Before the Digital Camera: 3 Thoughts on Our Obsession with Picture Taking

Feb 3, 2023 | Art & Entertainment, Articles, Living in the World

By Amber Kinloch

Not so long ago, picture taking was something reserved for special events like weddings, birthdays, and vacations.  Now we take photos at any time, every day.  Not only that, but we can share those photos—conveniently captured in digital format—with a far wider audience courtesy of social media.

Photography undoubtedly is a gift: I enjoy seeing the occasional picture of my two little nephews playing together or performing some new skill they’ve learned.  Likewise, “a picture is worth a thousand words” when someone’s telling you about a place they visited or explaining what “slightly tacky” dough looks like for a bread recipe.  

On the other hand, picture taking has its limits, limits we often fail to recognize and respect.  In doing so, we injure our human dignity and corrupt the very gift of photography itself.

What are the limits of this gift?   What pitfalls should we watch out for?  How can we correct course and use photography for the glory of God and the good of souls?

Our Fixture on Ourselves

One consequence of our compulsive picture taking is an increased (often absurd) focus on ourselves.  We are constantly showing off ourselves, and not even our real selves—only the vain, shallow parts, the surface veneer.  “Look at me!” our behavior cries as we constantly subject ourselves to scrutiny, hungering after “likes” and human approval.  In doing so, we risk  forgetting the One Whose approval truly matters.

Think of all the pictures we take of the mundane.  Out with a friend for a movie?  Let’s snap a picture!  Grabbing lunch at the new sandwich shop?  That justifies a shot.  No longer is it enough to just enjoy something.  Now we  feel obligated to mark the occasion by taking pictures to text or post.  It’s as if we don’t exist unless we’re constantly in the spotlight, showing off what we’re doing.  

This “need” to photograph everything concerning ourselves is akin to a form of mental gluttony.  We voraciously snap and glance at images with no appreciation for the actual gift of photography or for what is photographed.  In doing so, we lose sight of the image of God present in each person and of the Divine Love manifest in every aspect of His creation.

What can we do about this?  Here’s a suggestion: “Pause before you snap.”  Do you really need to take a picture of this?  What’s the purpose of it?  Is this self-indulgence or is this to maintain a genuine, lasting memory of joy?

When you do photograph something, do so with intentionality .  Be aware that a photo is ultimately only a reflection of reality.  Respect the deeper meaning and worth of the object or person in the eye of your lens.

Prioritizing the Present Moment

“[T]he present is the point at which time touches eternity” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter 15).

Living the present moment is essential. It is the only moment that truly exists for us, and in which we live in contact with God.

Losing contact with the present moment  comes at a significant spiritual cost.  How can we be attentive to God if we’re never quiet and focused on His Presence with us in the here and now?  How are we to appreciate His many gifts if we’re always preoccupied when He gives them to us?  How can we cultivate humility when our focus is on ourselves?

Constant picture taking is also a major disruption to the human experience.  Instead of fully living the present moment, we are fixated on capturing it for later viewing pleasure.  In doing so, we miss out on the joy present right before us whether that’s eating a meal, singing “Happy Birthday,” or paying attention to traffic or a friend. 

How much due time and attention are people deprived of when they are under constant photographic scrutiny?  How can we truly appreciate another’s presence when we’re  possessed with “getting the shot”?  How can we cultivate intimacy between ourselves and others if we’re constantly posing for a nearby camera?

Respect the intimacy proper to daily life.  Realize that the majority of it is not meant to be photographed.  Let go of the pride that pressures us to take pictures of every little thing.  Live the present moment in union with God and others.  Enjoy it as He desires you to, and thank Him for the gift present before you.

Memory is a Gift

Our compulsive reliance on photography also means that many of us fail to capture mental pictures, images so much more personal and precious than any photograph.  My own mom says she has a wonderful catalogue of mental pictures.  She shares this gift in the stories she tells me, stories enriched by the relation of sensory details beyond what any camera could capture.  

This is not to say pictures are worthless.  I appreciate black-and-white photographs of my great grandma on her First Holy Communion and wedding days.  They show something no one in my family can remember, and help me relate more to the woman whom my mom called “Grandma”.  Pictures like these can tell authentic, albeit limited, stories of what prior times were like to those who have no memory of those times.  Photographs are best used to support memory, not to stand in place of it.

On a spiritual level, our memory is a gift from God.  He gives it to us so that we can be connected to the human experience past, present, and future.  An obsession with snapping pictures leads us to linger over-long in a particular moment, instead of treasuring it for what it’s meant to be.

Think of standing in the ocean as a wave crashes over you.  The instant when the wave is at its peak over your head is magnificent.  But if the wave just stopped there, frozen in space as it appears in a photo, it would ruin the experience.

Time marches on and we must allow ourselves to flow forward with it.  There’s no need to worry about photographing every moment as a memory aid.   One of the gifts of Heaven will be having all the good memories we make here on earth restored to us, without any shadow of sadness or bitterness.  Take comfort in that, and enjoy what’s happening in the here and now.  In doing so you’ll give glory to God and cultivate trust in Him.

Your presence, fully lived, in each moment is an immeasurable gift for both you and other people.  Remember that.  Embrace the moment and what’s before you, and avoid hiding behind a camera.  You’ll find an abundance of joy on top of the fondness of memories.

Amber Kinloch

Amber Kinloch

Amber  writes from the bunker of her living room.  There she hunkers down with her laptop and a blanket while keeping an eye and ear tuned in to the activity of family life.  Music set on loop keeps her energy flowing as she muses on the deeper happenings of ordinary life and what food to restock the fridge with.


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