Seeing Unreality

I am not a skilled photographer, and taking photos often breeds disappointment. What my eyes see—a beautiful vista, a transcendent moment—never seems to translate to the camera’s LCD screen. It is always a bland facsimile. The digital representation cannot possibly communicate the experience to others who were not there, nor to my future self.

But I am realizing that even if I were the greatest photographer in the world, I would still be dissatisfied. Because a photograph cannot do what I want it to do: cement what I see—and not just what I see, but experience—perfectly, in perpetuity. It can do that with a version of reality, a piece of reality, but not reality itself.

Or…maybe, the camera is actually capturing reality in perfect fidelity. But that representation does not replicate the unreality I am experiencing beyond photo. Dan Cohen writes about sight as an active, skill-based process of synthesis, not a passive thing that just happens:

“Human sight is not even close to a representation of the world around us, with the eye like the megapixel sensor at the heart of a digital camera. Instead, it is an aggregation of many distinct skills we have accumulated over the course of evolution, such as the ability to separate objects from backgrounds, the sense of when an object is coming toward us or moving away, and the talent of discerning colors at the periphery or in the center of our field of vision. Together, through a mysterious process in the brain, these elements are nearly instantly synthesized into something comprehensible, appearing as ho-hum as a hotel lobby painting.”

It’s not (only) that I am bad at photography, but that photography is just not capable. This active interplay between our eyes and our brains adds up to something much greater than what a camera can capture, even in the hands of the most skilled photographer.

Robin Sloan continues, going a step further:

“[T]he human eye is NOT a camera. Our view of the world is so deeply and carefully filtered; not just in terms of color and light, but somehow also attention and life.”

It’s not just the eye-brain relationship that the camera cannot replicate. The camera cannot capture the experience surrounding the image. When we see a beautiful vista, we experience a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world. But the camera knows nothing about that feeling, reducing what see into a flat representation of that moment, only able to prompt, but not capture, that memory.

But even the photograph’s ability to prompt a specific feeling or memory is suspect. Memory is not stable. On the Build for Tomorrow podcast about “COVID Nostalgia,” Philosopher Felipe De Brigard and host Jason Feifer say this about memory:

Felipe De Brigard: Memory is not a faculty that attempts to reproduce with fidelity what happened in the past…

Jason Feifer: If you go on vacation for example, the vacation is not retained in your brain as a singular memory, like a film reel you can rewatch. Instead, a bunch of bits and pieces of it are stored separately. And a year later when you’re reminiscing about the vacation, you’re not remembering the vacation in full. What you’re doing is your brain is literally reassembling those bits and pieces into a coherent narrative for you at the time. It’s not stored, it is reassembled every time. Felipe compares it to a paleontologist digging up a dinosaur bone. Instead of finding a big old, perfect bone you can stick on a shelf, the paleontologist finds a crumbled mess of fossil parts…

Felipe De Brigard: You don’t have all the pieces of the fossil. So you have to make use of other kinds of information to complete the fossil of the dinosaur or whatever, right?…You can combine imaginations like parts of the past events that didn’t happen and you can sort of contaminate your regional memory with bits and pieces of information that are not from the original event, but that had been sort of incorporated in the process of contamination. And then at the time of retrieval, then you amplify them and then the good gets amplified.

Sight and memory are not supposed to be representations of factual reality. But photographs are. And that’s why they can never live up to what you’re seeing and experiencing. So why take photos? I suspect part of the motivation comes from a culture of social media, a “pics or it didn’t happen” ethos of Instagram. Even if, like me, you do not use these apps or do not post pictures online, Ezra Klein and writer L.M. Sacasas discuss how their mere existence can shape your experience.

L.M. Sacasas: A camera is another example. And by cameras, I simply mean the smartphone so many of us carry with us all the time, and how it kind of reframes aspects of experience as memories to be recorded…

Ezra Klein: Sometimes I now try to not have my phone when I’m with [my son]. I leave it at home. But then, he’ll do something cute, and I’ll be, in a part of my head, frustrated that I just have to sit there and experience it, and I can’t let anybody else know this wonderful thing has happened. And it’s a really different experience, even though I just didn’t have access to a smartphone camera at all.

We are caught in a bind. We have a technology-induced, near-primal urge to capture the moment. If we do not, we feel disappointment that the moment is “gone” forever. But if we do capture the moment, we feel disappointment that the moment we have captured on camera cannot nearly live up to the moment in real, or rather, unreal life.