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Moments Can’t Be Captured

Deer tracks

“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”

~Cesare Pavese

By six o’clock on a Sunday night, the streets of Invermere were deserted.  It was early fall, the middle of dead season for a skier’s town, and I was trotting down to the highway to hitchhike back up the mountain, to the resort where I lived and worked.  It had rained earlier, and the damp streets were glowing with one final hour of of sun before it ducked behind the mountains.

I’d spent the day in town, alone, on what was as much a photo-taking excursion as a grocery run.  Walking along a silent residential street, I passed an overgrown picket fence, peered nosily into the adjacent yard, and saw something that made me stop.

Not six feet away, a female deer was dining on someone’s flowerbed.  Deer are common in British Columbia, and strangely unafraid of people in the town of Invermere, but it’s rare to ever be this close to one.  It must have known I was there, but it wasn’t alarmed my by presence.  I just stared.

As if to invite me to join her, she lifted her head from the flowerbed and looked at me, with a wilted purple flower hanging from her mouth.

And my camera was already right in my hand.

I paused, and suddenly felt an anxiety swell inside me.  To even just carefully flip on my camera and raise it for a photo might scare it away.  But it was such a priceless photo op.  I didn’t know what to do, so I continued to not move a muscle.

While I was stressing about how to get this photo, she cocked her head and looked at me curiously, like I was just some strange, awkward deer.  I just about burst out laughing.

At this point I decided there would be no picture, and suddenly felt a tremendous relief.  I would just watch, and not worry about trying to take this moment with me.

She ducked her head back in the mess of frost-ravaged flowers and continued chewing for a moment as I looked on, probably smiling, so pleased to know that this spectacle was just for me.  After a while she walked away, unhurriedly but not aimlessly, much more akin to a person than a deer.

I recovered from my trance, and headed down to thumb a ride before the sun was gone.  A jeep quickly pulled over and I jumped in.

I thought about the deer all the way up but I didn’t mention it to the driver.  He was an easygoing maintenance guy up on the resort.  We talked about football.

When I arrived home, I ended up not telling my friends either.  It was over, and was just a story now.  They would never be able to appreciate it how magical it was.  They would probably say, “Oh, cool,” and somehow the whole experience would become that much less cool to me.  So I kept the experience all to myself.  Now that I think of it, I never actually ever told anybody, and that was seven years ago.

There was just something so fulfilling about not trying to ‘cash in’ on it by telling the story.  I’m only relating it now because it illustrates the point I want to make so well.

The Urge to Own Moments

I’ve had that same kind of “camera anxiety” many times since, and I know I’m not the only one.  I’ve heard other people talk about this.  They see something beautiful or touching, maybe a sunset, an animal, or a tearful speech, and the urge arises to capture it with a camera.  Look what’s happening! Don’t let it get away!

Sometimes we want so badly to capture a remarkable moment in progress, that we introduce an unnecessary anxiousness to our experience of it.  Anxiety is a dead giveaway that we are not entirely present for it, because half our attention is in ‘later’ mode.  I need to save this.  I need to have it for later, not just now.

Many times I haven’t been entirely present in these special moments because I’m concerned that I won’t get a good shot.  I flip the camera on, switch to the right settings, shuffle to the right angle, and hope it’s still remarkable by the time I’m ready to take the picture.

When I really think about that impulse, it’s quite an arrogant one.  What I’m really trying to do is own that moment, so I can show it off to others, or perhaps just indulge in it later whenever I feel like it.  I want to steal those bears and archways and waterfalls from BC or Montreal or Mexico and hoard them in my computer, as if that would actually make them mine.

So many of my photo albums are full of exactly that: dead images of mountains, beaches, trees and buildings that all humbled me when I was actually in their presence, but none of which confer any of that magic through their portraits.  Hopefully I enjoyed them in real time before I took my camera out.polaroid-china

As I show a series of travel pictures to friends and family, usually most get flipped through without eliciting a comment from anyone.  It’s just another palm tree or person waving or church steeple.  And most albums only get looked at once.  Yet at the time I probably felt like I was somehow immortalizing my experience.

Now I won’t knock the remarkable ability good photographers have to communicate volumes with an incredible photograph, but I think “capturing a moment” is a largely a myth.  A captured image can invoke torrents of emotion and suggest a touching narrative, but it can’t take you back to the moment, especially if you weren’t there in the first place.

Good pictures do pull all sorts of compelling emotions, opinions and stories out of our brains — different ones from different viewers — but those are all just projections, assumptions about the moment the picture came from.  Some may be appropriate, others completely misplaced.  The moment itself was over as soon as it happened.

We Don’t Always Need Souvenirs

How amazing it would be if we could let the experience itself be enough, however long or short it may be, and let go of the need to try and make a possession of it.  To let the sun go down when it pleases, to leave the waterfall where we found it, to let the deer slink away into the trees without a trace.  Wouldn’t that be the ultimate acknowledgment that it was, indeed, amazing?

A former girlfriend was fond of saying, in our most blissful moments, “I wish we could bottle this.”  I knew exactly what she meant, it’s a lovely thought.  Sometimes the moment was just so perfect, you’d be struck with the notion that most of the rest of life couldn’t live up to it, and it would be nice to have a little stash of that beauty and bliss for later.  On closer examination, that common sentiment is tinged with fear, the fear that the experience will soon be lost.  And of course, it always will be.

I wanted to bottle it too.  But you can’t.  It flows when it flows, and there’s nothing in the world that can contain it, so you’d better really be there when it does.


Photos by Greencolander and Strevo

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Lisis July 16, 2009 at 7:07 am

This reminds me of a trip we took to New England last fall. We went to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, specifically to see the fiery orange, red and yellow colored trees the area is so famous for. We have seasons in Georgia, but not quite as stunning.

When we were in the plane on our way up there, I realized we had not brought the camera! My first thought was, “What kind of idiot goes to New England in the fall and doesn’t bring a camera?” But then I realized it was probably a blessing, because it would force me to really live it and experience it and remember it… rather than spend all my time looking at it through a lens and trying fruitlessly to “capture it”.

Daryl Ryman said, “Your mind is the best camera… Go out and take some beautiful pictures.”
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..The Danger of Jumping to Conclusions =-.

Shamelle- TheEnhanceLife July 16, 2009 at 7:12 am

Most “hallmark moments in life” are engraved in our heads.

As you say, we don’t always need souvenirs..

P.S: I like the way you managed to relate a personal event into the post.
.-= Shamelle- TheEnhanceLife´s last blog ..Less Busy, More Productive – Is It Possible? =-.

John July 16, 2009 at 8:29 am

A very well written post David. I normally don’t carry a camera with me to capture the “hallmark” moments, but reading this, I feel as if it doesn’t matter as much. As Lisis and Shamelle said, use your mind to “take the pictures”.

Not to say that I’m going to through my camera out and refuse to be in a personal photo for the rest of my life, but the moment lived is more important than the picture being taken.
.-= John´s last blog ..Napoleon Dynamite’s Tips to Stop Living in the Past =-.

Tammy-Cricket July 16, 2009 at 8:39 am

What a beautiful post. I agree with this very much. This is coming from a person that carries her camera with her everywhere she goes. I have slowly learned to just keep my camera settings to “auto” mode. I do agree that certain images are better left in the mind but I have also seen as time passes how many things leave the mind. I know a picture can sometimes trigger thoughts, happy emotions, etc. I’ve often heard, “If a picture could talk.” Well, we all know if a picture could talk then it couldn’t tell the full story.

I have always been opposed to my children coming home with those school mug shots. I like to take them in action, usually in auto mode, and just let there true smiles come through.

I guess balance is key. So many of us with cameras do get carried away with the “shot” rather than the true picture…the moment.

Nate @ ItStartsWith.Us July 16, 2009 at 8:50 am

David, I always think of this when one of my kids has a birthday or there’s some other special occasion. I think it’s important to snap some pictures to put in the album so everyone can remember later (we like looking back at old photos at my grandma’s house), but definitely not at the expense of losing the moment.

I liked what you said about “just another palm tree, church steeple, etc.” I guess my theory is to capture a few images, but don’t worry too much about it – even the ones you spend time trying to make “perfect” won’t be.
.-= Nate @ ItStartsWith.Us´s last blog ..Thank You =-.

Positively Present July 16, 2009 at 9:08 am

Such a great post! I really, really liked this one. When I was younger, I always felt like I needed pictures or souvenirs to remember a moment or a vacation, but as I get older I realize that I don’t need these things. Sure, they’re nice sometimes, but what really matters is what I remember and how that moment made me feel. I don’t need to own it. I just need to be in it. Wonderful post. Really, it’s great!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..7 ways to celebrate summer =-.

Nadia - Happy Lotus July 16, 2009 at 9:19 am

Hi David,

Thank you so much for this post. I have never been a fan of taking pictures since I was in college. The brain will capture the memory and the actual memory is so much more powerful than a picture of it. The amazing thing is that when you recall a memory, the body responds as if it is happening for the first time. So there truly is no need for an actual picture. The first time I knew I was in love with my husband is a memory I cherish, there is no way I could have taken such a picture.

Ironically, when we went to Hawaii last year, we bought a camera because we figured the pictures would be handy for my blog. So here we were taking pictures even though neither one of us cares for it. I will admit the pictures have been used on my blog often but when I think of our time there, I always remember the things that touched me and there are no pictures of those moments.

I babbled again…apologies, I have been dealing with a respiratory infection for a week and have been stuck at home ever since. So I am all full of words!
.-= Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog ..Dear God…It’s Me Again =-.

Suzanne July 16, 2009 at 10:04 am

So true….yet something I didn’t really “get” until now. And, funny enough, I’ve just been dealing with the whole “do I take pictures or not” debate in my head lately. I think I’ll stick with memory photographs because they really are so much sweeter. :-)
.-= Suzanne´s last blog ..Taking Care of Your Home is TCOY =-.

Valerie July 16, 2009 at 11:24 am

“Anxiety is a dead giveaway that we are not entirely present.” I like that! I’m trying to improve my photography skills and enjoying this journey. But I appreciate the reminder to “be present” in the beauty. Concentrate on the beauty not the perfect shot. Thanks.

David July 16, 2009 at 12:52 pm

@ Lisis — I have also had the blessing of forgetting my camera on a few trips. When I’m traveling and seeing the sites, the responsibility of taking pictures seems to steal a bit of my attention away from whatever I’m doing (not to mention the thought of leaving my camera somewhere).

@ Shamelle — That’s right, and sometimes it’s nicer if there isn’t a static photo to define those memories for us. Pearl Jam famously stopped making music videos because they didn’t want their fans’ memories of the songs to be defined by certain images.

@ John — No, I will never stop taking pictures either. I love photos, but I don’t want to miss any actual experiences in favor of a photograph.

@ Tammy — Haha, I never liked the “mug shots” either. I remember it was such a big day, “picture day.” But they were always really contrived, with the silly backdrop and lighting. I think at some point my family agreed that we just wouldn’t bother with them anymore.

@ Nate — For sure, and I’ll always have my camera with me at occasions, but it takes a conscious effort not to let it cost me any real experience.

@ Dani — Thanks Dani. When I take my big trip I’ll end up with thousands of pictures, but my primary purpose will always be to be there, not to conquer “there.”

@ Nadia — It’s refreshing to hear that you don’t feel that common ‘need’ to take pictures, I think that puts you in the minority. Like I said, I think that proves that you are all about the experience itself and not the ego trip of “owning” it. I love your long comments, Nadia, I don’t see any babbling at all.

@ Suzanne — Hi Suzanne. Memory can also be a satisfying way to reflect on an experience, but it doesn’t exactly reproduce it either. They fade and distort over time. It’s kind of sad to think about, but experiences are over as soon as they’re over. I figure if we can be really present as they’re happening, we’ll have the most complete memories possible.

@ Valerie — I’m learning that anxiety is always some form of attachment, a desire masquerading as a reall need. I can’t really speak for anyone else, but capturing photos often pops up in my mind as a need, and that anxiety is a big red flag that it’s there.

Isabel July 16, 2009 at 2:34 pm

David, you have painted such a beautiful word picture of the deer that I can see her too. Thank you for sharing that moment.

Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching July 16, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Thanks for this David. It does seem that as human beings we spend a lot of time thinking “I want to avoid this moment” or “I want to cling to this moment,” and either one creates suffering. “Remember how great it was back then” is often just another way of saying “I want back then more than right now.”

Lori July 16, 2009 at 11:03 pm

Very interesting observations and insights, David. I felt like I could feel the deer’s gaze in my mind’s eye. Thanks for sharing that today.

My husband and I rarely take a camera with us on vacations or family outings. As you mention, the photographed moment never captures feelings, smells, sounds, perceptions, etc. etc.

Honestly, I look back at the few photos I own and, more often than not, feel more sadness than happiness (i.e., I loved that place/concert/reunion/marathon/etc. and I’ll never see it again).

Here’s to living in the moment! Cheers!

suzen July 17, 2009 at 8:03 am

Love this! I’ve always questioned, with raised eyebrow, the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s not the picture, as you beautifully pointed out, it is the Moment! We couldn’t afford a video camera when the kids were little but the one I have really handy in my HEAD works just fine. Sometimes I think we clutter our existence with “stuff” that isn’t really necessary – we already have everything we need!

Glen Allsopp July 17, 2009 at 10:35 am

Congratulations on making the PHQ homepage!

.-= Glen Allsopp´s last blog ..Reaching Cloud 9 Doesn’t Require Clouds 1-8 =-.

Josh Hanagarne July 17, 2009 at 10:57 am

Beautiful post, David. thanks as always. Seeing what you’ve come up with is always one of my favorite parts of the day.
.-= Josh Hanagarne´s last blog ..Book Review: Mr. America =-.

Kim July 17, 2009 at 11:44 am

A beautiful post. I think that you need to find some balance. Photo’s and momento’s are great to trigger memories, but too much and they start to lose their specialness.
I had to go through some old photo albums (the real thing) the other day to find some material for a post and looking back at the old pictures brought back great memories. Yet, I also have found that I get “pictured out” and wonder why I haven’t taken any pictures for a while – I just can’t be bothered!
.-= Kim´s last blog ..Blogging Update =-.

David July 17, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Mom — Thanks mom. I wonder if the deer told anyone about it.

Chris — Very insightful as always Chris. It’s really about attachment, not photography, and attachment creates suffering. There is a certain kind of sadness I was trying to describe, the kind you might get when you are experiencing something that you know will not last.

Lori — I really have to try taking a trip without a camera someday. So far I’ve only done that by accident. But when I do I do feel a bit freer and lighter.

Suzen — We do all have state-of-the-art recording devices mounted on our necks, it’s true.

Glen — Thanks Glen. And thanks to Lisis for her nomination ;)

Josh — What a nice thing to say Josh. Glad you liked it.

Kim — Quite often I take a trip and end up taking very few pictures. I just can’t be bothered, and after a few days I just give up on the idea of documenting the trip with photographs.

Jess July 20, 2009 at 10:04 pm

This post really put things into perspective for me.

I first picked up a digital camera several years ago, and was immediately hooked. Photography has since grown into one of my greatest passions, and I take my camera practically everywhere.

Now, I really wish this post came out before June 20th, when Coldplay came to Vancouver, because I could of used the advice!

In the months prior to the concert, my bank account was pretty close to zero, and without some last minute babysitting jobs, I wouldn’t have had enough money for the ticket. Anyways, on the night 20th, I was exuberant. Not only did I have good seats, but I’d have my good camera as well — which of course would result in photos better than anyone else with their little cellphone cams. All I can say is that by the time I got home I was heartbroken; I had watched at least 1/3 of the concert through my Canon’s LCD screen. And all for what? Proof? Gloating? To be honest, I’m not really sure, because the photo’s didn’t even turn out that great.

Basically, what I’m trying to say, is that you’re dead on. JPEGs and pixels will NEVER outdo what you’ve got stored in the mind.
.-= Jess´s last blog ..Peas Today, Potatoes Tomorrow =-.

David July 21, 2009 at 9:27 am

Jess — Aw, I hope you still had a good time. I actually went to Coldplay when they were here and I was surprised how many people around me were recording the concert with their cell phones. The stage lights and effects were very cool, and I understand the urge to want to share them later, but I’ve learned that concerts and fireworks just don’t translate into photo (or at least my photos.)

I did something similar at a wedding recently. I watched most of the best man’s speech through my camera’s LCD as I tried to capture it on video, and realized I was totally missing the very thing that I thought was too important not to have on video! I was watching a tiny 3-inch version of it when it was there, live. So I put it away and just watched, and felt relieved.

jeff July 21, 2009 at 10:38 am

“He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.”

(William Blake)

Perhaps in taking photographs we are trying to ‘bind’ the moment to ourselves and in so doing ‘destroy’ it.

The other side of the coin is the pleasure of the photo album with friends…the weddings, the baptisms, the rites of passage,Christmas pageants and birthdays, the aunts and uncles in their youthful prime who passed on before we were even born, ourselves and others as children, adolescents. Here Soul is nourished with nostalgia, memory and reflection, rather then the the needs of the Spirit for timeless eternity, the perfection of the eternal present, escape form all the constarints of what it perceieves as projections, assumptions, maya.

‘There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album)’.

(T S Eliot ‘East Coker’)

For me neither is better, but part of the eternal dance between Spirit and Soul. The Spirit’s recognition of the present moment in all its pristine intensity and the Soul”s imagination, rooted in stories and images of the past. The evening under starlight and the evening under lamplight, both necessary.
.-= jeff´s last blog ..Medicine Buddha =-.

CK July 2, 2010 at 7:07 am

Better than any picture, that story about the deer.

Reu Ben January 19, 2011 at 1:00 pm

I completely relate to this!
I’m an aspiring photographer and even after years of practice shooting landscapes, pictures can never capture that feeling of being in the presence of something grand and spectacular. Like the Rocky mountains in Colorado or simply walking and being a part of the endless flow of people in downtown Manhattan.

David January 19, 2011 at 3:28 pm

You said it. I love a good image, but images are no substitute for moments.

Jeff December 29, 2012 at 4:29 pm

As an avid photographer, I completely agree with this. I often remind myself to “capture this moment” before shooting a photo.

A former photography teacher of mine stressed the importance of taking fewer, and only “composed” shots rather than hundreds of “point of shoot” photos.

This practice has helped my photography and also helped keep me stay present in the moment.

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