Thursday, October 29, 2009

For the record

Shortly after acquiring my first ever digital camera last fall, I brought it with me on a hike (to the southwest part of the Carmel). I had the usual reasons for taking a camera with me. But I did not envision what the camera would take away from me.

Quickly I found myself doing pretty much nothing but snapping photographs. Instead of appreciating the sights around me, I was treating them in a purely functional manner. As I walked along, I constantly evaluated whether or not what I saw was worth recording. The pictures I ended up with were great. But I missed out on all the other reasons for hiking: the calmness of a landscape undistracted by modern development; the in-your-face beauty of forests, springs, and wildlife; the anticipation of never knowing which unique archaeological site or strange flower awaited me around the next bend. I returned from the hike with plenty of JPGs, but not nearly enough memories.

Of course I am not the first person to act this way. It is said that some tourists spend so much time and effort on taking pictures, that they never get around to actually experiencing the place they are in. They succeed in using their surroundings, as photo opportunities, at the expense of enjoying them. I had heard of this attitude, but it was a surprise how naturally I started doing the same thing.

My experience with the camera reminded me of the novel "The Famished Road", by Nigerian writer Ben Okri, which I had read in college a few years previously. One of the novel's main characters (Jeremiah) owns a camera and, in addition to taking family pictures and the like, he photographs riots and other events to support the poor in their fight for political standing. But the camera's usefulness soon turns into an unhealthy dependence. Rather than rely directly on their perceptions, people prefer to consult the photographic record for their facts, and are helpless when it is taken away from them.

Jeremiah's camera has great significance in the novel, as it is implicitly compared to the author's pen. A major theme of the novel is the challenge of converting a dynamic oral tradition (of folklore and legends) into a static form (the written novel) while not losing all that is vital and valuable in the process. The photographer Jeremiah failed at this. The author, through the novel's unusual choice of structure, tries to do better.

This challenge was not unique to West Africans like Ben Okri. The Jewish people had to face it too, nearly 2000 years ago when the Oral Torah first began to be written down. It was advantageous, and perhaps inevitable, to convert all that knowledge into a form that could survive the death of any individual. But presumably it was not done earlier because along with the advantages came costs. As the centuries pass and successive layers of commentary build up, it becomes progressively easier to focus on the minutiae of the uppermost layer, rather than on the broad ideas which underlie the entire system.

Returning to my camera: Soon enough I realized what the camera was doing to my hiking experience. With a little effort, I trained myself to keep the camera way in the back of my mind. Now, only if I see something striking do I consider whether it's worth a picture. At other times I try to ignore the camera entirely. I have struck a balance between use of the camera and use of myself. Now I think I get the optimal usage out of both of them.

The same balance can be achieved in regard to Jewish tradition. A person's Torah study often tends to the extreme of being either emotional and inspired, or technical and withdrawn. The same imbalance can carry over into how one lives their life. Ideally, of course, a person will achieve both aspects simultaneously. It is certainly a challenge to unite the Torah's logical and emotional aspects. But if you ever meet someone who has succeeded at it, or to some degree succeed in doing it yourself, you intuitively realize that you could never choose to live your life in any other manner.

1 comment:

Beisrunner said...

A rejected title for this post: "Pictures or it didn't happen"