16 March 2010

Stop That Cameraman … He’s Swiped My Soul

A recent article in The Medium column over at the New York Times caught my attention.  Entitled "Framing Childhood", it is a self-critique of the modern parent's increasingly onerous hobby of capturing, organizing, processing, and publishing the digital images of one's progeny, beginning from the moment of parturition and never slackening.  The author finds his own captivation with the endeavor slightly disturbing:
My own son’s first word for laptop, when he saw a woman plugging away at one at Starbucks, was the word he used for himself: “baby.” What else could the woman be doing so intently at a screen but what he saw me dopaging through picture after picture of him?
Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?

Now, I myself have been the recipient of numerous "fresh baby" emails, all of which I am always delighted to receive (if a bit skeptical of the insistent exclamations at the child’s parental likeness).  I would guess that most (if not all) my friends who are new parents have not fallen victim to the obsession detailed in the article above.  However, I believe there is a certain value to examining the "limit cases" of an activity carried to an extreme so as to understand it for what it is; such reflection often helps us to strike a balance in the lived reality that would otherwise be unrecognizable by an unreflective participant.  In other words, the fanatic devotee of image collection might offer some genuine insight into the casual use of photographic technology that most of us enjoy from time to time.

This catches my attention due in part to my recent travels.  As someone who volunteered to take responsibility to photograph our pilgrimage on behalf of the whole group, I've had a chance to think about what photography does to how we perceive our surroundings and ourselves.  It's become very clear to me just how powerful the photographic medium conditions our perceptions, both in positive and in negative ways.  While such observations often take the form of a diatribe against innovation or technology, a more judicious approach is simply to raise questions that others do not.  As the Dominican Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe has put it, everyone is aware of what technology gives us; few ever pause long enough to ask what it takes away.

A casual remark made by a fellow seminarian who had gone on the pilgrimage the year before occasioned a real revolution in how I approached photography.  He mentioned that although he'd never been trained to draw, the sheer intensity of his reaction to the places he was visiting impelled him to make an attempt to render them by hand.  Such a thought has never, ever crossed my mind, even though I spent a good portion of my childhood trying to draw.  I gave it up for a number of different reasons, but since that time, the thought of putting a pencil to paper in the attempt to capture a scene simply was not in the realm of possibility.  While still in Bethlehem, I resolved to set aside the camera for a while and try my hand at drawing after a fifteen- or twenty-year hiatus.  

What I discovered on account of my friend's comment was really remarkable.  I'd found the camera lens an excellent window through which to contemplate the beauty of places and people, but my attempts at drawing revealed pencil and paper to be another such window.  There was nothing remarkable in the first sketch I attempted, other than that it was a sketch that I drew.  What was remarkable was the way it forced me to perceive differently.  I wasn't deliberately producing a interpretation of the landscape I'd chosen to draw; yet as I tried (and failed) to capture it, it became clear that every stroke, every line, every shadow was an interpretation, a choice.  To present what I saw, I had to select the details that would communicate to the viewer's eye the crucial form of the thing I was drawing.  This became clear when I'd finally finished (or gotten too tired to go on): my drawing was a cluttered mess.  My photographer's eye was fascinated with detail, but too much in a drawing overwhelms the subject and fails to evoke the form. 

The end result was disappointing—but I had a drawing, not a photograph, and I'd spent hours studying the scene I was working on.  Even now, months later, I can call it to mind effortlessly.  On reflection, I noticed an experiential difference between observation for the sake of photographic composition and observation for the sake of drawing.  Having invested myself in the art of amateur photographic composition, I was aware that there is more to a good photograph than just pointing and shooting.  A photograph is the result of an intentional process that encompasses many different artistic abilities, from simple technical know-how to the mysterious art of storytelling. (This was, in part, what motivated the choice to keep a photojournal that only displayed a single photo to accompany the day’s account.)  The abilities and limitations of the camera and its apparatus become something like the strings of a violin or the metrical structure of a poem—their characteristics are enlisted in the photographer’s attempt to communicate himself and what he sees.  They become a vehicle for the delivery of artistic expression, and therefore of meaning.  However, something was engaged in me by the attempt to draw that photography left dormant—so much so that the looking I was doing as an artist made the looking I did as a photographer seem like pure passivity.  It felt like what I'd been doing all along was more like “looking” than actually seeing, as if I’d passed over the very thing I was looking for in my haste to search over as much territory as possible in pursuit of my goal.

Having gained this insight, it became a matter of training the eye and hand to observe and then mimic what was most fundamental to the form of the subject—easier said than done.  I’m still working on it, obviously, but it’s as if I’ve experienced a small revelation of sorts.  Even as I enjoy the fresh perspective, it’s also invigorating to look ahead in hope of future insight.

Anyhow, to return to the point, this experience of being forced to look at a subject differently is what Father Philippe may have meant by the sort of thing that is lost even as technological progress offers a great gain.  Once we understand the tradeoff to which our artifacts force us to submit, we regard them less and less as the conditions of a fully satisfactory way of life; interestingly enough, this shift in attitude allows us to regard technology for what it is: a tool.  The temptation nowadays is to see technological prowess as an end in itself, rather than a means to fully human existence.  Once the human measure is jettisoned, technology becomes self-measured and therefore self-justified.  That is to say, technology becomes our master.

An interesting exercise to get a sense of where we stand on this question is to take something we can’t imagine functioning without—something about which we’d ask “how would anybody manage to get along without this?”—and then try to imagine oneself doing just that:  getting along without it.  Better yet, set it aside and actually live without it; chances are, it’s not that hard to do, and when (if) you take it up again, it will be with a different attitude. 

I’ve been asking this question about my cell phone lately.  It’s clear that the possibility of having a phone on my person at all times is quite valuable, and will be especially so as a priest.  But what is lost by this technological ability?  Has anyone ever asked this question?  Try raising the question with someone you know.  Float it by them:  “you know, I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my cell phone”.  I did this just last night with a group of seminarians.  You’d think they believed that prior to the cell phone, priests were permanently incommunicado and most people died alone and unabsolved for lack of a direct line to his pocket telephone.  Of course, I know they don’t believe this, but the tone of their slightly disapproving responses was, “why wouldn’t you have one if you could?”  Not to have one would imply some kind of lack of generosity on my part—which is entirely possible, but not automatically so merely in virtue of the choice to abstain from instantaneous and ubiquitous communication.  Their response ultimately boils down to the very sentiment I pointed out earlier: “how could you function well as a priest without one?” 

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question because I’ve not gone without a cell phone as a priest, but the guilelessness of my friends’ replies suggests that they haven’t considered the alternative, either.  That makes me wonder just what might be recovered by dropping Sprint and signing back up for Southwestern Bell.

To return to the question of photography, then.  Our time on pilgrimage was filled with some truly amazing sights.  As a member of the photography team, I’d committed to keep a camera handy in order to record our pilgrimage in photos, so that we didn’t have 25 people all snapping away every time we moved to the next spot on the itinerary.  Of course, this didn’t stop our inveterate “posers” from insisting on having a photo taken of each of them in front of each and every landmark, statue, vista, and pile of ancient rocks.  What is it about people that want to be photographed in front of things?  Most would say that it’s to record the memory—to “document,” as my aunt would say.  But what if the preoccupation with getting the snapshot prevents you from ever really being present to the people or things you’re there to see? 

With reference to what I mentioned above, it’s worth imagining what it would be like to travel without a camera.  People did it for thousands of years and managed to “record their memories” just fine.  Diaries and sketchbooks take more work, it is true, but travelers usually had more time back then.  There was no rapid travel like we have now; if a fellow had both the time and the money to spare (a rare coincidence), seeing faraway people and places meant a commitment of months, if not years.   It meant you had a chance to sit down and contemplate, to get to know people, to soak up another culture and another context—in other words, to be changed.  There were none of the managed insertions to which we subject ourselves today; it was both more dangerous and more rewarding to see the world in days gone by.  Now our travel is sealed up in resorts, tour buses, and the air circulation systems of airplanes.  We are caught in the tension between enjoying unparalleled conveniences in travel and tourism, and scoffing at those very same conveniences for having obliterated any sense of remoteness or wildness from the places we’d never be able to visit otherwise.  “Tourism” (an extremely recent phenomenon) has both enriched and cheapened the experience of seeing the world.  It’s enough to make you want to spend three months barfing in the forecastle of a merchant brig during a nineteenth-century sea-crossing.

In our own days, the digital camera has occasioned the limitless multiplication of permanent records of people standing in front of landmarks to a hitherto unimaginable level.  Gone are the days when anyone might think the camera robs our soul; quite the opposite.  It’s as if we believed every time the ritual (sacrament?) of pose, focus, snap is enacted, the portfolio of the soul is enriched in its path to exhibition-worthy status.  A recent editorial in the New York Times mused at this proliferation, remarking that

it feels, some days, as though the whole purpose of our species is to create a perfect simulacrum of the life we lead even as we’re leading it.
Susan Sontag—a writer with whom I was unfamiliar until composing this little essay you’re reading now—referred to the camera as “the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood,” a definition I am inclined to agree with at least in part.  We feel enriched by the camera’s acquisitions, do we not?  The photographer usually considers himself generous—a person who steps out of the action for the sake of posterity, for the sake of those present who will one day thank them for their archivism.  A recent First Things commentator captured this attitude admirably while musing over his daughter’s wedding, during which his family’s requests for no photography were disregarded.
They sacrifice their ordinary presence at the mere wedding to become a selfless, invisible recording eye, as though they occupied some interstitial space between the sacred, but still physical one of the church and—what, exactly? The not-yet-embodied future? It strikes me that they think they are made angels by the camera, observers unobserved.  But there they were, still in their bodies, perfectly visible to everyone.
His experience at least indirectly gets at what I began to sense during my time on pilgrimage.  It wasn’t that the photographers were clumsy or obtrusive and needed to find more discreet ways to shoot.  It’s more that the perpetual use of the camera had the subtle, even subliminal effect of inclining one to believe that an experience isn’t valid or valuable unless someone is there to photograph it.  The father of the bride noted that his resentment went beyond the simple fact that their request for no photographs went unheeded:
Something had been changed, and a little more than images had been taken away. Instead of being in the form, we were being forced by their very presence to see it as an artifact, and the unity of our wills with the couple’s intentions was interrupted.
You might think that such an opinion is typical of a couple of stuffy, high-church aesthetes with nothing more to worry about than whether to trim the boxwood hedge along the drive to the carriage house in the shape of a train of elephants or just tear the whole thing out and put in dwarf Japanese maples.  Yes, you might think that.  But there might be another way of looking at it.

An interesting and unexpected correspondence between my private reflections and our class reading fell into my lap just a day or two ago.  A reading assignment on St. Augustines De Trinitate explored some of the African Doctor’s imagery to explain the relationship between humanity and the Trinity.  The chosen metaphor was the idea of spiritual vision.  I began to sniff at something interesting when the author asserted, echoing Augustine, that
the vision of God will never be a passive or a voyeuristic vision.
Augustine goes into a detailed analysis of how spiritual vision is analogous to our earthly vision.  Though he is operating on a much different understanding of what goes on in bodily seeing, the basic idea is that just as the eye and the object are united in the vision of the beholder in sensation, so is the soul of the blessed united with the God whom it contemplates.  This “spiritual eye” must be cleansed and strengthened by a process of self-collection, a withdrawal from the longing for the variety of images which occupy the soul and draw it away from the proper object of its desire.  This distraction is described with some rather vivid imagery in his autobiography, which he describes as a kind of spiritual hemorrhage:
I have been spilled and scattered. . . my thoughts, the innermost bowels of my soul, are torn apart with the crowding tumults of variety.
The spiritual vision is not strengthened by ascetic withdrawal from the world; rather, it is invigorated by the prolongation of its vision through the things of the world into an almost desperate longing for the things of God while surrounded with His creatures.  This longing stretches the soul and increases its capacity for love, in which the final state of the saved consists and in which the fullness of earthly life participates here and now.  Augustine likens the disparity between earth and heaven to the difference between a fleeting glance and an enraptured gaze—an analogy that draws its strength from the everyday reality we experience as sight.

Augustine then makes an interesting move.  Is this analogy between physical and spiritual vision just an analogy, or does the very act of seeing well also prepare our spiritual vision in a mysterious way?  Augustine’s answer is in the affirmative.  Our capacity to properly apprehend creation is by no means irrelevant to our relationship with God. The article’s author summarizes Augustine’s attitude in a finely balanced counterpoint.

To look with the trained eye more deeply into visible things, and not to be preoccupied with possessing them, however, is a difficult and slippery task. . . one can easily slide either into devaluation of these objects, which effectively if implicitly ‘scorns the Creator,’ or into fascination with their surface beauty, and ‘to love this is to be estranged.’
Most interesting, given Sontag’s definition of the camera as the “ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”  Regarding photography, it’s clear that there is much more to the “preoccupation with possession” than a mere desire to own the content of the image!  No; the human capacity for misdirected or overreaching desire extends far beyond the mere accumulation of property.

Yet in an even more remarkable turn, Augustine takes a more speculative turn and asserts that the eyes of the body in the resurrection will be the means of spiritual vision. 

It is possible, indeed most probable, that we shall then see the physical bodies of the new heaven and the new earth in such fashion as to observe God in utter clarity and distinctness, seeing him present everywhere and governing the whole material scheme of things by means of the bodies we shall then inhabit and the bodies we shall see wherever we turn our eyes.
Preposterous?  Maybe.  Augustine himself acknowledged that his theory had no foundation in the Biblical testimony.  But it does help to situate our earlier reflections on photography in a broader and more meaningful context.  These aren’t the questions of highly-strung aristocrats or hair-splitting bookworms; when put in the right spirit, they can influence how we relate to one another and to God, fueling our desire for wisdom and a growth in love.  A phrase from a wonderful little book written by the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin puts it far better than I ever could, so it is with his words that I’ll leave you:
We hardly know in what proportions and under what guise our natural faculties will pass over into the final act of the vision of God. But it can hardly be doubted that, with God’s help, it is here below that we give ourselves the eyes and the heart which a final transfiguration will make the organs of a power of adoration, and of a capacity for beatification, particular to each individual man and woman among us.
a m d g


Fr. Ben said...

Nick, didn't read the whole essay, I will...

Is it possible, having considered what a particular technology takes away, to judiciously seek to recover some of that? Can we have our pie and eat it to? Can we carry a cell phone, but turn it off at times. Can we photograph, and also draw?

I've been thinking about the cell phone myself, lately.

God Bless,
Fr. Ben

flatlander said...

I'm surprised you found time in your busy schedule to peruse... thanks for stopping by. As to your comment, I think your instincts are right on--I wouldn't advocate an abandonment of technology, but a judicious (and persistent) answering of the question, "what do I lose?" in the broader context. So yeah, have that cake and eat it, my friend. I'm not sure there's any other option.

Claire Christina said...

When you linked to this long post in your most recent entry, did you expect anyone to come back and actually read the whole thing? :)

One of the things for which I'm most grateful about my semester in Austria five years ago was that I took almost no pictures (my computer died, and I didn't want to upload them to someone else's, so I just didn't take any). At the end of the semester, I got a full copy of photos from two good friends, but I've hardly looked at them since. But, as you suggested, stored securely in my memory are some particular images but many general impressions of grand beauty.

Still, there must be a via media; there always is. I have no interest in taking a photograph of myself in front of some famous place; I'd much rather have a story about my visit there. But the places I know intimately but will not remain forever: those are the photos I'm inclined to take. Those are the photos I'll look at. Those are the photos I'll cherish.

It's not a solution for all circumstances (particularly for sharing the feast your eyes are privileged to partake in with loved ones far away), but it's a start, and it's the best I've got so far.