Making Eye Contact and Being There

I recently went to my nephew’s baptism, and when I looked back at the video I had taken at my sister’s request, I felt a wave – albeit a small one – of shame wash over me.  The pastor’s face reflected an obvious annoyance that affected even this extremely lapsed Lutheran.  Later that week, capturing an image of my son kicking a goal into a net and receiving a medal meant I didn’t actually see the goal in person; I saw a digitized version of it in the camera’s screen.  It’s not nearly as high-definition as the first person experience I could have had.  The recent concert put on by my children’s preschool was preceded by the director’s request to take photographs only before and after the performance; only a few parents followed directions (I taped it from my lap, employing the highly developed note-passing skills I learned in seventh grade.).  And at graduations, parents all over our area photograph and videotape their children walking down aisles and picking up diplomas, and they’ll see it all through the miniature lo-res screen of their smartphones or cameras.

I understand the motivation; I participate in the act.  Preserving the special moments in our lives is a way of documenting and remembering.  Digital photography and huge storage capabilities have allowed us to file away every moment of our lives for rainy day viewing.  But just as we should not necessarily DO everything we CAN do, perhaps the ability to document a moment and save it for later has watered down our real life experiences to the point where we have forgotten why we wanted to document them in the first place.  We are sacrificing significant moments to show how special they are.  And those moments are becoming a little less sacred the more we focus on capturing them.

I also think the discomfort I felt while holding my camera over the heads of those with a better view of my nephew’s baptized head comes from the realization that my focus on technology during a baptism is not too far removed from talking on a phone or texting while driving – one of my pet peeves and something that has caused more than a few close calls in my life.  It all comes down to paying attention to where you are now and the people sharing that space with you.

The annoyed pastor, the proud face of my son making a goal, the nervous face of my child reciting a line during a preschool show, and the graduate searching for her mother’s face as she accepts her diploma are all met with the same thing:  a set of eyes turned towards a screen and not at them, not the occasion.  Just as it is disconcerting to have a video-chat with someone whose eyes are turned down looking at the you on the screen instead of into the little green light on the webcam, it’s a depressing statement about how we are choosing to experience our lives when we smile and wave at the pixels on a screen instead of our present-right-now-in-front-of-us loved ones.  The difference is that a video-chat is keeping far away people closer, while the pixellated moments in the viewfinder are keeping close-by people apart.

I’ve decided to attempt to live more in the moment instead of planning for the photos and video with which I want to re-live the experience later.  It’s not easy, especially for those of us just a little addicted to sharing.  And I’m sure I’ll still carry my camera around wherever I go.  However, I know that my children will appreciate my efforts.  And I know I will appreciate being there more wholly.

Kristin has a very unique weblog about goings-on in and around Montclair.

Photo provided with permission by

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  1. That sounds like a good philosophy. Although when I do forget my camera I kick myself – I always manage to miss those magic moments.

    It cracks me up at concerts when people record on their camera phones – can’t see the point of that. The quality is usually so bad you can’t even tell who was performing.

  2. I disagree.

    Capturing a moment of childhood that can be relived over and over, and shared with others is so much more special than “living in the moment.” That moment passes, and without some record of it what do ya got? I have a DSLR it shoots HD video, I have a cell phone, and a flip. I whip them out whenever I can. Why not?

    One of the great things is capturing the moment and having it forever.

    But the idea that one is somehow “missing” something by recoding it with a device, rather than just watching makes little sense.

  3. Thislittlepiggy, without those folks with their cell phones we wouldn’t have half the stuff we do now on YouTube. So they have their uses.

  4. I know what Kristin is saying — when someone else is recording these moments for me and I can just “be” and enjoy them — rather than watching and filming simultaneously, I do enjoy them in a much richer way.

  5. Not one of the five people in my family that attended my high school graduation bothered to bring a camera. One of those people is actually a quasi-professional photographer and has never, NOT ONCE, forgotten to bring a camera to a family gathering (not even the menial ones). It might sound silly, but that was a really painful experience for me.

    It became even worse when I went on facebook the next day, and my newsfeed was littered with pictures my friend’s families had proudly taken of them at graduation . . . it just hit me, no one cared enough to remember a simple camera.

    I really wish I could rise above it all, and just let the pain go . . .but whenever I think back on my high school graduation, all I can remember is that no one thought to bring a camera.

  6. I really wish I could rise above it all, and just let the pain go . . .but whenever I think back on my high school graduation, all I can remember is that no one thought to bring a camera.

    Sorry you had to experience that — I can see how upsetting that would be and you bring up another side to this. Thank you.

  7. Kristin, you’re definitely on to something.

    A few writers whose work I’ve recently read, William Powers, Katrina Kenison, and Abraham Verghese, in various ways and contexts all touch on the concept of less screen time, and more human connection.

    Our technologies, while useful and world changing in numerous ways, are hastening the decline in our ability to be present and in the moment, and worse, to recollect the visual and emotional elements of these milestone moments without the aid of a recording device.

    I call it “connectedly” disconnected.

    Imagine if instead of us all staring at our screens commenting on Baristanetisms, Cathar, Walleroo, Prof, et al gathered in a local plaza, Watchung perhaps?, to converse face to face on the topics of the day.

    What would that be like?

  8. It would sort of be like as Sartre described it in his play “No Exit” (in probably the one wise thing the wretchedly ugly and pretentious little creep ever said), that hell is other people, workydaddy. It woukd definitely not recall the agora of Athens in Socrates’s heyday.

    More likely the Lincoln, New Mexico of Billy the Kid, or the poorer parts of London right before the Great Fire.

  9. Workydaddy – you said it well.
    Cathar – as for YouTube – sure there is some good stuff but I was talking about really bad quality music video where the sound quality is horrible, and you can’t actually tell who is playing.
    Kristin – like the sentiment of living in the moment more.

  10. Kristin, you had an important insight and your life will be enriched for having had it. It is important to capture life’s special moments, baptisms, weddings, graduations, etc., and the technology to do so is affordable and accessible. Parents have a duty to their children to keep a record/scrapbook of their report cards, school pictures, awards, family trips, etc.. They will really appreciate your efforts later in their life when they show their children what mommy and daddy were like when they were kids. Don’t beat yourself up you’re doing the right thing.

    sdmb143, I feel so bad for you! Man, that’s pretty rough. It was thoughtless of your family members to not make sure that somebody had a camera. They love you, of course, and I’m sure they feel horrible that they neglected the event. Pain is an important part of maturity. It’s impossible to go through a lifetime without experiencing it in all its forms. Hang in there!

  11. “But the idea that one is somehow “missing” something by recoding it with a device, rather than just watching makes little sense.”

    Respectfully, Prof, I think you’re missing something. As a professional photographer who spends half his working life covering other people’s life-cycle events (and half as photojournalist), I have to disagree with your post. Just last week I attended the wedding of a daughter of a my best childhood friend. I was pleased to simply sit at the ceremony not focusing or framing, even though at this point in my career these are natural things I don’t really have to think about…and simply “being” in the moment. There’s a world of difference between just watching and thereby actively participating in the event, and separating yourself from it by watching it on a tiny screen or through a viewfinder. Don’t misunderstand, I always encourage friends to bring a camera. Then use it for a few posed photographs after the event. When the youngest member was a child the dad of one of his friends had a great system: he brought out his video camera and faithfully shot 10 minutes of every one of his kid’s childhood events. Then put it away so he could enjoy the pre-schooler’s play, or Halloween, or whatever. And he has footage to look at of every significant moment of his kid’s lives now that they are college age. When my 4-year-old was on stage, he saw his father’s face, and the pride in his eyes looking back. Not his father’s body with video camera obscuring his face.

    At every wedding I photograph, I can turn aside for a brief moment during, say, the cake cutting, and see (and I photograph) a small army of people who are, rather than watching the bride and groom, watching the screens on their phones and cameras. Imagine how it feels to be the happy couple, glancing up, and seeing that half of their family and friends aren’t actually even looking at them, but engaged in the process of recording the event. Me? I’d rather my guests were looking at me and smiling, trusting their memories, and the product of a professional (if one was hired).

    I don’t mean to sound confrontational or argumentative, prof, but really, in my humble opinion, if one doesn’t see and feel a difference between watching a life-cycle event, an event that’s often sacred moment in the life of a family, and watching it through the viewfinder of a camera…one really needs to re-evaluate how he/she is “watching” the event itself.

    And to Kristin Wald, the original poster? Brava. Bravissima.

    Dan Epstein

  12. We have a family member (no worries, she doesn’t read Baristanet!) who insists on photographing or videotaping us at EVERY SINGLE family gathering. Uh, you know what I look like, I haven’t changed that much in two months so please, knock it off! (That’s what I feel like saying). Heck, last year we took a day trip to South Street Seaport and we couldn’t walk down one street without her asking us to pose for those blasted photos!

    Don’t get me wrong, I love taking photos. Granted, mine are mostly of nature but I do like UNPOSED, candid photos of people, not those posed horrors we all see on Facebook and in family albums. Reminds me of the Monty Python skit where a woman is showing photographs to someone saying, “This is Uncle Ted at the front of the house, this is Uncle Ted at the side of the house, this is Uncle Ted at the back of the house.” You get the idea.

    thanks for letting me rant!

  13. “They will really appreciate your efforts later in their life when they show their children what mommy and daddy were like when they were kids”…My kids insist upon seeing the video almost instantly. Over and over. *Shrug* It makes them happy, so I’m happy to do it.

    I admit that I enjoy when someone else is responsible for the preservation; it does leave me more free to enjoy (or nap through) the event. But when I’ve taken on the job of recording, I get to enjoy the act of preserving the event for others. That provides its own sense of joy, is an act of creation and a form of participation in the event in that it makes that event available to others that might not yet even exist.

    It’s something like the pleasure of seeing old records or photographs of relatives long gone.


  14. As a working pro, I’m glad to be shooting for an invoice especially in these recessional times. I do a lot of corporate meetings where I can ignore the techspeak and just focus on the event. I do wonder where all the jpegs go when I hand them over, some wind up in a Communications piece but most disks get thrown in draws then they call me months later for another copy.
    Sometimes I find it hard to pick up my camera for family stuff which just makes me feel a little guilty. My daughter loves to play back the tapes from when she was a baby and they also refresh my memories now that Half-Heimer’s is setting in!

  15. Anyway, just to add I’ll see you all on the Plaza, I’ll be the one with his hands in his pockets.

  16. I don’t your point, Epstein, is inconsistent with what the prof was saying. I also come to many events armed to the teeth with media devices, and I like to get a little of everything–some flip video, a few iPhone pix, some nice hi-def shots–and then the gadgets go away (for a while).

  17. I’ve been taking pics on my new iphone 4 and can’t believe the resolution. It’s the same as my Nikon D1X from 2001 and the HD is remarkable.

  18. Hey Walleroo? Try it again? I have no clue what you’re trying to say, other than you bring lots of hardware to events.

  19. I appreciate your making the effort to understand me, dane. What I meant was, the mistake most people make, I think, is to think they have to film, photograph or otherwise document every moment of Little Johnny’s school play, when all you usually need is a few well chosen snippets of video, and perhaps a nice photograph afterward of the little tyke in his costume. That requires only a few minutes with the hardware, and the rest of the time you can just Be Here Now, as Baba Ramm Das would say, were he here now.

  20. Walleroo,

    If you were refering to Ram Dass in the temporal sense:

    Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) is still with us and authored “Be Love Now”, published last year.

    If you were referring to Ram Das in the spatial sense:

    Good one!

    I have a copy of “Remember, Be Here Now”, somewhere in my attic.

  21. I checked that, Mellon, before posting and was surprised to learn that he hasn’t yet cashed in his mortal chips.

    I never read Be Here Now. Is it worthwhile? I’m currently reading (god help me) Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It’s not bad, and it has fewer side effects than Ambien.

  22. “Be Here Now” was good back in ‘the day’. At that time, I was reading Carlo Castaneda’s stuff. I don’t think BHN would be a very good read now. It has a lot of illustrations, some of which are pretty trippy and documents Alpert’s increasing fascination with the effects of LSD and the spiritual properties he ascribed to the substance. Actually, now that I think of it, it might actually be entertaining to read again. My attic (crawlspacer) is only accessible through a trap door in my wife’s studio closet. It is so full of stuff, I may never get back up there again. I think I’ll just buy another copy on eBay and have it show up at my house in a few days.

  23. I do that all the time–buy copies of books that I know I already have in a box somewhere in the attic. I’m sure I have Carlos Castenada up there somewhere. As a young adolescent I swallowed those books hook, line and sinker; for a year or two I think I even thought that the was real. And look where we are now, Mellon: we’ve both become Men of Knowledge. Pass the peyote!

  24. hey mellon, I suggest that you take a pass on the peyote especially the kind manufactured in china.

  25. Re Carlos Castaneda: I still recall very well a long memoir about life with the alleged “shaman” in FATE magazine, by his ex-wife. (And she did supply documentation, including both the marriage license and the subsequent divorce decree, along with other stuff.)

    They met in graduate school. He told her lies about himself from the very beginning. He’d disappear every now and then during their marriage for a few days; never the long months he claimed he was in the desert with his “mentor.” He had very prosaic tastes, too. He was also an indifferent graduate student and apparently had a big drinking problem. And after the first book by Castaneda became a hit, he still owed her piles of money, including his share of legal and court costs.

    Surprisingly, however, this very detailed article isn’t very well known. People, alas, still take Carlos Castaneda seriously.

    I also have a friend whose mom, after fleeing post-divorce to Mexico City with her daughter, wound up engaged for a time to Timothy Leary. Luckily for her, the marriage did not go through.

    Those really were not the days, my friends.

    And may I still suggest something like The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis in lieu of peyote? Or even Brideshead Revisited or some reliably spiritual Graham Greene?

  26. Interesting, cathar, assuming that’s not just part of your peyote hallucination. Never heard of that article. It doesn’t surprise me that Carlos was a bullsh*t artist through and through, nor that he had a drinking problem. The seductiveness and the alcohol often seem to go together.

    I was just talking to my teenage son about the 1960s, about Ram Dass and Timothy Leary, in fact. He has a passing knowledge of the decade from history books and a few ex-hippie teachers, perhaps. I am grateful that I was too young to be part of that lost generation. Coming late to the scene of battle, as it were, with the scent of gunpowder still in the air and blood on the ground, was bad enough.

  27. Although you may have missed some cultural and political ferment, walleroo, don’t fret so in particular that you missed the Nam conflict. Although in some ways, yes, you this missed “everything” about the time period, in other ways you missed absolutely nothing.

    As to “ex-hippie teachers,” however, I too have met a few in my time. Very sad cases as a rule, they attempt to bloat their own egos by telling their impressionable classes they were indeed “there.” But there amounted to so little back then, honest. I sometimes even think that more than the 500,000 supposedly in attendance at Woodstock have personally told me they were there.

    Whereas I’d prefer to judge somebody by whether they were at the Ia Drang valley, Operation Junction Canyon or Operation Toan Thang. Many of whom of course can no longer tell even their contemporaries about those dangerous days.

  28. Here’s how I look at it.

    If your kid grows up and there are no pictures of him/her from his/her games/concerts/ect, he/she will be disappointed.

    If you kid grows up and only remembers you behind a camera at his/her games/concerts/ect, he/she will be disappointed.

    The moral of the story: you will always disappoint your child (kidding!). The real moral is: moderation! Extremity is where mistakes can be found. Moderation leads to success.

  29. You’re right about that, sbmb143. Parents are condemned to disappoint their kids. If has been ever so.

    Be careful, also, not to take moderation to an extreme.

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