Monday, January 20, 2014

The sense of snapshots

Bonnets in Farm Museum, Staphorst, the Netherlands: I have been there, too

In my last blog I referred to an article by Linda Henkel on the relation between taking photos and what you remember of what you have taken a photo of. I got my information on Henkel’s research from a CNN webpage with the heading “Eyes are better at mental snapshots than cameras, study suggests” (see my blog last week for the link). Actually I should have read, of course, Henkel’s original article before writing my comments, but since I am not subscribed to the journal where it has been published, I have to pay $35.00 for a download. This is a bit too much for a philosopher without an institute with a budget that supports him. The article costs even as much as two philosophical books, which can contain together fifteen or twenty of such articles. That’s why my blogs are often based on second-hand information. Then there is always the risk that what I say in my writings is not to the point. By the way, this (and not only this) shows that the academic freedom is not as real as it should be: In this case it consists in the free admittance to an article and this depends on how much money you have in your pocket (or on your bank account) or on the budget of the institute that pays your research. In other words, there is a price tag on academic freedom. I don’t want to say that it can be different in present society. I am merely stating a fact.
Therefore it may happen that my comment on Henkel’s results is not completely relevant, because it is based on secondary information, or it may be that Henkel herself has already said it. Anyway, is the essence of her research really that “Eyes are better at mental snapshots than cameras, study suggests” as it is paraphrased in the heading of the CNN webpage? Maybe it’s Henkel’s own conclusion. However, I think that the research says something different. In fact, it doesn’t talk about the influence of photographing on our memory but about present-day man. Take Henkel’s statement in the CNN article (written by Elizabeth Landau) that “People just pull out their cameras … They just don’t pay attention to what they’re even looking at, like just capturing the photo is more important than actually being there.” Wouldn’t this statement be a better paraphrase of the research? For actually the research doesn’t show a relation between photography and memory but it shows the superficiality of man today. Or rather, “superficiality” is not the right word, I think. Maybe I could better call it something like “inattentive-mindedness”. If someone visits a museum, it would be “normal”, I think, if he or she gives attention to the exposition and objects exposed. And if this person finds a certain object interesting or beautiful s/he can take a picture of it so that s/he can later call it up in the mind, for instance for remembering again what s/he saw, for looking again at some details, for telling others about it, and who knows what more. A condition of this is, I think, that s/he is interested in what s/he sees and photographs. But just this is not the reason that museum objects are often photographed. Not the object as such appears to be interesting or, otherwise, it is not that one wants to have a good picture of it (which requires attention), but just the snapshot as such; that one has been able to take it; that the photographer simply wants to show that s/he has been “there”; or that one belongs to “them” who has been there, is why the photo is taken. Not the object photographed gives the image its meaning but the relation of the photographer to his or her significant others. Then the image is not meant as a reminder of the content of the image (the object exposed), and then it is not important to give attention to this content (so the object). That’s why the object is photographed with an inattentive mind. But attention is not absent, but it is fixed elsewhere, namely on the people around you.
Do you still remember my blog on the other-directed man (dated April 29, 2013)? We saw there that this other-directed type of person that has come to the fore in the past century is someone who is “oriented by the opinions of the people around him. His conformity to society [consists of] … a sensitive attention to the expectations of contemporaries”. People find their way in society by putting out their feelers in order to know what other people expect of them, more than ever before. The inattentive way of taking pictures must be seen in this light: Photos help you to tune in to relevant others. What’s on the pictures as such need not to be important. It is this what Henkel’s article actually substantiates; not that taking pictures may impair your memory.

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