This past weekend, as is generally the case, a big chunk of the crowd was Japanese. The cherry blossom has iconic status in Japan: Its fleeting beauty symbolizes the ephemerality of life, a notion very deeply seated in Japanese spirituality. Haiku poetry also expresses this awareness of the preciousness of the passing moment, and I’ve often wondered if the Japanese obsession with taking snapshots — and thereby capturing the instant — is yet another manifestation of the same sensibility. Anybody able to help me out on that question?
However much the Japanese may attend to the “preciousness of the passing moment” in their poetry, taking pictures wastes far more precious moments than it captures. Most photographs require people to break from their chosen activity to be herded into place with big grins on their faces for too many seconds to be comfortable. And those are the pictures that don’t involve painfully squinting into the sun. Surely a trip to a museum or a dinner with out-of-town family is not worth the trouble of visual preservation. Photographs too often interrupt the meaning of life in the present, so as to give the past more clarity. That seems like a bad tradeoff to me.
Of course, I’m not entirely a stick-in-the-mud. There are certain occasions that are worth preserving, like a wedding, although such work is obviously best done by an professional skilled at unobtrusiveness. And I sometimes enjoy setting out with the express purpose of taking pictures, usually of non-people like my gorgeous plants, my regal dog, and my movie-star kitty. But contrary to the claims of my friends, I am not entirely anti-social; I have been known to snap a decent picture of Paul and even a good character study of my aunt Penny. Sometimes, photos need to be taken simply for the record, like of just-adopted emaciated Abby, 15 year old arthritic Gus in his favorite spot, and Millie attacking the hail during a storm.
In any case, trying to integrate pictures into any another important activity too often results in a series of interrupted moments of little importance. While we may not remember all of the fullness and delight of each passing moment as well as we would like using just our feeble brains, it is better to have experienced those moments in all their uninterrupted glory than to diminish them in an attempt to preserve them through photographs.