Chandelier in the Hermitage Art Museum

A Simple Thought on Documenting Less, Experiencing More

Three years ago, I was lucky enough to visit the the most famous art museum in St. Petersburg, Russia — the Hermitage — housed in what was formerly the Winter Palace.

It was just as much a monument to beauty as you might expect, except for one thing. Something that rather tarnished the experience overall, and which made me appreciate those museums that forbid photography.

I have this clear memory of standing in the Leonardo da Vinci Room near the tiny “Benois Madonna,” and you had to stand on your toes just to see it because of the swarms of tourists. Not so bad, except they weren’t looking at it — not really. Instead of standing by and taking in the wonder of it, they were straining to get a perfect snapshot before dashing off to the next one.

And I thought, Really?

…followed by, Man, how often do I do exactly the same thing?

How often have I been so worried about capturing beauty that I don’t even see it as it stands before me?

When we behave like this, we ruin the experience of beauty — not just for others, but for ourselves. Instead of enjoying the moment, we’re worried about documenting it to show off to others.

We don’t just do it on tours, but at weddings, at family gatherings, at momentous occasions of all sorts. Don’t get me wrong — being able to take photos at such moments, in order to preserve the memory, is a great gift. But taking a photo should be just that: a souvenir of the moment. When getting the souvenir supplants the moment itself, something has gone wrong.

Taking photos seems to have become a form of trophy hunting, where we hunt down the perfect shot in the spirit of conquering and “capturing” an idealized image to take home and show off to others. Travel and experience then become notches in the belt, rather than things meant to leave deep impressions on our souls.

Again, I’m as guilty as anyone else. It’s hard to resist. With the availability of camera phones and social media, many of us have this compulsive need to document and announce everything, as if publishing it for our friends’ affirmation could make the experience more real and tangible. As if without a post to give it a shareable form, the moment didn’t “count.”

But life is not meant to be lived through photographs. Life is meant to be, you know, lived.

Beauty like that in the Hermitage — or at your wedding, or on your hike through the woods — deserves to be seen, taken in, and contemplated. It is meant to be experienced in the soul.

By all means, take a photo to remember your experience … but after you’ve had an experience worth remembering.

I will repeat, though, that taking photos on your travels isn’t a bad thing. How do you think I got that nice cover photo? 😉

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6 thoughts on “A Simple Thought on Documenting Less, Experiencing More

  1. I agree totally. I recently had this same revelation as I was struggling to take pictures of my daughters dance recital–and realized I was missing everything! There was a time when people didn’t have cell phones or cameras and they just had to remember. Maybe they were better off.
    So what I really want to know is, did you see the whole museum in one day? That place is huge! 🙂

    • Definitely not! 🙂 It was so huge. We were taken around to see some of the highlights, which took hours in itself. What I liked best about the Hermitage was that the palace itself was stunningly beautiful, above and beyond the exhibitions inside.

  2. So true! I also appreciate museums that forbid photography, not because I mind other people taking pictures, but because it takes that photo-taking-pressure off for me personally. I’m not worrying if I should be taking a picture of this or that thing or not, because I’m not allowed to!

    There is a kind of weird compulsion about it… I try to avoid feeling it but I’m also not perfect and have been known to run around snapping pics of everything! What I do try to do is limit the number I take, and also to prioritise pictures of people (i.e. family and friends) and unique moments because those are the ones I most enjoy looking at later, or that I regret not taking.

    • Yes! There’s a certain pressure to do it, like … because you CAN, and because you might regret *not* doing it later, you must! Plus, I have to admit, sometimes I just like taking photos. There’s a kind of pleasure in capturing just the right moment, the right color or angle, etc.

  3. I’ve thought about this before, too. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to go to England, and I had to constantly remind myself to enjoy what was right before me, and not trying to take as many pictures as I could. I still took a lot of pictures, but I tried to do so quickly, and spend the rest of the time appreciating the beauty before me. Thanks for this insightful post!

    • Oh, I totally still take tons of pictures, but trying, like you, to do it quickly and un-obnoxiously. 😉 If nothing else, this is a good thing to keep in mind, just to keep our photo-taking compulsions in check. Thanks for reading!

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