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Seeing the Mona Lisa

Reading this article about the people who visit the Mona Lisa got me to thinking about the value of true experience.

I first began to think about this after my first year of Burning Man – it was a totally overwhelming experience, as it is for all newbies. There was so much to see and do, I just couldn’t stop moving for fear of missing something – and I wanted to remember it all, so I moved from art piece to performance to weird happening to theme camp, pausing only briefly at each, being sure to grab a picture so I could remember it later.

I realized afterward that much of my first year was experienced observed through the filter of a camera lens. Looking back, I’m glad that I have all these great photos, but too often I think the camera got in the way of me being truly in the moment, preoccupied instead with attempting to preserve the experience for later, and not necessarily enjoying the experience in the now.

When I went back the following year, I purposely brought only a small crappy camera, and very little film. Forcing myself to leave the camera behind on outings, I wanted to be more a part of my surroundings than just a casual observer. As a result, memories of my second trip are much more powerful and personal than my first. I also have an overall greater appreciation of the experience the second time around, and a true feeling of participation.

To bring this back to the context of the article, when I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City earlier this year, I saw many people doing the same thing described in the article – stand in front of a piece for 15 seconds or so, snap a picture and walk away. I realize there’s a lot of art to be seen in the Met, but what’s the point if you’re not going to really see the piece? Why even bother?

I say all this, but I love pictures. I love taking pictures. I have lots of pictures. So it’s really hard for me to make the decision to leave the camera behind. But I think there’s just some experiences that a photograph will never do justice to, and in those cases it’s best to just be there.

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