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Pics or It Didn't Happen! Making Memory and Meaning in the Age of Overload

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Read Time: 15 min

A Photograph Not Taken

Several years ago, I visited a watchmaker in Rotterdam. I was living in the Netherlands at the time, but was unfamiliar with the standard that European craftsmen brought to their trade. On the main floor of a century home was a modest sitting room for waiting clients; the watchmaker’s working area was visible through the archway. As I waited in the sitting room, the sun streamed in the windows, illuminating dust motes floating on the still air. I could see the watchmaker bent over his desk, carrying out my repair. He wore a white cotton coat over a shirt and tie. The room was peaceful with the quiet ticking of a few clocks the only sound.

I later told a colleague about this moment—watching the watchmaker in his world—and told him that I just couldn't take a photograph. The experience felt bigger and richer than I could capture on film. My colleague was stunned, and commented that I should run right back and take some photographs. I didn't. Fifteen years later, I can remember every detail and sensory experience of my visit to the watchmaker. No doubt, I could have captured some beautiful photographs to share with others, but had I focused on that, I'm certain I would have missed a great deal of the experience I recall.

I believe that a key skill for photographers is knowing when not to take a picture. Sometimes, it’s a matter of respecting an intimate or emotionally charged moment by staying out of it, allowing the scene to pass and become a memory, or be forgotten altogether. Sometimes, lighting or perspective limits us from capturing the picture, or rules prohibit photography. Depending upon the circumstance, we may be asked not to take any photographs. Or, as in my situation, we elect to embrace the moment, knowing that shifting our attention to taking a picture would rob us of some aspect of the experience. 

The Tyranny of The Present

Photographs were, once, the record of a unique encounter with the world. They were a way to save and contemplate the moment. It was, at some deep level, a somatic, visceral reaction to a tiny patch of universe unfolding in front of us. It was human. You could hold in your hand the physical manifestation of a photon.

Much of photography today is about a never-ending series of status updates. It's autobifictionalography: a way to build our semi-true digital identity, marking our place and creating our stories in the digital stream of life. Photographs keep our virtual social presence alive.

Social media connects us in an increasingly busy, complex world, but the connections are fleeting. Everything we say online is preserved on some digital server somewhere but, beyond a first scan or look, it's unlikely that anyone but ourselves (if that) will ever look at our online memories again. To sustain our connections, we need to keep adding to our stories. To keep our virtual social presence alive, we need more photographs. In many ways, the content of the images we share is irrelevant; it's the data associated with the image that matters. What you share does not count as much as the fact that you're sharing.

Reify, or Die

This demand for images—"pics or it didn't happen"—inverts photography: stories and experiences that aren't shared are devalued. The ephemeral and uncatchable experiences are ignored. What was once a challenge to prove an unbelievable or outlandish claim with photographic evidence is now a demand: we expect pictures at all times, no matter how mundane the occasion. 

Photography has become one of life's constant interruptions. We interrupt our experiences by taking photographs and we take photographs that will pop in a world of interruptions. Photography now is speculative and fantastic: it's about creating an arresting image for a virtual world. Photography is not about what happened in the world; it's about contributing to what's happening, right now, on social media. 

We expect digital photography to interrupt the normal flow of life at all times and on all occasions. The result is not that we have better records of events but that we feed our skepticism, distort our perceptions, and cheat our memories. We're drowning in an endless scroll of images.

People taking pictures with smartphones Photography by Kim ColombiniPeople taking pictures with smartphones Photography by Kim ColombiniPeople taking pictures with smartphones Photography by Kim Colombini
"Picture Hunting" by Kim Colombini. Used with permission.


The Internet is such a fun place to be. It’s full of information we can sort with a quick search. We can share our opinions and experience instantly and widely (as will, of course, happen with this article), and we get a constant ping of affirmation in return.

But there are no checks and balances on the flow of information, no senior editor managing the publication flow and demanding fact checks. What we have, instead, are murky algorithms and the accelerating push of "likes," "favourites," and re-shares. As Demian Farnworth notes on Copyblogger, “The Internet ... has gone soft on fact. We love a good hoax. And we seem not to care so much when we are duped.”

But we do challenge:

“Went deep sea fishing and caught a fish large enough to feed everyone on the ship!”

Pics or it didn't happen! 

While the challenge is meant as a response to incredulous claims, the philosophy has come to inform our general perception of stories. We don’t believe or respond to stories until visual evidence fulfils the proof that something really did happen.

The 'Real' World

In February 2014, Ray Rice, the NFL running back, was arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend. The story fumbled along over the coming months with legally-mandated counselling and a game suspension for Rice, a press conference given by Rice and his now-wife, and some murmurings from the NFL about a “conduct policy.” What’s interesting is that a simple assault charge grew to become aggravated assault when a video emerged showing Rice knocking his girlfriend unconscious. When a second video later hit the media, showing more footage of Rice assaulting his girlfriend, what had been murmurings in the NFL of conduct policies became a very public “get tough on domestic violence” response. 

Similar scenarios have played out over the last months involving police shootings. Notably, in April 2015, a South Carolina police officer was arrested for shooting an unarmed suspect, Walter Scott, in the back as he ran away. Chargers were only laid, however, after a video of the incident surfaced and was published by the New York Times. The video contradicted the police officer’s official report.

In both cases, and countless others, the focus was on the pictures and who had what video evidence when. This was especially true in the Ray Rice case, in which the discussion was not about when the NFL knew there was a problem but when the NFL received and viewed video evidence of the problem. In both cases, problems were ignored or downplayed until video evidence surfaced, proving that something did happen.

Life as Performance

Even outside of the media, we don't attach significance to an occurrence unless it's photographed. Some New York City restaurants have banned photography in their restaurants in an attempt to minimize the disruption of so many customers trying to photograph their food. The disruption ranges from annoying other customers with the use of flash to climbing on chairs for a better perspective. Servers complain that snap-happy customers are complicating and slowing down service. Chefs complain that their efforts are wasted because food is cold or wilted by the time customers finish photographing the meals.

Wedding guest interrupts marriage ceremony to take a picture Photography by Kim ColombiniWedding guest interrupts marriage ceremony to take a picture Photography by Kim ColombiniWedding guest interrupts marriage ceremony to take a picture Photography by Kim Colombini
"Say 'I Do!'" by Kim Colombini. Used with permission.

Wedding photographers, brides and grooms, and officiants are frustrated with wedding guests inserting themselves into the picture, figuratively and literally, with smartphones and tablets raised to capture the event. Photographers can’t get the photographs they’ve been paid to capture; other guests can’t see past raised phones and tablets; and attention is diverted from the purpose of the event—the marriage ceremony. Many officiants and couples now routinely request that guests refrain from taking photographs, promising that professional photographs will be available to view after the wedding.

Much the same can be seen at tourist sites, concerts, sports events, and even in art galleries. We've been doing self-portraits for centuries, and for years, we've asked passers-by to take our pictures in front of famous tourist sites. But now, instead of looking at what we came to see, we have cameras raised to take pictures to prove our presence at whatever we are not seeing. Selfies are the ultimate prize of proof.

Group of actors photographed at the 2014 Oscars as a selfieGroup of actors photographed at the 2014 Oscars as a selfieGroup of actors photographed at the 2014 Oscars as a selfie
Ellen DeGeneris organized and posted on Twitter a group selfie taken at the 2014 Oscars. The post, a quintessential example of "pics or it didn't happen," was so popular it caused a brief collapse of Twitter.

If There’s a Picture, It Must Be True

If pictures prove information to be true, then pictures must also provide true information. We have begun to accept and react to the inference of pictures even to the exclusion of considering evidence. Taking pictures and posting them to social media has become a quick way to tell stories, context be damned. Further, the pictures can be taken and posted by anyone from any perspective. In today's news cycle, our information comes rapid fire—quick-pics shared in the moment. Only later, usually after the dust has cleared and only the committed are watching, do we get the story from professional journalists.

All of us are participating in a shifting culture—a picture-saturated, Internet-connected world.

According to the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from September 2014, almost all Americans (94%) followed at least some coverage of the ISIS executions. The images were startling—persuasive enough to influence public opinion. Even though American intelligence agencies reported that ISIS posed no immediate threat to the United States, 61 percent of Americans thought military action against ISIS was “in the national interest.” The pictures spoke louder than the evidence. Robinson Meyer commented in The Atlantic, “[A]s pundit after pundit decries the ISIS bombing as driven by politics and emotion, we can guess why: This is the power of the image in the global network.”

Before he was killed in Libya, photojournalist Tim Hetherington expressed his concern about the global power of images. He identified a link between fictional depictions of war influencing men in combat, and the men in combat influencing public opinion with images that replicate dramatized moments of war. Other photojournalists since have echoed Hetherington’s observations, raising concerns about the ability of an unimpeded flow of battlefield images to influence other wars, state policies, and public opinion.

The visual has come to have a greater impact than any report.

Cheat the Experience to Take the Picture

I have a photograph that means a great deal to me, not because it’s good (I’m not sure that it is) but because I have no recollection of taking the photograph. I know I was there and I know I was taking pictures, but for the life of me, I cannot recall taking that picture or even recall the moments before or after. I like to think it was intuitive magic, that I was lost in a creative moment. However, I also recall the experience with annoyance and keep the picture around to remind myself to pay attention.

A butterfly on a leaf Photography by Dawn OosterhoffA butterfly on a leaf Photography by Dawn OosterhoffA butterfly on a leaf Photography by Dawn Oosterhoff
"Emerging" by Dawn Oosterhoff

A friend of mine is an event photographer. He specializes in photographing ceremonies and official events. Often, people will ask him what happened at a ceremony, what music was played, or which officials attended. My friend's response is almost always the same: he was too busy photographing the event to notice more than what he needed to focus on for the shoot.

Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, co-authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, surveyed more than 1,600 people, asking them about their experiences with social media. Over half of those surveyed reported that "posting the perfect picture has prevented them from enjoying life experiences." Almost all of the respondents said they’ve seen tourists miss a great moment because they were focused on taking a picture. Many acknowledge they’ve done the same thing.

Grenny and Maxfield equate the hunt for the perfect picture to trophy hunting. "They want to kill it and stuff it and put it on their wall," writes Maxfield. We may have the picture, but we’ve likely cheated ourselves of at least some of the experience.

Lose the Picture and Cheat the Memory

I’ve seen different guesses of the number of photographs we will take in one year. Whether millions, billions, or trillions, it’s a lot of pictures. I believe that we take so many photographs that the experience and the single picture become dilute, afloat in a sea of pictures. We take pictures but we don't look at them. The picture was good in the moment but doesn’t hold meaning for later. Instead, the picture becomes another item forgotten or lost in our digital universe.

Bride in a coffee shop reviewing pictures on her camera Photography by Shenda TanchakBride in a coffee shop reviewing pictures on her camera Photography by Shenda TanchakBride in a coffee shop reviewing pictures on her camera Photography by Shenda Tanchak
"Singapore Bride" by Shenda Tanchak. Used with permission.

It’s ironic that we cheat ourselves of an experience in order to take a picture, then lose track of the only memory aid that might trigger some recall of the experience.

It's Not All Bad

While our obsession with picture trophies may be cause for reflection, our propensity for taking pictures has proven helpful. Videos and pictures taken by tourists and passers-by have helped to disclose and solve crimes. We’ve been made aware of conditions in remote or inaccessible regions because those in the area have shared pictures and videos. We’ve also learned about issues from different perspectives, again as a result of people in the situation sharing their pictures and videos.

As with most social phenomena, the challenge exists not in the practice but in the context. It’s not taking pictures that’s the problem; rather, it’s our obsession with capturing the picture to the exclusion of participating in the experience. The problem also includes our false faith that pictures tell the whole story.

As photographers, I think this is where we can make a difference. We can’t change social practices ourselves, but we can lead by example.

Wedding guest taking pictures with tablet Photography by Kim ColombiniWedding guest taking pictures with tablet Photography by Kim ColombiniWedding guest taking pictures with tablet Photography by Kim Colombini
"Jumbopad" by Kim Colombini. Used with permission.

Turn Your Cell Phone Off

Seems simple, but to concentrate on taking pictures it helps to remove distractions. If you're going to photograph, commit. Take yourself and your craft seriously and give the act of looking the undivided attention it deserves. Get yourself in the zone!

Look Both Ways Before Lifting Your Camera

Before taking photographs, consider your environment, the people around you, and the occasion. Also consider your own experience and evaluate whether and how taking pictures might cheat you of other memories. 

Look around you. Look to the right, look to the left. Turn around and look behind you. There are always pictures to make. Let your eyes guide you and trust your photographic instincts to help you navigate your way through a situation. Put your energy into taking the photographs that matter.

Be ready to put the camera down. Not every moment is photographic. Know when you are photographing and when you aren't.

Don’t Be Picture Wise and Memories Foolish

If you have taken pictures, find the time to review them and save and share those that speak to your experience. Help your clients, too, by providing them not with every picture taken but with photographs that are worth cherishing.

All of us are participating in a shifting culture—a picture-saturated, Internet-connected world. We can’t hold back the use of cameras and smartphones, nor, I think, do we want to. But we can be aware and share our thoughts with others.

Look, Listen, and Think With a Critical Eye

If you have taken up the mantle of being a photographer, you are trained better than the rest of the world to view and think about pictures. This comes with some responsibilities. You are an authority on images and people trust you. Use your power wisely!

When viewing pictures, look for all of the information and listen, as well, to what you are not being told. Review what you know and evaluate the story. Don't share half-truths or pictures that you can't be sure of. If you see a half-truth or something you think is fishy, say so.

Don't create half-truths of your own. Caption your images clearly and completely, and use deceptive or misleading pre-baked filters sparingly, if at all.

We all love pictures, but decoding images is a skill. Lead cultural change by sharing your ability to critically read pictures. Help others get better at it. 


There are so many factors that contribute to our "pics or it didn't happen" culture. Staying socially connected in the digital world demands a constant feed of status updates, easily and successfully met with arresting images that join the flow of what's happening and, just as easily, drift out of view and out of mind. This desire for images has lulled us into a false sense of expectation: we expect to see pictures as proof that something really did happen and if we see pictures, we expect that something must really have happened. By attaching significance to an event only when it's photographed, we cheat ourselves of the experience as we, instead, hunt for the picture. The irony of it all is that we are filling our lives with countless images—so many that we fail to identify and keep the images we will want as memory aids in the future.

It's up to us all to create the culture we want and deserve. I would be among the last people who would turn away from social media, but as a photographer, I try to be among the leaders provoking cultural evolution. As photographers, we all have a responsibility to consider the role images play in our culture. By taking our craft seriously, celebrating the value of an image for everything it represents, and contributing sober thought to cultural conversations, we can all inspire a reclamation of photographs as records of unique encounters with the world.

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