In the past ten days, I have been to some beautiful places and seen some beautiful sights. And as I have done so, I have taken some beautiful photos.
The photos are disappointing. In part that is because I took them on my phone, which, while having a better camera than any stand-alone I have ever bought, isn’t exactly fantastic. But the main reason for my disappointment is that the thing itself is always more beautiful than a snapshot of it.
Snapshots are just that: moments captured in part in the midst of a more substantial and immersive experience.
For instance, I went to the Isle of May and took a photo of some puffins. It looks nice enough. But it doesn’t tell the story of the boat ride over to the island; it doesn’t show the scale of the puffin colony there; it doesn’t capture the smell; it doesn’t immerse you in the warmth of the sun and coolness of the exposed sea wind and distinctive feeling when those two sensations combine together on the flesh. It is a faint echo of a richer memory.
Or take another coastal moment: this from the Pembrokeshire coast in west Wales. I took a photo of a little beach, surrounded by rocks and cliffs that look like something from a post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi film. And the photo shows something of the beauty of the place. But it doesn’t show how I had to scramble over rocks for half an hour to reach it. Or that, because the route I took is the only route there, only two other people had made the journey that afternoon and they soon left.
A photo can’t show you what it feels like to be in such a beautiful place and to have it all to yourself. It doesn’t demonstrate the sheer wastefulness of God in creation by making all these beautiful beaches that nobody ever walks on, and then the gift of being there in that moment on that day in what will be forever a unique memory.
All this is to say that photos are inherently limiting in their nature. They tell you as much about what they cannot capture as what they can. And that seems somehow right to me.
My favourite chapter of my favourite fiction book is The piper at the gates of dawn in The Wind in the Willows. It is a sort of interlude, interrupting the flow of the main narrative with an episode that could be cut out of the book without altering the plot in any way. It is there as a parable; a lesson that everyone needs to learn buried in the middle of a book about taking animals.
The Water Rat and the Mole hop into their boat and row down the river in search of Otter’s missing son, Portly. This quest eventually leads them to Pan, the pipe-playing pagan deity whose music is renowned for the awe it inspires. The animals are rapt as they listen; they are transfixed by it. Then they fall into a deep sleep, and as they wake in the morning the piper at the gates of dawn has disappeared and they have no memory of the song he was playing.
They see this as an act of kindness: a memory of the song would be a sad one because it would be so inadequate an experience compared to hearing it in actuality.
As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses, and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.
(I once ate a slice of carrot cake so delicious that no food has ever compared – or, I now suspect, could ever compare – to it. I often regret having eaten the cake.)
All this is to explain why I didn’t take a photo recently. I was on a aeroplane, looking down over England with its distinctive fields and hedgerows, with a light flurry of snowdrift-like clouds scattered across my view of the countryside. It was a beautiful moment. My impulse was to reach for my phone to capture the moment. But I am glad I resisted.
The memory is more stimulating – more imaginative – than a photo of it could ever have been. It is a beautiful thing in the way that a photo isn’t. And a half-recollection would have reminded me not of what I saw, but of what of it I could never see again. It would have provoked sadness.
Experiences are sometimes best left alone, uncaptured, and therefore protected from future disappointment and sadness.
My best photos go un-taken. For everything else there is Instagram.