Do digital cameras damage or enhance memory?

tumblr kx4m70qscm1qadzmoo1 500 Do digital cameras damage or enhance memory?

Isn’t this photo amazing? You couldn’t recreate it if you tried.

This photo was obviously taken at a baseball game, so there was no doubt lots of cameras around, but it got me to thinking how much of our lives nowadays are recorded because of how readily available storage has become.

As storage space becomes more and more cheap, will there come a point in time where almost no point of our lives won’t be recorded. Today, using some simple technology and the storage capacity you probably own already, you could record every conversations you have for a week.

In twenty years from now will people be recording everything they hear, say and see, a la Justin.TV, simply because they don’t want to miss recording a golden moment? How will this impact people’s memories of moment? Will memories be more poignant and important because of that?

When I was 19, I spent six months living in the US as a snowboard instructor. This was before the days when digital cameras were affordable, so I had a simple Kodak film camera. It was brilliant, I could easily put it in my pocket and take photos of my pathetic attempts at freestyle snowboarding, the parties I went to and the beautiful sites I saw. In the six months I was there, I got my way through four 24 shot films. That is 96 photographs, some people, Simone McDermid I am looking at you, post that many from a night out with friends.

When I got back to Australia from my US trip and developed my photos I dutifully wrote on the back of them, threw out the badly shots ones and put the good ones into a photo album. I still look at that album. The memories are still so very real. The moments I remember. Perhaps that is because I didn’t spend many of those moments behind a camera lens, maybe because our mind only needs a few pointers to make us remember? I am not sure.

I recently spent three months travelling through Central Asia and China. I took a considerable number of photos, sometimes 200 a day, which I edited down and posted on Flickr. The time spent behind the lens on this trip compared with my trip to America would have been 100 fold or more even though it was only half as long. The recent trip is still vivid in my memory, but I wonder how it will compare down the track.

Will the sheer number of photographic memories of the trip help me better remember the trip to America with hardly any evidence? I am not sure. What do you think?

HT – Masami Kito for alerting me via Posterous to this image.If you enjoyed this post why not subscribe to my blog via RSS or email by following this link. Also whilst you’re at it why not follow me on Twitter .

  • Chelle

    Moreover do we spend more time now looking at a sunset thru a lens rather than looking at the sunset itself?

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  • matthewgain

    Yes agreed Chelle. Has the act of capturing beautiful moments outweighed the actual moment itself.

  • Gavin Heaton

    It's not the pictures that count – but the stories behind them. It only takes a moment to snap a picture – but even in that moment, we remove ourselves from lived experience. We are somehow distanced from the present moment.

    In many ways, it is a shame. But the value that comes from reliving moments is well worth it.

  • matthewgain

    Yes agreed Gavin. Perhaps that is why I look back at the US trip pics so often. The memories that flood back are awesome and in hindsight well worth the time I took myself out of the moment to capture.

  • matthewgain

    A comment here from Simone – mentioned above that she posted to me on Facebook:

    Simone McDermid
    Ha. I somehow knew I would be named in this post as soon as I saw the topic. Glad I could be a conversation starter. For me there is nothing better than hanging with ur mates after a night out and reminiscing about the night that was. I call it bonding with mates over a few funny pics. The digital age definately has that voyeristic approach too. I … wont deny that. No one is going to post a bad pic of themselves online knowing everyone is watching. Im a leo too so don't mind being the centre of attention. Although I do know when it is appropriate to stop taking pics and just enjoy the moment too. A friend I recenty travelled with in Thailand was so caught up in taking photos that she forgot to take in the amazing sunset or scene before her ( she fell in the river trying to take a pic and was punished!) and that's what I think about that… :-)

  • wonderwebby

    Interesting thoughts!

    It probably also depends on how we want to remember and recreate scenarios.

    For instance, I remember visiting a popular wedding photographer many years ago when we were looking for someone to take photos of our big day. One in particular stood out, but not for the right reasons. Page after page, album after album – every single wedding party – looked the same. The same "jump in the air and smile" shot. The same "walk down the laneway, turn back and smile" shot. It repulsed me that so many people were choosing to spend this special day posing for moments which never really happened, so they could have a book full of empty memories.

    Our wedding album is full of stories. In fact you have reminded me to write them down.

    Now that we have children, I'm cautious not to make them hyper-aware of the cameras recording their lives. I'd like to think that the lens can enhance our lives without being too intrusive :)

  • Ingrid

    Hi there Matt… love this blog entry!

    I was only discussing this idea on our recent trip to NZ when I had to stop and laugh at myself for worrying about running out of space on two 1GB SD memory cards This is roughly 2000 photos, or in old film terms about 84 rolls! If you ever saw an amateur photographer carrying around that much film on holiday you'd probably think they had lost the plot. Back in the days when we used regular film (in the dark ages prior to 2003), when there was no 'delete' button, we were forced to choose the moments to capture more wisely because, god forbid, you didn't want to waste a photo! Compared with today, I guess it equates to quality over quantity. Don't get me wrong, I am besotted with the digital age and love the freedom that digital photography provides to experiment and retake shots that don't work out. On the flip side, I wonder if this effects how we remember a moment because we always erase the bad shots and keep the ones where we look like professional models – not exactly an accurate account of reality!

    I must add that am always surprised at gigs at the sight of hundreds of little square screens of digital cameras and mobile phones waving about – many a time have I felt like snatching one away and saying "don't you think 200 blurry photos of the band is enough? Make a memory for god's sake!"

    Have we become so concerned about saving things for later that perhaps we don't enjoy things as much as we possibly could at the time? Could we be losing the art of living in the moment?

    Makes you wonder why our minds would continue to bother making memories if we can store them all somewhere else.

    PS. All the best on Saturday!

  • Michael Litman

    I took a slightly different angle with this when I read it via Posterous. I see it as a change in habits and lifestyle by not cataloguing memories as much anymore.. Or maybe we do, but it's not as long term.

    So this is something I've been thinking about recently too. We don't print out images on our camera any more. When I was back home recently for a weekend, dad took me through a load of old family photo albums from when my brother and I were younger. It was nostalgic, it captured the memories perfectly. I think it's a shame now with the way things have gone digitally with cameras we lose memories because of the more throwaway nature of it all. If you don't take the photos off your camera they are in a way lost forever. Then there's the case of taking all your photos off the camera, putting them on to your computer and your hard drive dying. With the HD dying, those memories do too.

    I like it how Polaroid seems to be reinventing themselves, getting Lady Gaga on board etc because I like the concept. Instantly printed photos. But the photo quality isn't as good as say your conventional 8MP+ digital camera. If Polaroid teamed up with Carl Zeiss and did some super sweet instantly printable photo camera I'd be there like a shot.