What’s in a moment? [special edition]

A conversation about time, identity, and Instagram

This week’s essay is a special edition because it’s different in two ways. For one it’s not written entirely by me: I co-wrote it with Adam Tank, who I met in Write of Passage and who leads our little writers’ band and our weekend writing sessions. It started with him asking me a question in our Twitter DMs, which led to a conversation and then to us deciding to co-create an essay. Which brings me to the second way it’s different: we wrote it as a conversation, in honour of the Ancient Greek philosophers. As usual you get it first, before it goes live tomorrow. (Adam has said he’s cool with this—follow him on Twitter by the way, he’s fun!) Enjoy!


Adam: A friend of mine recently posted this photo to her Instagram timeline—a sign handcrafted by her father to announce her “unplugged wedding.”

She’s encouraging wedding guests to be present and enjoy the moment rather than being caught up in taking photos. It’s clear that she values presentness over capture. But when asked if she planned to have a professional photographer at the wedding she enthusiastically responded “Yes! And a videographer!”

In this example, the distinction of being present in a moment vs. capturing it is particularly intriguing. There is value in being present, as she suggests with the unplugged wedding. But there is also value in capturing the moment, as she plans to hire a photographer and videographer. So one of the questions I’m now asking myself is if it’s wrong to want to capture a moment? Would it be wrong to sneak a cell phone picture in at her wedding?

I think about how fortunate we are to have camera technology at our fingertips that our ancestors could have only dreamed of. Imagine seeing your child getting married and thinking, “If only I could live in this moment forever”, and not being able to have a photograph of the moment. 

Ayomide: I actually don’t think the issue is that we try to capture moments. I think it’s how we do that which trips us up. Memory itself is a form of capture, right? So is journaling, which humans have done since writing was invented. And even before that was painting, used by unknown people who turned cave walls into their canvas for capturing hunts. And let’s face it, so is every love song, every poem about heartbreak, and every ballad about some hero. Capturing moments that mean something to us is part and parcel of what it means to be human.

Adam: That’s true—humans have been capturing moments forever; it’s just the means and technology that’s changed. It’s only been recently (in the last few hundred years) that we’ve had cameras, and only in the last 20 years were cameras integrated into cell phones. The “how” of how we’re capturing moments has changed dramatically in a very short amount of time.

Ayomide: When I think about what has mainly changed in how we capture, and compare the majority of human history with just the twenty years of the 21st century, the word that comes to my mind is asynchronous. Thanks to powerful computers that let us act at the speed of thought, we have moved from asynchronous to synchronous capture.

But there’s two problems with that. One is that thought often needs some time to be processed before it can be transformed into meaningful narrative and action. The other is that the very act of observing what we are thinking about changes the thought. The observer effect in physics comes to mind: the idea that the very act of observing something changes it. Here it would be that our attempt to capture a moment in the moment may well kill that very moment. In promising us instant capture tech has taken away being present.

Adam: I love that line. The tradeoff between capture and presentness has become far more dramatic because of advances in technology. I’ve had this photo in my Twitter header for a couple of years and it perfectly distills the essence of what we’re talking about:

This tradeoff, the old lady’s presentness vs. the swarm of younger, technologically enabled capturers is so beautifully apparent. If I think about moments of my childhood that were captured in photographs, my parents were attempting to capture a single, fleeting moment in time. My first steps, the birth of my sister, graduating high school… all of these are naturally occurring, singular moments in time that cannot be replicated.

But the proliferation of cell phone cameras has flipped the idea of capturing a moment on its head. People now create moments in order to capture them—literally doing it for the ’gram. The present is viewed through the lens of a manufactured future—what can I create now so that I can share with others later—which defeats the purpose of the present! You can’t be present if you’re always in the future.

Ayomide: Exactly, and some would suggest what appears the obvious solution: that we should simply be in the moment, instead of trying to capture it. But why choose? Why not, as I like to ask with questions like this, try for both? From that angle, one way to get around the synchronicity issue would be to have someone else capture the moment while we experience it. Let’s call this person a Designated Capturer: just like having a designated driver means you can drink without having to worry about driving, a designated capturer would let you both experience the moment and faithfully capture it.

Basically you’re shifting the asynchronicity to another person rather than another time. And your friend (like many others) seems to have intuitively realised this. That suggests the designated capturer is not a new concept, just an unnamed one, and understandably given the newness of this tech. And speaking of naming things, that itself is a form of capturing—to name a thing is to increase our awareness of it, make it more real.

Adam: A professional photographer really serves two purposes. The first, the obvious, is that a photographer can capture a moment in a way that an amateur cannot. By framing a scene, shooting from various angles, considering the importance of lighting, and using top tier equipment, the professional can tell a story about a moment that will make you feel like you were there and evoke emotion within you.

The second, and less obvious, is that a designated capturer can free you to be present in a given moment. By hiring a professional, you no longer have the psychological burden of feeling the need to capture AND to be present. I think it’s the more important function of the two.

Out of curiosity I looked up the root words for photography. Photo, meaning “light”, and graphy, meaning draw. A photographer is literally “drawing with light”—creating an enlightening experience for the person viewing a photograph after it’s been taken.

Ayomide: “Drawing with light” should be the dictionary definition of photography! A photo captures the moment, but like a painting or sculpture, also offers a handle on the context surrounding that moment. Like when you’re on a tour and you see a statue, and the tour guide tells you its story and why it’s more than just bronze. A photo is like that, except you’re also the tour guide. It captures a moment to later trigger a memory of other moments, including before and after the one in the photo. You don’t want to lose that context of that moment in the very attempt to capture it.

That’s why high school reunions fall flat, or returning to your childhood street. You have these fond memories (if you’re lucky) of your street or school, and then one day you get a chance to relive them—to see your high school friends, to return to your childhood street. Of course we often end up regretting that, because it’s not quite the same. The friends feel hollow, the street feels dull, even when they haven’t changed that much—you have.

Were you really better off knowing the “truth” about that past moment, or are you better off with the good memories you had of it? That’s a trick question, though, because what we call our “memories” are really stories that we put together from our snapshots of the past—the snapshots alone can’t live up to our stories.

Adam: It’s such a great question and one many of us can relate to, especially the part about reliving childhood memories. The truth is often a disappointing version of a memory you hold dearly. The spaceship you had built is a heap of cardboard boxes; the castle a musty sofa surrounded by yellowed pillows.

There was a science fiction novel written in 1760, Giphantie, whose author described something quite similar to color photography, and said that once you complete the process “...you have a picture the more precious in that no art can imitate its truthfulness.” In this way a photo can serve as “truth” but also allow you to keep the memories you hold most dear, because your brain remembers (or creates!) the context around the photo.

Maybe this is why we take a photo in the first place, as a way to trigger memories. Secondarily we use them to share those memories with others in a more “real” way. How better to describe a moment in time to someone who wasn’t there than with a photo? After all, they are “worth a thousand words.”

Ayomide: Exactly. The photo then becomes a way to turn the personal memory to a shared one. And because memory is part of identity, that can be shared identity as well. I find that interesting, by the way: our memory is a fundamental aspect of our identity, but in such a quiet way we almost never think about it. Imagine, though, waking up tomorrow morning to realise you couldn’t recall anything about your life before you woke up. It was all just gone. The connection becomes immediately obvious. It’s why we have so many films about people who have lost their memory—they’re really exploring identity: Who are you without your memories? Which goes back to how identity is the story we believe about ourselves.

Any answer we give to “Who are you?” is really a story. And the building blocks for the story include our beliefs and values and personality and relationships, and crucially, our memory. When we capture, we’re trying to save those building blocks. It’s a form of information compression.

Adam: Sohow can we find more ways to work synchronously with modern tools to capture moments asynchronously? I always liked my Twitter header because I felt the two—technology and presentness—were mutually exclusive. But now I’m not so certain.

Ayomide: Simply recognising that false dichotomy is the first step: that you don’t have to choose between living in the moment and capturing it. You can get both, just not at the same time. So yes, be in the moment, be present. But also capture in other ways: in words, in song, even in asynchronous images, like drawing or painting. What matters is trusting our memory, and shifting our focus from capturing exactly to feeling richly.

And if you must capture in the moment, consider appointing a designated capturer. That might be a professional, like your friend for her wedding. But it could also just be a friend—better yet if they’re less invested in that moment. It could even be an automation. And if you’re in a group, you could appoint a designated capturer on a rotating basis.

Adam: This idea of a designated capturer is remarkable because it breaks the tether to the easiest method of capture—the cell phone. Technology has us so firmly in its grasp that our immediate action to capture a moment is to take a photo. We find ourselves with thousands of “memories” on our phones, computers, and in the cloud that we never look at, let alone have time to share with others. Snapping a photo with your phone is easy… but that shouldn’t make it the default.

The other alternatives to capture that you mentioned—aside from presentness—that can also serve as a memory seem to be long forgotten in the era of the cell phone. Writing, drawing, painting, story telling, and creating music are hard and laborious. But they are often the types of capture that stand the test of time and also strike a deep chord with other humans who you want to share the moment with.

Ayomide: Indeed. Capture isn’t just for us as individuals but also as communities. I’m reminded of Socrates reputedly saying at the moment of choosing execution over exile: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Although I wouldn't go as far as to say “not worth living,” it does serve to remind us that examining our lives is critical to living them meaningfully and sharing them richly.  And capture is how we examine. To rephrase the ancient philosopher, the life unexamined is not being lived.

Adam: Thinking back to the original question—is it wrong to want to capture a moment, even at an unplugged wedding? I’ve decided it’s not. Life without memories would be dull. So I wouldn’t sneak in a photo, but I’d opt for being present, and trust her designated capturer for the rest. Presentness and asynchronous capture are truly the best of both worlds.


Our thanks to Charlie Bleecker, Juan David Campolargo, Scott Krouse, Praveen Anuraj and Zain Rivzi for their feedback on early drafts.