More moments of human experience are recorded every day than in entire decades in the 20th century; or something like that. I made it up, but it’s mostly true. The ubiquity of digital cameras and phones mean we snap and share more trivial, routine and everyday occurrences than ever before. Apparently Facebook’s photo library was 10,000 times as large as the entire Photo Archives of the US Congress more than 2 years ago! In my own experience, we have countless more pictures of our younger daughter (born November 2005) than our eldest (born June 2002).
Compare and contrast these well-known pictures of the crowds in Rome, awaiting the announcement of the new Pope, from 2005 and from earlier this year.
I’ve experienced the same phenomenon at events from school nativities to a Radiohead concert. It seems we would rather concentrate on holding our phones steady, out in front of our faces, than actually using the senses with which we were born. Are we so obsessed with recording every experience, as if not recording it would mean it somehow hadn’t happened?
During our holiday to France in July/August, we visited one of the more spectacular natural sites I’ve been privileged to experience; the Gouffre de Padirac. Located not far from the river Dordogne, in an area blessed with more than its fair share of natural beauty (especially subterranean!), this is properly breathtaking. I’d read on Tripadvisor that photos inside the caves are not permitted, and many reviewers bemoaned this, complaining about how it’s mainly a scam to encourage visitors to buy the ‘official’ pictures that are taken during the visit to the cave (like you get at many theme parks and other attractions).
And while I have some sympathy for that cynicism, I applaud the policy. The approach to the caves is impressive enough. For a start, it’s a massive hole in the ground that is largely unchanged since the caves were discovered. What those people must have thought is beyond me, as it’s genuinely awesome.
…and from the bottom of the stairs!
As soon as you descend into the tunnels that lead to the caves proper, photography is banned.
This means visitors have to be present, be there in the moment and use their actual physical senses to experience and remember the journey through the caves. We have to concentrate to take in the majesty and grandeur, the sheer scale of a 94m high cavern, whose ceiling is barely visible, yet even there it’s 10m below the surface. This cave is taller than any building in Bristol…
If we were waving our cameras and phones around, we would surely miss the details and natural intricacy of the plate-like stalagmites, the delicacy of the light and shadow, the reflections off the river and pools along which we travel through the caves. The lights from countless phones were a blessed omission from this natural wonder, not unlike the days in 2010 when an Icelandic volcano erupted and caused the grounding of flights across Northern Europe, resulting in clear blue skies with no aircraft tracks.
My photos of the entrance don’t do justice to the reality, but they’re infinitely better than what I could have achieved inside the caves. Instead, I shared my daughter’s approach: walk slowly, look all around, all the time, breathe in the air, remember the coolness compared to the midsummer heat on the surface, marvel at the glory of nature. She loves taking ‘mental pictures’ to remind her of what she’s seen. As she walked through the caves I could hear her muttering “click”, “click” to herself, and I smiled.