Today I came across an article in the Washington Post about apps that help you create fake photos of you in exotic locations so you can make your Instagram followers jealous. Apparently you just upload a photo, and it uses some sort of artificial intelligence to create a background that makes it look like you are in some cool place or doing something exciting.

So I wonder what happens you show those pictures to someone else. When they see a picture of you in Croatia, or Fiji, or wherever else you are pretending to be, how does that conversation go?

Friend: “Oh man, I saw your Instagram photo of you in Hawaii! I went there a few years ago and loved it. How was it?”
You: “Oh it was cool.”
Friend: “Did you see Waimea Canyon?”
You: “Yeah!”
Friend: “So then I suppose while you were there you probably went up to Kalalau?”
You: “Kala-what? Oh! Yeah, that, I saw that. It was… a sight.”
Friend: “Ooh, and the Nualolo trail! That was awesome, did you get to do any hiking?”
You: “Hiking? Yeah, hiking! I went hiking on… trails…”
Friend: “I’ll bet you got some awesome pictures from that. You should show me the rest of your pics sometime. I’d love to see them.”
You: “Oh, uh, yeah. Let’s do that… sometime…”

I worry that our nation (I don’t know if it is a global trend or not), and especially my generation (millennials) have become so fixated on taking pictures that we have forgotten how to actually experience life. I used Hawaii as an example for a reason. When I went out there, I experienced moments where I didn’t even want to take a picture because a picture couldn’t capture it. Instead, I just wanted to… be there… in a Zen state of being. I just wanted to experience a moment that might never happen again.

The phenomenon is not limited to the grand moments of exotic travel. I see the same behavior in the smaller moments throughout life. A few years ago I went to see an exhibit at a botanical garden where they featured rare butterflies from the Caribbean, and you could walk into a room where they were flying around freely. I was trying very hard to get a picture of one particular species. In fact I was trying so hard that while I had my camera fixed on it, I almost didn’t even notice that there was a butterfly sitting right on my shoulder. I was so concerned with getting a picture that I almost missed the rare butterfly sunbathing on my shoulder. As I realized that, I looked around and noticed how many other people were doing the exact same thing. I just put my camera away and sat down to let it all just happen and admire the rare creatures I will never see again.

I’m not the first to express this idea. A few months ago my brother was telling me a story about Joel Sartore, a photographer with National Geographic. In his photography class available on The Great Courses, Sartore tells the story of a time when he went to a place that let you get up close with whales and even pet them. As everyone was leaving, they were asked if they petted the whale, and none of them did because they were all too busy taking pictures. Sartore reminds everyone to “pet the whale”. That is, enjoy your pictures, but don’t forget to live the moment and experience it. I’ve been thinking about that quote for months, and today’s story in WaPo made me want to express my thoughts.

There is a phrase, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” The irony is that too many pics can also keep it from happening, or at least keep it from happening in the way you were expecting. I’m not saying we should all throw our cameras in the dumpster. I like photography as an art form in itself, and there is no reason you should just stop altogether. But at the same time, we have become a culture that is so concerned with showing other people we were there that we end up not even being there ourselves.

My advice is to get rid of Facebook and Instagram completely. There are plenty of other reasons to ditch Facebook, but social media, and Instagram in particular, are responsible for this cultural trend toward “photo fixation”. If there is nowhere to photo brag, you won’t be tempted to do it, and you won’t have to put up with the other fakers in the world that make your experiences feel insignificant.

Like the butterfly on my shoulder, the world is a thing of beauty and complexity sitting right in front of your face. Don’t let the moment slip away while looking for a chance to brag on Instagram.