The story of the modern camera is interwoven with our need to create, record, and remember. The camera began redefining nostalgia in 1888, when Kodak released a small and simple personal camera for amateurs: “You press the button, we do the rest.” The camera quickly became indispensable for recording and curating our lives. Precious moments were made into keepsakes, while moments we no longer wished to remember were discarded. Film photography peaked in 1999. That year, consumers around the world took 80 billion photos.
Ubiquitous smartphones with their built-in cameras have, for the past decade, helped us produce more photographs than ever before. An estimated 1.2 trillion photos were taken in 2017, and more than 3 billion images were shared across social media every day.
Our photos can speak instantly to the world, and our reminiscence happens in real time.
Few could have foreseen that our relationship with photography would become so intimate. The obsessive recording of our lives even seems to affect how we experience and remember the world. We see more moments through the camera, and we spend even more time looking at our phones, watching the lives of others.
Phones and experiences go hand in hand. We walk through the world looking for moments to capture, which in turn shape the way we experience our environment. Given how many photos we now take, it’s no wonder some worry it impedes on “real life.” Many of us have been told to put down our phone and live in the moment, but there is also real science to back this up.
An intensive social media habit can impair the way we store memories, researchers have found. A 2018 study confirmed that participants were less likely to remember objects they photographed than objects they simply observed. This is known as the “photo-taking-impairment effect” and was first identified in 2014.
The researchers found that remembering through photographs might eclipse other forms of understanding. When we watch reality unfold through the lens of a camera and on our screens, we’re taking in just a fraction of the experience. In other words, while we’re visually engaged, we miss out on other important sensory information.
Photo-taking can also be a form of cognitive offloading. Reassured that the device is doing the hard work of recording the information, we offload part of our memory onto its digital memory. “You don’t need to remember as well because you know the camera can ‘remember’ for you,” says study co-author Jennifer Soares, a doctoral candidate at UC Santa Cruz. “Like when you take a photo of your parking spot number and don’t bother to try to remember it.”
Yes, we’ve all done that. But for the most part, we don’t take photos to remember details. “Some photographers would argue that their photo-taking isn’t cognitive offloading,” Soares says, especially if they consider their work to be art that is designed for precisely the opposite.
And yet the outcome of this age of photographic abundance has been quite unexpected: While helping us remember our experiences, the volume of photographs and the platforms on which we see them also make it easy to forget them. Snap, share, scroll, repeat — pictures have become ephemeral, sliding down an endless stream, mostly unnoticed and rarely to be encountered again. In this way, photography has actually returned to its very origins.