Is Smartphone Photography Killing Our Memories and Experiences?

If you’ve gone to a concert or public event or even certain art openings recently, you’ll notice that something is amiss. In the past, people would look, enjoy and try their best to experience the moment when they attended such things. Now, many of them are doing their best to craft the most likeable smartphone photo.

The BBC’s Newsnight is troubled by this trend, and so they set out to discover if the smartphone photography movement is doing more harm than good.

One of the examples Newsnight’s Stephen Smith uses to illustrate the point is this viral comparison photo from earlier this year. At the top we have the view at the Vatican as people bid farewell to Pope John Paul II in 2005, and at the bottom the same ceremony for Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. Which crowd do you think remembers their experience best?


It could be that the 2013 crowd with their pictures and videos will remember the moment best simply because they have a record of it. But it’s also possible that they only actually experienced the moment on their smartphone or tablet screen at the time, not truly engaging with it.

It’s an interesting question that the report takes on from several angles — enlisting the help of curators, musicians and even a psychologist specializing in narcissism — and we’d like your input as well. What’s your take? Is smartphone photography killing our memories and experiences, or just helping us preserve them?

(via Fstoppers)

  • Michael

    Something I’v been saying for a while now… we don’t enjoy the moment anymore. This is why I never use my smartphone in a concert or some event. And usually I get annoyed when people put their phone over their head in front of me…

  • Vin Weathermon

    At least if you bothered to do the video in landscape you might have a usable movie to review and remark about. Weddings are another place where photographers used to have cool shots of the audience enraptured by the wedding couple and the officiant…now you get shots of them checking the footage. These things should be banned at any religious service…

  • Dre Bailey

    This video is hilarious but talks about the same thing. Search on youtube for the following title

    6 Reason why Professional Photographers are No Longer

  • Anne Mullett

    See no problem, unless it interferes with another’s view, of course. Time and place, is important too.

  • DamianM

    On photography- Susan Sontag
    Imagine what she would think of us now?

    I don’t own any form of “smartphone” or tablet” or shoe boosters that make toast and im glad. This form of technology is not advancing us, its slowing us down.

  • Feroz Khan

    The problem with the phones is, you’re not just ruining it for the person behind you. You’re also ruining it for yourself

  • Scott Hortop

    I wonder, do people really bother to look back at the shaky noisy images they shoot on these occasions? And if they do, are they not simply disappointed by the sea of bright screens, so all they have recorded is a spoiled record, that they have spoiled for other people too.

  • ocham

    I noted years ago my memories of an event were tempered by the use of my camera. Even when I can frame and fire from memory muscle my attention is not on the people I am with or the joy of experience. The pictures are really all I have after a year unless something really intense strikes a chord with me.

  • Samcornwell

    “One never sees things, one always sees them through a screen. The multitudes of photographers now intensely staring not at the surrounding world, nor their loved ones being wed or graduating, but at their camera backs or cell phones searching for an image on the small screens, or summoning the past as an archival image on these same screens, is symptomatic of the image’s primacy over the existence it is supposed to depict. It is as if we have banished the actual experience and instead flattened it into a small rectangle, preferring its commodification as a picture show.” – Fred Ritchin, 2009.

  • tttulio
  • Qesmat

    Even if they help us preserve the memories, they don’t by any means help us to fully enjoy the experience.

  • Renato Murakami

    It’s hopefully, in my most optimistic stance, a thing that often happens with recent technology. People don’t really think before using it, they don’t even understand much what they are doing, we still don’t have strong cultural guidelines to it, and it’s “the hype” nowadays.
    I think I’m reading more and more discussions about this recently, so perhaps people are starting to realize that it’s just not worth trading real life experiences with making videos of them to show off later.
    And it of course depends on several factors – I’ve seen several displays of events being trashed by a huge ammount of smartphone displays and such, but in my own experience it’s not as prominent… it still happens for shure, but not as blatant as some cases presented.
    What I’m trying to say is: We’ll hopefully reach some point when people realize that there are proper places, proper moments, proper equipment and proper scenes worth capturing. And well, it might take a while, but it’ll hopefully happen.
    It’s weird how many people don’t realize that all shots taken with a smartphone in given conditions will all come out crappy and useless. So much that they keep struggling with it while not living the moment.
    The way things are evolving, I think we’ll eventually have restrictive policies for some events.. like wedding where photography and video are allowed mostly for pros, and guests are politely asked not to use their smartphones and not to bring cameras.
    I’ve been in concerts where the artists themselves ask to enjoy the moment and stop taking pics and videos. I’ve been in some where artists just won’t get on stage before an overall check if people are with their smartphones/tablets/cameras up. And they’d plain stop if they notice people with cameras on hand.
    We might even come to a point where there will be this anti-technology sentiment as a counter-response to how pervasive it has become.
    It’s of course a long term thing. So much as I don’t think I’ll actually see much change in my lifetime.
    With new stuff like Google Glass the current trend now points to a close future where people will be even more engaged in taking tons of pics of their everyday life experiences… because it tries to get the tech less obstrusive and specially less of a bother for other people.
    So it’s investing more on trying to keep people taking those thousands of pics they’ll shove at some storage device ’till it gets corrupted or plain forgotten at a pace that it becomes plain impossible to curate everything.
    But you know, these things tend to change. I suppose in a future where tons of people have adopted Google Glass like devices, at some point people will start realizing how fruitless and how much of their attention is being robbed by something that’s not worth it.

  • Jaqian .

    It’s part of the fun, maybe the vids should be only 15 seconds long like the new instagram. You can share these with your friends on Facebook create a mash up of concerts you’ve gone to and reminisce later on.

  • Burnin Biomass

    IMO, people are creating tons of images and clips that no one will ever watch or look at again. And in doing such, they are more worried about getting an image than enjoying the thing they are filming.

  • Goofball Jones

    Well, this proves that the people here and elsewhere have very short memories. Again, this is nothing new. Take out “smartphone” or “camera phone” and replace it with “Instamatic” or other small film camera. Ever go to a concert in the 70s or 80s or 90s? When the performers came out on stage you were blinded for a few seconds. Not from the stage lights, but from hundreds and hundreds of small flashes all going off at once. Whenever someone ran across the stage, same thing happened.

    Now, you don’t get the blinding flash every few minutes, you get the glow of phones. Maybe this also replaces everyone holding up their lighters when the lights go out.

  • Nithin

    yes.. true

  • bob cooley

    I’ve covered (literally) hundreds of concerts, and prior to smartphones, I saw VERY few cameras or flashes in concerts. it was an occasional flash here and there, but no where near the number one sees today.

    I think you are trying to make a point from a position of nonsense.

  • Grandpa Joe

    Oh, also, we walked uphill both ways in the snow.

    Seriously, all things new and popular are destroying the moment/society/the earth/the universe. It was all so much better when we were ‘present’ in the moment! Screw technology! All it’s doing is creating more and more hack ‘photographers’ that threaten to re-define media jobs and photography! Why can’t people just go back to doing the stuff they used to do?!?!?

  • shashank

    This phenomenon too will hit a plateau in the near future. Right now, I encourage it somebody else is always recording the moment for you while you enjoy it. Is a win-win for both schools of thought.

  • sokhi

    Yea smartphones are killing our memories and experience, i strongly agree with you.

  • Disagree

    Rubbish! All of the people pointing their smartphones at the pope are having different experiences. Just as all of the people in the photo above(without phones) are having their own seperate unique experience. This article should be called “Most people are stupid and don’t pay proper attention to things, The smartphone just happens to be there while they are being their stupid selves”. If you hang around with intelligent people you will notice that many of them have smart phones and many of them photograph, film and post when they are doing something fun or interesting. If you hang around unintelligent people you will notice the same behavior, only with less intellectual engagement.

    I find it ironic that a photographic community is saying that someone photographing an event on their phone is not ‘experiencing life’ yet somehow a professional photographer standing nearby with a better camera is? This is exactly what we as photographers DO WITH OUR TIME! And many of us claim that photography forces us to see things we wouldn’t normally have seen, pay more attention, slow down and experience…. e.t.c.

    The fact is that some of the people waving their smartphone in the air ARE experiencing life to the fullest whilst using this amazing creative tool to share it, and others using the same technology are mindless lemmings not experiencing anything, The phones have nothing to do with the fact that many people are generally disengaged with the good things in life.

  • Mitch Labuda

    Innovation brings changes to what we knew, and then change brings innovations to what we know. What we know, is the cycle is endless.

  • Mr

    Could you also not say the same thing about digital cameras? Now that the incremental cost for each photo you take is essentially zero, there’s no disincentive to taking any photos at any time.

  • Eric Rutowski

    I was upset when my wife bought me a smart phone, I have been watching this monster taking over every aspect of human interactions, birthday parties where people are texting, the time waiting at places where no one looks at each other, or reads a magazine, I vow not to be one of the obsessed soulless phone junkies, so I just leave the smart phone in the car or in my dresser before I even go places, those things just kill the moment. I am a high school art teacher for twenty years , I have seen how this disease has effected the quality of art my students can produce. They don’t understand when to turn it off and are losing the ability to concentrate on one task without disruption. Unfortunately it’s only going to get worse.

  • Jeff G. Rottman

    You’re right in one sense. Smartphone use does beg for attention by the user, so the user does lose attention to what’s going on in front of him, but reviewing the photos later does help the memory, and often ads details that first went unnoticed. Also, as lifelogger cameras, such as the Memoto or Autographer without screens become more popular, we may see less screens in front of us. Those can take photos hands free.

  • Zack

    Yeah, there was a time when bicycles were looked at in a similar light.

    I think in 50 years our grandchildren will have a good chuckle at things like this.

  • birdmechanical

    This is anecdotal, but in general…I don’t have the best memory. There are trips, vacations, concerts, experiences that I have mostly forgotten.

    Those may be from years ago, and I don’t have vivid memories of them. But if I happen to find a photo a family member or friend took, suddenly I begin remembering that shirt I used to wear, what that day was like, what the area looked like, what I looked like, what the people at the time looked like. This photographic reference sparks all sorts of memories that were previously dormant.

    Then when you consider, how unreliable eye witness testimony and memory is. The photograph will spark a more accurate portrayal than your memory ever could.

  • JoyLyn

    As a photographer , when I am photographing an event I see things differently. And when you are in that mode, you don’t fully experience all that is around you . You are focused on getting the pictures you want. When I just want to relax and enjoy my time I leave my camera behind. I have seen many professional photographers photographs destroyed by others taking pictures. Especially at weddings. I own a smart phone but I do not and will not take any photos with it.

  • Ashley Pomeroy

    “Is smartphone photography killing our memories and experiences, or just helping us preserve them?”

    In brief, no. The answer is no. But it’s much too complex to explain fully in the space of a comment field, and ultimately the question is a non-sequitur; it doesn’t follow that the impression we retain in our minds is an accurate reflection of the event that we perceived, and if our memories are altered by a record of the time then the same is true whatever the recording medium. And you would have to examine the purpose of memory, insofar as it has a purpose; is it better to have a perverted record than no record at all? Etc.

  • James
  • JRG

    Maybe they always were bored at the event and now they have something to try to have fun with while they wait for the boring event to end.

  • Laura

    I remember when my first grandson was born, I was the only one allowed in the delivery room with my daughter. I was supposed to take pictures of him being born for everyone else. When the moment came, I was in such awe that I didn’t want to disturb my experience by lifting a camera to my face. Everyone was saddened, but they understood. To this day, I am so glad I chose to experience that moment and see it with my own eyes, and not through a lens.

  • Matt

    Wow, really? I think it is a positive thing. More people recording their own experience’s so they can remember or share or whatever. Is it relevant to anyone else? Does it have to be? No, to both. Are they missing the moment? Not really, they are not juggling position, fstop, shutter speed, iso to get the best shot. They are just snapping pics as the moment happens. For some of those crowds it lets them actually see something besides the back of someone’s head.

    I think it is kind of crass and condescending to judge everyone else as missing the moment.

  • shirley

    Definitely does not help in the formation of a memory. This has happened to me umpteen number of times. I have learn t now not to fidget with my phone for a picture when something significant is happening.

  • Disagree

    Yes but operating a professional camera takes a lot more mental effort than pressing the ONE button on a smartphone camera app, and pointing it at what you are seeing, so it is possible that with the small amount of brain power this simple act takes, that someone might also simultaneously use the other 99.9% of their attention to experience something? most people don’t theorise and analyse photography like we all do, and as such can partake in it without all the baggage that comes with taking photography seriously.

  • Eugene Chok

    i just shoot pictures of people shooting pictures at weddings now, so much easier then actually shooting the wedding, since they got it covered anyway

  • Thomas Casey

    One person in 2005 was ahead of the game.