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? 😉