If You Didn’t Take a Picture, Were You Really There?

Of all the places I ever expected to be sucked into a mosh pit, an art museum was not one of them. But as I joined the mass of people crowding around the Mona Lisa, I found myself wondering if I was going to make it out alive.

With my elbows pointed out at each side, I attempted to get close enough to catch a glimpse of the famous painting. After a solid ten minutes, the only thing blocking my path was a middle-aged couple, both at least eight feet tall, each brandishing a selfie stick while they attempted to take about 25 pictures from every possible angle.

Yeah, annoyance makes me a tad dramatic. However, I’m not exaggerating when I say almost every person in that crowd of hundreds had their phones and/or cameras out. The wait to reach the front was not because each person was taking their time to bask in the beauty of Mona’s elusive smile. It was beause as soon as her face was in view, most promptly turned their backs on the masterpiece in hopes of taking a selfie over their shoulder.

To Document or Not to Document?

I can’t imagine what it would be like to visit the Louvre without feeling the need to document it.

At the time that many of the great works housed there were created, viewing art was a popular form of entertainment for the elite. Not because they considered it educational, but because that is how the rich and famous passed the time. Television and the internet didn’t exist yet, so staring at an intricate painting for hours on end was considered cutting edge.

Now we race through museums with our arms outstretched, viewing it all through the lenses on our phones so we can save the moment to savor later. This is considered the thing to do.

I’m as guilty as anybody else. The Louvre was just one stop I had on a 12-day tour of Europe. And I’m sorry to say that you can only look at so many 2,000-year-old monuments before your head starts to swim. You start to realize that you won’t remember the way the light falls on the frescoed ceiling or the Greek gods carved above the marble pillars. So you take a picture in hopes of preserving that moment. But the moment can’t be recreated. No picture of a painting, whether it’s the Mona Lisa or a street artist’s easel, will ever compare to the real thing.

Selfies are Status Symbols

I don’t blame anyone for taking pictures, or even sharing those pictures on social media. Heck, I took several hundred photos over the course of my trip. The problem arises when instead of taking pictures to highlight the experience, the pursuit of the perfect photo becomes the experience.  If we’re not careful the goal does not become visiting the Louvre. The goal becomes taking a selfie with the Mona Lisa.

Much like the French royals who commissioned great artists to decorate their walls, we paint our feeds and timelines with images of the sights we’ve seen. The greater the aesthetic value, the greater the status symbol.

We do this not just as a way of convincing others we live the perfect life, but as a way of convincing ourselves. Taking the perfect picture allows you to remember the moment as perfect. Creating the illusion that you looked beautiful, felt happy, and didn’t have 300 people pushing against you on all sides.

It’s a delusion not just for social media likes, but so you can look back and convince yourself you fully lived that moment. The one you missed because you weren’t actually looking at the art in front of you. You were giving instructions to the friend behind you. The one who’s taking a photo of you gazing forward.

Real Life Has No Filters

Technology has given us the tools to wage battle between basking in the present and preserving it for future enjoyment. But it hasn’t taught us how to win the war. Do you want to remember the watered down version of the present moment forever? Or do you want to experience that moment fully, knowing that moment may be all you have?

The latter comes with grave responsibility. There are no filters to put on real life. You need to live that moment exactly as it’s given to you. This means going to the top of the Eiffel Tower even though it’s cold and raining and you can’t feel your face. It means eating a crepe that leaks Nutella all over your favorite scarf, and no one tells you there’s strawberry around your mouth till 20 minutes later. It means being exhausted and letting your hair be a mess because you’re operating on about four hours of sleep. But you still get up at 7 AM to explore the city.

Eiffel Tower Picture.
Me at the Eiffel Tower, complete with red eyes, a bad camera flash, and a couple I don’t know canoodling in the corner.

 I want to remember all of that. Despite the messy bits, or perhaps because of them, it was a beautiful life experience.

And because it was a beautiful life experience, I took pictures in front of every famous monument I could find. Some of them were selfies. All of them were posed. Some of them turned out well. Some look awkward as heck. But I’m keeping all of them.

Was I Really There at All?

In 10 or 20 or 30 years from now, I’m not going to look back on my trip and wish I had gotten more Facebook likes. I’m not going to remember what version of the iPhone I had. I’m not going to wish I had taken less pictures that day my hair was blowing everywhere.

I will want to remember what I looked like that time I went to Europe when I was 25. I will want to remember the details of everything I saw. Because, looking back, I might just realize it was perfect.

A more philosophical mind might ask: If a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, did it make a noise? Instead, I ask: If you visit the Louvre and don’t take a picture of the Mona Lisa, were you really there at all?

I never did make my way to the very front of the mosh pit. Someone more aggressive than I squeezed into the vacated spot that the couple with the selfie sticks eventually left. As arms, shoulders, and faces continued to loom on every side, I realized there was only one way I was going to get my view. I raised my phone above my head and spent 30 seconds fumbling to see the world through my camera lens. The picture was blurry and off-center. I was there.

The Mona Lisa, in all of her grainy glory.

Rachel Ginder

Rachel is a bookaholic who dreams of reading for a living, but has recently and quite comfortably settled for working as an editorial assistant at an East Coast university press. She spends her free time writing book reviews and is on a constant quest to find the perfect setting for novel reading. Her current favorite is sitting on a bench at her local park, where she alternates between fantasizing she is either Anita from 101 Dalmatians or Rory from Gilmore Girls. When not pretending she’s a fictional character, she can occasionally be lured indoors with a large cup of chai tea or earl grey (she’s not picky).
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