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Tourists phones block the view of “The David.”
Courtesy | Russell Richardson

My view of Michelangelo’s statue of David was blocked by a tourist taking a picture with an iPad.

While trav­eling through Europe this summer, I saw many beau­tiful things — La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Vatican in Rome, the Duomo in Flo­rence, and the Acropolis in Greece. Mil­lions of people visit these places each year with their flashing cameras and smart­phones. But selfies, selfie-sticks, and filters consume tourism and daily life alike. We live in Instagram culture. Every moment is a photo op, and as a result, we’ve lost our capacity to appre­ciate beauty.

The desire to capture some­thing beau­tiful fits with the part of human nature that longs for higher, divine things. When moved by some­thing, we pay homage to it with a camera. Snapping a picture is how we affirm lovely or inter­esting things. We can upload and share photos with friends, spreading the appre­ci­ation. While the desire to grasp beauty is natural, if we only take a picture of a beau­tiful scene and then move to the next sight, we miss so much.

Three years ago I swapped my iPhone for a dumb­phone and logged off all social media. One motive was that I wanted to stop taking pic­tures and expe­rience pho­to­graphic moments in the present.

Since I stopped taking pic­tures with a smart­phone, I’ve found great joy in cap­turing moments with my senses. It requires pausing and focusing for longer than the time it takes to snap a picture, however.

A scene from the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” demon­strates this idea. When the pho­tog­rapher played by Sean Penn finds an elusive snow leopard on a mountain, he refuses to take a picture of it even though he has been searching for this animal exten­sively.

“If I like a moment…I don’t like to have the dis­traction of the camera,” he says, “I just want to stay in it.”

We will take away more from a beau­tiful scene if we give it our full attention. Cameras prevent this sensory absorption. The thrill and wonder of finding a snow leopard are replaced by the pressure of trying to take the perfect picture of it.

As I stood in the Gal­leria dell’Accademia in Flo­rence watching tourists take pic­tures of David, I was reminded of a line from C.S. Lewis’ “The Abo­lition of Man.” 

“You can’t go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through some­thing is to see some­thing through it. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see,” he says.

While Lewis wasn’t talking about smart­phone cameras in 1943, his words apply to Instagram culture today.    

The problem with incessant pho­tog­raphy is that we can miss the beau­tiful thing in front of the camera. We look through a lens and see things pri­marily as social media content. We don’t pause and give the respect that beauty deserves. In Instagram culture, an ancient fresco becomes the back­ground for a black and white duckface and the spires of a cathedral assume the frame for a yoga pose.

While Michelangelo’s David was tainted by camera shutters, the site of Michelangelo’s other mas­ter­piece was a com­pletely dif­ferent expe­rience. Cameras are for­bidden in the Sistine Chapel and that changes every­thing. The room was stiff — crammed full of people with their necks craning upwards, soaking in the dynamic scenes, chiseled bodies, and vibrant colors dis­played above. And they stayed there. Partly because they knew that once they left, they couldn’t refresh their memory with pic­tures.

Pic­tures are not worth a thousand words if they cause us to miss the scene behind the screen. Instagram culture insults true beauty. We should put away the dis­tracting camera and gen­uinely look at things with our eyes, not through a lens.