If there are millions to be made off of building a massive Instagram following, where my chiseled (not really) and topless (I wear a rash guard) form are splashed across the tiled squares of the interweb…
Where the soft, pastel (only with filters) light of the sunset silhouettes my stylish linen pants (don’t own any) and casual-chic button-down (haven’t bought new clothes in a while)…
Where I record effortless (deciding what I’m going to say takes work), inspirational (picture me looking into the camera and saying, “all you have to do is believe in yourself!), and pithy (I like to write long sentences) thoughts of the day (thoughts you just had that day are probably best kept to yourself)…
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
I want no part of it.
It’s true, I could be missing out on the big bucks by choosing to largely ignore photos and video. But I have my reasons.
I don’t want to go through life thinking about which parts of it would look good on camera
For all the screeds against going through life with your smartphone in your hands, not looking at beautiful vistas with your eyes, but through your camera lens, I actually think the bigger problem with living your life on Instagram is the mental bandwidth.
Everywhere you go, every moment you live, every piece of avocado toast you order, in the back of your mind, you are thinking: Instagram? (Or, take your pick of social media broadcast platforms).
I’ve been there. For a long while I was there. I would walk through the streets of a new city, gazing up at the architecture, smelling the smells, listening to the sounds, looking at the people, but all the while in the back of my mind, even if in my subconscious, I would be thinking: is this good enough to photograph? Do I want to project this time and moment and image out to the world?
Eventually, I decided I would much rather simply leave the phone at home. Or, if I needed it for directions or to coordinate logistics, leave it in a bag somewhere. Delete the apps from your phone. Break the habit in whatever way you can.
But haven’t we always taken photos when we travel?
Yes, we have. But the Internet and social media and digital cameras have fundamentally changed that experience.
We have unlimited space to record. Once we were constrained by the amount of film we had, or by the number of those disposable travel cameras we’d buy before the trip. Now, we have unlimited storage. Even if our phones fill up, there’s the cloud. We can film all day, every day, to our heart’s content.
More impactful, are the feedback mechanisms of social media (the likes, the comments, the followers) that are designed to deliver little dopamine hits to our brain and keep us coming back.
Social media has fundamentally altered our relationship to documenting our lives. We don’t do it anymore so that we can show our friends the photo album when we get back home and develop the film. Now, we do it for the dopamine hit. That’s not healthy.
Do you want the experience, or do you want to document the experience?
And no, you can’t do both at once without compromising the experience itself.
I was in Medellín, Colombia once with a group of people, and some of us decided to take a salsa lesson. Not five minutes into the hour-long class, literally in the middle of practicing a step, one of the women in the group took out her phone and started recording the lesson. She pointed the camera at me, at the salsa instructor, and then at herself.
She never did learn how to salsa dance that day. But I’m sure her thousands of followers on Instagram appreciated that she was pretending to learn, right?
My kid’s school has a policy against parents recording school plays. And thank God, because there’s nothing worse than looking at a little one giving it their all and simultaneously trying to ignore the twenty smartphone screens on your periphery from all the parents holding them up in the air for the best shot. I’m sorry, but if grandma couldn’t make it to see the school play, then she couldn’t make it.
At the last wedding I went to, the first thing the officiant did was ask everyone to put away their phones. At least a dozen guests had seriously planned to look at the couple saying their wedding vows through screens rather than actually look at the couple saying the vows.
The tide is turning. People are realizing that it’s better to focus on the experience than on documenting the experience. Do you lose some photographic record of something when you may wish you had one? Yeah, sometimes. But your experience - and your memory of it - is all the richer for it. Your memories are always with you. The photographic record is somewhere up in the cloud.
I don’t want to produce the thing while I’m doing the thing
When I write or when I record a podcast, I’ve had time to think about my experience and to process it. Training a camera on my life is the opposite. That’s producing the content as I’m living it.
I simply don’t want to live that way. When I’m climbing, I don’t want to take a break to rig up another rope or get out my drone (drones are damn noisy to have at a cliff when belayers and climbers need to clearly communicate with each other) and start filming. When I’m kitesurfing, I don’t want to bring my camera in a water-proof bag out on the water with me and hit record. Part of the great joy of kiting is the ability to focus only on what’s in front of you: the wind, the waves, the sun. Not the GoPro in your lines pointed at your face.
In contrast, writing and podcasting are asynchronous to the experience. I can live my life and then later produce content about it. I can focus on doing the things I love and connecting with the people in front of me, without doing the work at the exact same moment.
I’m not that good a photographer, nor do I want to press others into service on my behalf
They say behind every gorgeous Instagram photo of a sexy woman on a beach are a hundred mediocre photos taken by her boyfriend or husband or girlfriend. I’ve seen these productions in action.
When I went to Mexico in April to kitesurf, my friend and I were walking down the nearly abandoned beach on the ocean side of Isla Blanca, waves crashing, beautiful white sand in either direction, palm trees, and the only other people we came across were a topless girl in the sand, kneeling in the waves, artfully throwing her hair this way and that into the wind, and two guys with smartphones trying to capture her from every angle. It was a long beach - as we approached, saw what was happening, and walked by, the photography continued the entire time, unabated.
I am not a great photographer, nor do I want to spend the time taking the photos necessary to become one, nor do I want to press friends and significant others into taking the photos necessary to make it all look good. So I’m not going to.
More importantly: I’m not going to start a newsletter that relies on content that I know I’m not committed to making the best I can. Which brings me to:
I want to be challenged in my writing
If I’m not going to be showing you a constant stream of photos of the things I did, the places I went, the people I was with, that means I’m going to have to describe it for you. And that means stretching myself with my writing.
A few weeks ago, I wrote my first Weekly Update from Cabarete in the Dominican Republic where I was kitesurfing. I had only taken one picture of the kites spread out on the beach. But I wanted to tell people what it was like to kitesurf. You can watch all the kitesurfing videos ever made and go follow some professional kiters on Instagram, but I’m not sure any of that will actually communicate what it’s like.
Here’s what I wrote:
You fly the kite, tapping deep into childhood memories of directing something high up in the air, watching it luff and dive and move to your whimsy, and then you direct it to pull you across the ocean on a wakeboard, or a surf board if it pleases you, wind blowing in your hair, the ocean under your feet, pulling in the bar for more and more speed, leaning back against the harness connecting you to the kite, and then - you bear upwind, create tension in the lines, give a yank to the bar, run the kite overhead, and then UP.
The kite pulls you into the air, ten feet, fifteen feet, as if a benevolent hand was lifting you up by the waist, the sounds falling away, the feeling of weightlessness, and you, feathering the kite back and forth before you start to fall. And then you look down, the waves of the ocean approaching, pointing your board downwind as you pull down on the bar, powering up the kite, slowing your descent, until you glide back on to the water, dipping the kite further to pick up speed until you are again whisking over the waves with not a care in the world.
Like I said: pure joy.
That’s what kitesurfing feels like.
There’s a reason people read novels even though they don’t have any pictures in them. The words create the picture in your mind, and that picture in your mind can be far more vivid and powerful than the equivalent photo or video.
A big part of what this newsletter is about is experience. I’m finding more and more that the best way I can truthfully communicate experience is not through photos or videos, but through words.