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.