In the digital age, every parent is now a filmmaker

A camera can never capture how we feel at the special moments in our lives, says Justin Thomas.

You can take happy snaps, but not record your feelings with a smartphone or camera. (Marco Ugarte / AP)
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When the school year ends, students around the globe take to the stage for a curtain call. This theatrical metaphor is appropriate as the end of the academic year often takes the form of a show. Let me tell you about one such performance I recently attended: the year one farewell assembly at my daughter’s school in Abu Dhabi.

The moment it began, parents became paparazzi. Almost the entire audience held smart phones or tablets aloft. There were even a few mums and dads wielding high-end digital cameras. These determined parents were indefatigable in their attempts to capture the perfect moment.

It was almost impossible to get a clear view of the stage. Then, in an act of mutually assured obstruction, frustrated parents began standing up to get a better vantage point. All this achieved, however, was to shift the problem from seated to standing. Ultimately, tempers frayed and mini altercations erupted.

When act one ended, I anticipated raucous applause. The audience response, however, was fairly subdued. I blame our current camera culture: it’s hard to clap when one hand is filming.

Those parents most determined to get good footage began leaving their seats. Watching the stampede, I had a moment of clarity and asked myself: are we actually losing out by being so concerned with capturing events? I call this the photographer’s paradox. In our rush to capture the event, we miss out on the experience.

I know I’m not alone in my increasingly negative appraisal of the ever present digital camera.

Dr Linda Henkel, a cognitive psychologist at Fairfield University, Connecticut, describes a similar phenomenon she calls “photo-taking impairment effect”. In a recent article published in Psychological Science, Dr Henkel describes an experiment where one group of students are asked to photograph exhibits at the Bellarmine Museum of Art, while another group simply browse the exhibits, eyes-only. When tested the following day, the eyes-only group were far better at recognising objects from the museum’s exhibit. Dr Henkel suggests that when we photograph objects it is often a rather mindless activity, and consequently the memory doesn’t hold.

The digital camera – in its multitude of forms – is probably the most widely consumed fruit of our, still relatively recent, digital revolution. But we can’t blame the technology, it is neutral. It’s how we choose to use, overuse or abuse it that gives rise to problems. We were promised tomorrow’s technology today, and we got it.

Now, many of us use tomorrow’s technology to capture today’s events for future enjoyment. This all seems a little twisted and ultimately self-defeating to me. The average smart phone can store around 50,000 images – who has time to review that many images? Many of us now also have cloud storage, so 50,000 is a very conservative estimate.

Andy Warhol, American artist and leading figure in the pop art movement, famously prophesied that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. He was close, but wrong.

Today, everyone is a camera- man for at least 15 minutes, as my daughter’s end-of-year school assembly revealed. We have become a society of snap-happy paparazzi photojournalist filmmakers.

The end-of-year school show, in spite of the occasional forgotten line and the odd malfunctioning microphone, was amazing. Angelic little firstgraders sang, danced and gave speeches.

When it was my little daughter’s turn, I felt myself physically swell with love and parental pride. We don’t – and never will – have a camera that can truly capture that.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas