asked the students to write down their memories without seeing the photos they had taken. However,  after I have taken a photo, I upload it to my computer and next I decide what to do with it. I put some photos immediately in a folder and I keep other ones apart in order to photoshop them later and to upload them to my website. So I see my photos at least once after I have taken them and I see some many times. When I see them, they bring back to me the circumstances in which they were taken: the place where I was, what I was doing there, the people that were with me, and so on. As a result, for instance, I remember episodes of my holidays in which I have taken photos much better than episodes in which I have kept my camera in my case: My photos function as a kind of external memory and my camera is an extension of my mind. Just that is an important aspect of taking photos for me: A photo is not simply a material memory of what is on it, but it evokes in my mind the circumstances in which I have taken it. So, if you want to improve your remembrance of what you did, take a photo, but not a snapshot, and take it with attention.


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