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How You See What You See



"There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth." —Richard Avedon

I got to know Doug Jones at the University of Wisconsin in 1976. He taught journalism, but his class often wandered off in unlikely directions, most often to the rolling hills of southern Montana and the Little Bighorn River. He had just sold the television rights to The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer, a novel years in gestation, and there weren't many details of the historic fight between the 7th Cavalry and the Lakota Sioux in 1876 he didn't know. Or so he said. Like Robert Fulghum and Garrison Keillor, Jones was a natural storyteller who employed the same Arkansas red-dirt patter that served Bill Clinton so well. One of his stories sticks in my mind: He recounted a visit to an art exhibit devoted to the iconic Battle of the Little Bighorn. He told the class how he had strolled from painting to painting until he was brought up short by one of them. He studied it. What made it singular? Why was it so arresting? In due course, he realized that the artist had taken Custer's point of view while all the other paintings portrayed battle scenes as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull would have seen them. I don't remember Jones' point in telling the anecdote, but I took away a lesson in perspective, namely, that what you see may be a function of how you see it.

Comedian Dave Chappelle and singer-songwriter John Mayer imposed restrictions on how their performances were seen last year. They banned cell phones from each of their "Controlled Danger" shows. Ticket holders had to put their phones in locked Yondr bags for the duration of the performance: No photos. No videos. No texts. On Facebook they wrote: "We appreciate your cooperation in creating a phone-free viewing experience." Chappelle and Mayer explained their reasons in a CNN interview. Mayer said he wanted to be able to perform "with an honest heart without being worried about how it would be read" pinballing around social media. Chappelle said the presence of phones in an audience created a "weird combination in which people were engaged but wildly disengaged."

An explanation of that disengagement comes from Linda Henkel, a professor at Fairfield University. She calls it the "photo-taking impairment effect." When you take a photo, "you're counting on the camera to remember for you," writes Henkel. "You don't engage in any of the elaborative or emotional kinds of processing that really would help you remember those experiences because you've outsourced it to your camera." In other words, a performance mediated by a hand-held gizmo lacks the immediacy of one in which the senses are fully engaged.

I learned about Henkel's work from Bored and Brilliant, a 2017 book by Manoush Zomorodi. By the time I finished reading it, I was thinking about my own history with cameras. As a 12-year-old, I photographed every dog and cat in my neighborhood within days of receiving a Kodak Brownie as a Christmas present. Decades later, my last camera, a point-and-shoot Canon, succumbed to a hard landing on Moab red-rock. In between Canon and Kodak, I owned a Polaroid, a couple of single-lens-reflex Minoltas, and an early Sony digital that relied on floppy disks. Collectively, the cameras tell a story, as a fossil bed does, but not the whole story. The complete version has to include intent. What was the reason I bought all those cameras and took all those pictures? My answer is that I was freeze-framing my life experience as "Kodak moments" in order to remember them. Henkel avers that I would have been better off skipping the photos. "Human memory is much more dynamic than photographs are capable of," she writes. My wife came to the same conclusion on her own 25 years ago and retired her 35mm camera. When she felt our travels needed to be documented, she bought a postcard and wrote notes on the back.

In the how-you-see, what-you-see equation, it will come as no surprise that cellphones have pretty much displaced cameras for picture taking. What is interesting, however, is the fact that today's young people use photography differently than I did at their age. According to Zomorodi, they use photos not as a memory aid but as a means to communicate, much like a naval signalman uses flags. Teens give life to the adage, "a picture is worth a thousand words" (or, nowadays, a string of emojis). That there is no cost for film, processing and printing is a significant benefit of digital photography and the cornerstone of the Snapchat business plan. With its fade-to-black photos, Snapchatter generates upload traffic at the breath-taking rate of 9,000 photos per second. I'm guessing a significant percentage is selfies. Now a much-denigrated cliché, the selfie makes photo-taking impairment even worse. "If you're in the photo, you become more removed from the original moment," Henkel writes, "as if you are an observer watching yourself do something outside yourself."

Henkel's concept is as offbeat as ceiling mirrors but consistent with the how-you-see moment Jones experienced at the "Custer's Last Stand" art exhibit. The photographic record of my life is sealed in boxes in the basement. I rely on memories willy-nilly. Unmapped by my memory, the photos and slides are merely curiosities. My heirs will discard them. How much better it would have been to have engaged each moment with a thousand words instead of a picture.

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