Can a Camera Re-Wire Your Brain?

Sending my main camera to the repair shop for a month and a half felt like losing a limb. There. I said it. I do not mean to trivialize the experience of anyone who has actually lost a limb (like I did in college when I wrote and performed a song about a fictional boy with no legs) but I will try and explain.

Over the last year, I traveled through about eight different countries and the camera was with me virtually at all times. Certainly anywhere interesting was largely experienced through the camera. I've written before about the differences between experiencing a place through the eyes and experiencing it through the lens, but I hadn't quite realized until recently the extent to which I use the camera as an extension of my senses. I can't speak for how other people travel, but the heavy volume of photos and video I take means that not only do I physically view my environment through the lens but I spend a lot of time after the event going through photos, examining them for clarity and processing them to help the image reinforce the ephemeral essence felt in a particular place. Realistically, there are certain details that I simply wouldn't be able to see without the assistance of a 300mm lens. The camera lets me get close enough to see the shifting expressions on the face of a monkey and not only do I leave with photos, I also spend lots of time looking through the lens and taking in views unavailable to the naked eye.

As a result of all this, the camera changes my experience of a place in very fundamental ways. Spending a month and a half without it left me feeling a sort of withdrawal from the absence of this electronic limb. I ended up renting a camera for my Costa Rica trip in September but this alien camera felt like a new limb that behaved differently, had different tolerances and different controls that I needed to learn before I could use this replacement limb naturally. I had to learn where the buttons for key functions were located before I could operate it without looking and focus all of my attention on the subject. It took a while.

This is by no means a new concept and anyone who knows me well knows that I take the mediation of perception and memory through technology very seriously. To better understand this relationship, however, I find it helpful to draw a comparison between technology and mind-altering substances. Travel to virtually any place on earth and you'll usually be a stones-throw away from someone using a mind-altering substance. They could be drinking coffee for that morning pick-me-up. Chewing Khat or Betel Nut to suppress hunger and keep working through the hot noonday sun. Alcohol to wind down the tired body at the end of the day. Cannabis on the weekend to make that sunset just a little bit sweeter. Valerian Root calms the mind and help you sleep. Whatever your background, you can probably relate to at least one of these examples. These are all natural substances we use to reshape our perception and as human communities evolve we go through a process of exploring mind-altering tools to decide whether or not there's a place for them in our public and private lives. It is rarely an easy process but if you look at it from an development perspective, part of growing up is learning how to use powerful tools responsibly.

I believe we're going through that process right now when it comes to digital photography. In a single generation we've seen the near-complete saturation of certain parts of the world by cameras. The mind-jarring volume of the images we generate on a daily basis is just one of the indicators that we're dealing with a tool that touches a very primal desire of human beings to augment our daily experiences with the permanence of a photograph. The feeling of holding my camera in my hand again (not just any camera but my camera) and the comforting sensation of running my fingers over the well-worn corners rubbed smooth by thousands of hours of use indicates to me that the relationship I have with this device has fundamentally changed the way my brain is wired. The power of this tool, just like the power of the substances I mentioned above, is something to be taken seriously. We're only beginning to understand the power of this technology but I personally find it exciting to be a creative professional exploring the new and exciting frontiers unlocked by modern digital photography.

So to celebrate the camera's homecoming, I had to celebrate with a photo shoot. Luckily the camera arrived the day before Halloween. I dressed up as a cave man. I will admit, it was mostly an excuse to purchase and own a dreadlock wig.

If someone has an in with Caveman Coffee, let them know I want to sell them some new artwork.