Why I Put Down My Camera Re-embracing the picture in my mind

I'm just here for the shot.

I’m just here for the shot. Illustration by Billy McCall.

A month ago I was watching TV and I saw a commercial for some new phone. As hip music played in the background, a montage of visuals rolled through, demonstrating all the ways in which a person’s life would be improved if they were to buy this particular phone. We’ve all seen such commercials; standard operating procedure.

One scene in particular caught my attention and stuck with me. A crowded arena full of concert-goers held their phones in the air, snapping photos of a faraway musician rocking out on stage. Hundreds of fictional douchebags snapping shots of what was undoubtedly the best concert they’d ever attended.

Sometimes it’s better to live in the moment than to capture it.

That image, that notion, infuriated me.

I’m pretty sure my rage stems from the resentment I feel towards technology and those who possess it. See, I’ve been taking photos for a long time. In grade school I ran around with a little 110 camera, and quickly learned it was really only useful with the natural light of outdoor settings. By middle school, I had acquired a 35mm, which meant I now had flashbulbs and could shoot pictures indoors. During my high school years, I moved on to video, taking my little VHS-C camera with me everywhere I went. And I do mean everywhere. Of course, VHS-C won’t play in a VCR, so I learned how to transfer all my home movies to standard VHS.

My love of capturing images went on like this. I have owned so many different cameras and camcorders over the years; I have boxes of photos and video tapes.

But then computers. And internet. And digital.

In the beginning, hardcore photographers laughed it off. Scoffed even. Digital was shit. Who cares? But the technology kept getting better. Digital images started looking good. Digital printouts started looking good. Using actual film started to seem…silly. Now any dumbass with a phone can take a pretty good-looking picture. You used to have to go to school to learn that.

So now everyone’s a photographer. Whether for documentation or art. We’re all snapping photos of everything, from our food, to our friends, to our concerts. Is that why that commercial upset me? Because photography is no longer a quirky hobby that “artists” pursue, but instead an expected part of daily life? I’m sure that’s part of it, but there’s more.

I got to thinking about our brains, as a society. Our brains, and our process. As we become more and more entwined with internet culture, we also become more and more detached from real life. We are more excited about emails than conversations. We would rather peruse random videos from all over the world than enjoy a single experience from the real world. I’m a part of this as well, so I’m not judging.

I can understand wanting to capture the moment. I’ve done it for years. But as someone who has done a lot of band photography, let me explain something. Taking pictures at a show is so different than simply being at the show. Holding a camera changes how you act and react. You become so concerned with getting that one shot that you miss out on the essence of the overall experience. Which is why that commercial bummed me out. There used to be a roomful of people loving the band, and one or two photographers taking pictures. Now everyone takes pictures, and who is really enjoying the show? It’s not real; it’s not pure.

So I put down my camera. I haven’t taken any pictures in a month. When I see some great graffiti, I have to stop, look, and remember. When I go to a show, I close my eyes and really listen to the music. When something hilarious happens, I just sit back and laugh, enjoying the moment. It’s made me remember how great it is to simply remember. A month without taking any photos has been a tough challenge for myself, and pretty soon I’ll be documenting the world again. But I’ll think about it a little differently. Sometimes it’s better to live in the moment than to capture it.

Digital Strategy Sessions - Clarify online strategy, streamline systems, and detangle tech
Avatar photo

About Billy McCall

Billy has been writing and self-publishing since middle school, and isn’t about to stop now. His main realm of expertise is zines, but he has also written for various magazines and newspapers over the years, published one novel, and even writes the occasional song. Currently he is living in New Mexico with his dog and two type-writers. He considers hand-written letters to be the highest form of flattery.


  1. Elene on November 22, 2014 at 12:43 am

    I agree with you. Sometimes taking pictures can paradoxically prevent you from actually seeing what’s around you.

  2. Tonya Kay on November 22, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Last night I gave away my last film camera on Freecycle. Because I simply don’t use it anymore.

    About 15 years ago I did the same thing as you’re doing now. I was on tour w STOMP and wound up on a dark day hike in the magnificent Pacific North West. I was alone in the Oregon woods so enthralled w the beauty, this artist wanted to capture it to remember it forever. Until I realized I’d not LOOKED at the beauty w my bare eye thanks to my desire to remember it. I gave up my camera. Back then there weren’t camera phones yet. So I still had a cell phone to make calls to loved ones as I traveled. I have a notable lack of photographs for all of my STOMP touring days through my first five years in LA. Sort of sad cause the adventures I had in the road and in LA WERE GREAT AND I SORT OF WISH I COULD REMEMBER THEM BETTER. BUT THATS ALSO WHY I KEPT a journal (http://tonyakay.com/journal/ – damn caps lock).

    Finally I upgraded to an iPhone way after the rest of the world and holy shit – this camera is amazing, right?!? But having the equipment does not an artist make. But if you are already an artist, what a gorgeous tool technology is for creation at your finger tips!

    I attend a lot of metal and rock concerts. And ask the douchebags blocking my view by holding up their rain cameras to enjoy the show w their eyes so the test of us can too. Total douchebags!

    • Avatar photo Sage Harrington on November 22, 2014 at 1:29 pm

      I feel like social media totally pressures us to do just this – capture all these moments that we’re not fully experiencing or enjoying. It’s like being pulled out of your real life and into a weird second digital life. And that’s part of the reason why I’ve been resisting really working with social media for sooo long. But Tonya, you do such a great job at keeping in touch with people through all these various platforms (your blogs! fb! twitter! google+! etc!) and I’m trying to get over myself and attempt to do as good a job as you do. :)

  3. Maggie on November 26, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Yeah, I think social media really encourages us to put our life on display, and curate the content to seem cool, interesting. That’s why it is so hard to resist, say, taking a picture at a concert. I get it even if something about seems a little removed and inauthenticating.

  4. Joe Cardillo on December 8, 2014 at 4:29 pm

    You know, I’ve thought about this now and then while putting together DIY shows over the years. I suspect it’s really about that editorial tension that exists for all of us, web or no web. Can’t have both complete participation and editorial lens exact same time. I think we all get to decide which is important to us in a given moment, but I will say that for smaller things I don’t necessarily encourage people to document what’s happening. Especially online, since narrating and editorializing your feelings can create some very fast and very complex feedback loops.

  5. billy on December 9, 2014 at 1:59 am

    I think we all have some urge to document life, especially our own lives. That’s where history books come from, all through time people have had the urge and need to record what’s going on around them. It’s important! But in the past 20 or 30 years I think technology has allowed us to document EVERYTHING, and with such ease, that it becomes confusing as to what is important and what isn’t. We all have to go about life and enjoy it in our own ways, and for me sometimes that means taking pictures, or writing stories, and some times it just means looking around and enjoying the moment.

  6. enchantedbitcoins on December 16, 2014 at 8:23 am

    Billy: thrilling as always to see your byline and read your thoughts. You are without a doubt one of my favorite Albuquerque writers. Keep going, man.

  7. […] version of this living in the 21st century was that my spirit connected to that ethos, while rejecting technological advancements of […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.