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OPINIONS

Being There or Being Present?

My father once told me that he loves zoos because “the more times you go, the higher the probability of seeing an animal engaging in an interesting activity.” That’s why I was so excited one morning when I spotted the jaguar pacing outside of its den — the big cat usually lounged out of sight in the privacy of its indoor enclosure. Now it stalked back and forth in the open, its glossy pelt rippling over the shifting twin peaks of its shoulder blades, its lithe body a single serpentine motion ending in the mesmerizing pendulum swing of its tail. I stared, mouth agape, for far longer than any potential prey item should admire its predator.

My wide-eyed reverie was interrupted as a boy shuffled in with his red ball cap askew, fiddling with a digital camera. He glanced at the jaguar through the viewfinder, snapped several pictures and exclaimed, “I wish it would sit still so I could take a good photo!”

I was stunned. Here was an animal that in years of zoo visits I’d never even seen, and now not only was it outside, it was demonstrating that it was alive, dangerous and beautiful. I resisted the urge to tell him the museum’s taxidermy exhibit might be more to his liking.

Several years later, I went to see the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre. There is something bewitching and unnerving about that famous smile — an effect magnified when the portrait is viewed in person. It’s incredible to realize there is still life to that face even centuries after the death of its owner. Yet I was appalled by the number of people that jostled their way to the front, snapped a picture over the heads of other patrons and hustled out. How can you enjoy a painting if you don’t even look at it?

When people take hasty photographs of a great work of art, it can’t be because they think they’ve captured something unique. I also doubt it’s so that they can admire it more later — they probably never will if they’re not taking time for it now, and there are dozens of high-quality images of it just a click away on Google. What people want is the proof that they saw it, their very own sequence of pixels to remind themselves of their exploits or to tout to friends or post on Facebook as evidence that they were there.

But being there isn’t the same as being present.

Our fast-paced, sound-bite culture of texts and tweets shifts attention away from what we’re actually doing to what others think we’re doing. The way we express our inherent human desires to improve our self-images and share our lives with others is altered by the constant connectivity offered by smartphones and social media.

For example, a report in the New York Times noted the increase in vandalism in national parks in recent years, including pictures and names spray-painted onto famous formations such as Twin Owls in the Rocky Mountains. One possible cause may be the newfound ease with which photos are taken and shared. “Kilroy was here” is no longer a message for strangers who are also here but rather a way for Kilroy to boast to friends and acquaintances about where he’s been and what he’s done.

While most of us wouldn’t go so far as to spray-paint graffiti on a saguaro cactus, I do think we need to be cognizant of how much time we spend doing something versus documenting the fact that we’re doing it. Do outings with friends really need to be advertised on Facebook while they’re happening? Is it really necessary to tweet or check in right this instant?

One afternoon while studying abroad in Australia this past fall, I stood on a pier watching dozens of terns streaking over the sea. Now and again, one of them would separate from the others, fold its wings into an arrowhead shape and dive after one of the small silver fish schooling in the shallows — usually unsuccessfully. After a lucky bird emerged with its catch wriggling in its beak only to have a seagull swoop in and steal its prize, I overheard someone rueing what a great picture he could have taken.

Personally, I don’t regret the photos I didn’t take. That’s what memories are for. I view photographs as a way to remind me of what I’ve lived, not as something through which to live my life.

Then again, I’m a zoo-goer like my father. For others, perhaps the taxidermy exhibit is good enough.

 

Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp@stanford.edu.

About Mindy Perkins

Mindy Perkins ‘15 is an opinions columnist for The Stanford Daily. As a proud Coloradoan and electrical engineering major, her ultimate goal is to apply engineering techniques to researching animals, as well as to draw inspiration from the natural world for engineering applications. In her free time, she enjoys writing, playing the viola and piano and drawing animals, dinosaurs and dragons. You can reach her at mindylp@stanford.edu.
  • Steven

    Interesting article.

  • Classof2009

    Great thoughts here, and well-written.