Smart phone cameras have turned many of us into de facto members of the paparazzi. Every event from the mundane to the glorious is shared in the moment or preserved for the future. But do our efforts pay off as intended?
Whatever your motivation is for taking photos, it’s worthwhile to have a clear view of what’s working and what’s not. For example, recent studies offer conflicting and sometimes surprising results on how photo taking impacts our memory and quality of experience.
One of the common complaints waged by those who dislike the boom in photo taking is that all the posing and capturing removes one from the moment. But does research back that up? Not according to Alixandra Barasch, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business and one of the leading researchers on the effects of photo taking and sharing.
Barasch admits that she and fellow researchers were expecting to see that the photo taking process did indeed take people out of their environment, make them less immersed, and more distracted. However, after “dozens of studies,” they had to revise that theory. “We started to realize as we dug more into the literature that photo taking could predict both directions. On the one hand, yes, it’s a multi-task, but the literature also suggests that photo taking immerses you in the experience, causing you to focus more and that wins out, which is cool and surprising,” said Barasch.
That’s good news for snap-happy camera buffs who are often harangued for missing life’s moments. But before we get too comfortable, Barasch adds several cautionary notes.
Photos enhance our visual memory, says Barasch, but this comes at the expense of memory related to other senses, according to her 2017 study. That research specifically focused on hearing, but she postulates that memory for other nonvisual senses, such as taste and smell, are negatively affected as well. For example, if you are listening to music at a concert, taking part in a conversation, or eating a delicious meal, taking photos will have a detrimental effect on your ability to attend to the most important sensory details — in those examples, hearing and taste.
This has implications for how we retain information. For example, for students on a narrated tour or at a lecture, it would be better to focus on listening as opposed to taking photographs. The same could be said for important conversations. If someone you’re talking to is more intent on taking photographs, chances are they aren’t listening very well.
In fact, Barasch argues that our photo taking habits are fundamentally affecting the way we absorb our environment. “We are human and have limited attentional resources, and if we are paying more attention to one part of our environment [the visual] then that comes with tradeoffs for other parts,” said Barasch.
“I don’t say photo taking is bad or good because it depends on your goal,” says Barasch. “If your goal is to focus on the visual, photography does a lot to draw you in. But if you are taking photos for other goals, you may be missing out on cues in your environment.”
Another piece of advice to increase enjoyment while taking photos is not to get too hung up on the sharing process. In a 2017 study, Barasch and fellow researchers found that the intention to share photos on social media during the act of taking a photo undermines the enjoyment of the experience. “If you start thinking about how the photos are going to look to others, you may lose some of the positive effects of photo taking — the immersion, the engagement — and experience anxiety over self-presentational concerns,” says Barasch.
Travel and food journalist Peter Jon Lindberg who takes 10,000 to 12,000 photos a year and who until recently was an Instagram buff agrees that thinking about sharing photos while taking them adds an element of “neurosis and anxiety.” He tends to imagine a “sea of critics and potential naysers” when he is photographing for social media and that kills the pleasure. “It’s also never enough,” says Jon Lindberg. “You come up with one great photograph, and you think this is going to do me for a couple of weeks and no, it’s not, you need to keep posting every single hour.”
Memory Aid or Blocker?
Many of us take photos to help us remember moments and occasions, but according to recent studies, the motivation behind your photo taking can either enhance or impair your memory of a subject.
On the positive side, the process of deciding what to capture in a photo (known as “volitional” photo taking) helps us encode a visual memory, according to Barasch, who was the lead author on this 2017 study. She and fellow researchers found that “when we see something that is exciting or interesting that we want to capture and soak up and remember, photo taking can draw you in more and make you remember more even if you never revisit the photo.”
The “even if you never revisit the photo” part is key here as it’s usually looking back at a photo that provides the all-important memory cue, but Barasch argues that the act of taking a photo is also helping to boost memory.
This is in contrast to a much-publicized 2013 study and a new 2018 study that find a photo-impairment effect related to the act of taking photos. The fine line that distinguishes whether we are apt to remember or forget a photo comes down to our intention when clicking the button: Are you taking the photo for pleasure (volitional) or taking it as a form of outsourcing your memory to the camera? Examples of the latter include taking a photograph of your car to remember where you parked or students taking a photograph of a slide to remember the information later instead of trying to understand the context in the moment. In these cases, researchers find evidence of memory impairment related to the act of taking a photo.
Linda Henkel, PhD, a psychology professor at Fairfield University and author of the 2013 photo taking impairment effect study, has been researching for years the effects of “people taking pictures for the sake of taking pictures — almost like trophies.” In these situations, she says people are mentally counting on the camera to remember for them. “It’s just like writing a to-do note. People think, ‘then I don’t have to remember it because I wrote it down.’”
Problem is “the camera is a really poor partner,” says Julia Soares, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author the 2018 study on the photo taking impairment effect. “Just because you are taking a photograph doesn’t mean you are going to remember it and quite the contrary, you might later forget it,” says Soares.
Soares believes the photo taking impairment effect has something to do with the action of taking a photo. “In every condition where we had participants take photos, they showed the photo taking impairment effect relative to what they observed.” She suggests that this “attentional disengagement” comes from the distraction of multi-tasking in a way that affects memory or, she says, “people could be telling themselves, ‘I got it. I remember it now.’ When you haven’t actually observed it very closely or encoded it very deeply.”
However, Barasch points out that we don’t use a camera to remember things like a parking spot very often. Most of us use a camera to capture experiences we find interesting or exciting and that we want to remember, as opposed to have to remember. “It’s a really different type of goal,” says Barasch. “When you want to outsource your memory to a photo that’s different from what most of us are doing as photographers.”
Overwhelmed by Our Collections
A big motivation for many in taking photos is preserving memories for the future and certainly looking at your photos provides major memory cues. But that’s the crux — to look at your photos you need to find them and many peoples’ collections have gotten out of hand.
Every researcher I interviewed said people now have trouble finding their photos, a common scenario that software developers have apparently caught on to. Now many apps remind people what they took a year ago or two years ago, or more, and have also added search and indexing features to photo-storage devices. But the jury is still out on whether anyone is using these on a regular basis to catalog and find vast numbers of photos.