The Magic of Viewing Life Without a Lens

balloonsFor the first time in a long time, I got to see something magical on Friday.

St. Louis has a big annual balloon race–I don’t know if it’s known outside of St. Louis, but it’s big here. The “race” (I put that in quotes because, I mean, they’re balloons–they kind of just float for a while until they land) takes place on a Saturday afternoon in mid-September every year.

But the special part is what happens on Friday.

On the Friday night before the race, there is something called “the balloon glow.” I’ve heard about the balloon glow over the 14 years I’ve lived here, but I’ve never attended. It just seemed kind of underwhelming–you watch hot air balloons on the ground in the dark? What’s the big deal.

Now I know.

My parents were in town this weekend and we needed something to do on Friday night, so we headed over to the balloon glow together. Even as we approached the field–which looked like a state fair in terms of the amount of people, vendors, music, and mud–I didn’t think much of the glow. It just looked like a bunch of balloons sitting in a field.

It was only when we reached the balloons and walked among them that I realized how ridiculously beautiful they were.

It’s tough to describe–this photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was an otherworldly sensation to walk among the balloons. I felt like a little kid in the presence of this huge, colorful balloons.

The balloons weren’t constantly lit. Rather, every minute or so the people in the balloons would ignite some gas. Fire would shoot into the balloon, illuminating it and releasing cascades of heat in all directions. It was a cold night, but we could have walked around in shorts and t-shirts and been just fine.

Every five minutes a signal would blare over the loudspeakers, and ALL of the balloons would light up in unison. The first few times this happened, I whipped out my camera phone and took photo after photo whenever all the balloons lit up. After maybe the fifth or sixth time doing this, I decided not to take any more photos. It was then that something remarkable happened.

The signal sounded again, and I left my phone in my pocket and just looked around me with my eyes, not my phone. I noticed two things:

  1. Thousands of people were taking photos with their phones. I was in such a minority at that moment that I was almost compelled to pull out my phone just to be a part of the crowd.
  2. The balloons were significantly more vibrant and beautiful without the filter of my camera phone. The difference between the two experiences was so distinct that it felt like a slap in the face. This is what I had been missing out on for the last 30 minutes. This is how magical real life can be.

I’m not trying to be pedantic about how we use our phones. I’ll continue to snap way too many photos of my cats–don’t try to stop me.

But the balloon glow was a great reminder that life is often best experienced without a lens. Our endless attempts to capture life’s moments with our phones might actually get in the way of being present to those moments.

The next time I experience something magical, I’ll be honest–I’ll probably pull out my phone and take a phone. But then I’ll put my phone away and just soak in the experience.

Can you relate to this? Have you had a similar experience with your phone?

11 thoughts on “The Magic of Viewing Life Without a Lens”

  1. I read an article on Guideposts a long time ago about a woman who was so intent on journaling and photographing and scrapbooking every moment of her family’s life that she wasn’t even paying attention to “the moments’. It’s such a conflict for me – i want to record it so I can share it, but by the same token, you are absolutely right, it is NOT the same through a camera. Especially with some as large and imposing as hot air balloons. I think you’ve got it right with “take a few pictures, then just enjoy the experience”. I think the main compulsion to do that is “I’m seeing this and my friend/mom/dad/whatever is not, they would love it, so I must capture it”, and the second biggest reason is “I want to remember this forever”. But really, the memory in your head is probably more vivid and realistic than a picture. But it’s hard to forget that!

    • Darcy–That’s a great point about our compulsion to share what we’re seeing with others. Perhaps striking the right balance is the way to do that and experience the moment for ourselves.

  2. Sounds fantastic, Jamey. Once while I was traveling in Thailand, before I had a digital camera or smart phone, I was about to kayak through some beautiful sea caves when I realized I had run out of film. When I expressed disappointment, the Thai guide said something like, “You can take thousands of pictures with your eyes, not just 36 and finished.” I’ve never forgotten my awe of those beautiful stalagmites and stalactites floating in and above the water, though sometimes I’ve come across my photos of other sights that I’d forgotten about until seeing the pictures again.

    • Wow. I know that doesn’t make much sense in our film free world now, but it’s still very profound. Sometimes we spend so long looking for the right shot that we aren’t focusing on enjoying and remembering things.

      I was at a truly amazing sunset the other day. After taking a handful of photos I told my fiancée that I was putting the phone away. I’m glad I did. The sunset was gorgeous and if I hadn’t taken the moment to, not only enjoy it with my own eyes, but do so with one I love, I would have missed out. We shared a wonderful moment that won’t be repeated. I agree Jamey. Let’s always remember to put things back in their place so that we can enjoy life.

      • So true, Jonathan. On the other hand, sometimes keeping an eye out for a good photo makes me pay attention more keenly to things. It’s a matter of balance. Taking a few shots and then putting it away – that makes good sense.

  3. Last year I attended the balloon glow and had a similar experience. I wanted a great shot and took a bunch of photos, but I didn’t really get to enjoy the glow until I stopped grabbing my iphone every time the horn sounded and the balloon fires blared. Upon reflection, the balloon glow is the perfect place to have a realization about the beauty of experiencing life through your own eyes. It’s very forgiving. Even if you miss the first 10 opportunities at the balloon glow while furiously snapping photos, there are still 10 more chances to have a great experience without a camera. Unfortunately, the same isn’t true of every event. A few weddings ago I vowed to stop bringing my camera/phone to weddings altogether. I’d been so caught up in taking pictures for myself/someone else/everyone that I couldn’t remember actually experiencing anything about the ceremony. As I flipped through the photos, my memories were of the tall guy I had to bend around to get a particular shot that still contained his right arm, not of the wedding party walking down the isle or the vows or the looks on the couple’s faces. I still love photos, but also know to pause and think before making them my only vehicle for experiencing an event.

  4. Two weeks ago I spent a week on a boat around Vancouver. Our last day on the water, we spent 2 hours watching a pod of orcas. I wanted to capture video to show my kids, but quickly realized that I was missing out on what was happening right in front of me. Though I did get some decent video, the best part was trading my iPad for binoculars and just watching the orcas play.

  5. I can definitely relate. I’ve mentioned Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” on another of your blog posts, Jamey, and he has another relevant idea that has been a powerful thought to me. Even though he wrote the book in the ’80s, he thought back then that people relied too much on cameras to make memories. He said that before humanity had the capability to capture images, people were better storytellers, because they had to be. He delivered this one pithy quote that has stuck with me: “Life is meant to be lived, not photographed.”

    Particularly in the age of social media, I feel that incessantly posting photos of “my amazing life” is just thinly-veiled braggadocio, in many cases. Last July on my honeymoon, I asked my wife if she would be okay not taking any pictures during our week-long stay up on Michigan’s northern coast. She agreed (albeit hesitantly), and I think it helped us to “disconnect” from the rest of our world and engage one another more meaningfully.

  6. I LOVE the balloon glow. It IS magical and I am glad you finally experienced it 🙂 I have stopped bringing cameras to weddings. There’s just no time, I want to be in it. I had a dumbphone until last week and I already worry about me having a kneejerk reaction to trying to capture photos. I hope I had a dumbphone long enough to be able to suppress that instinct, because it’s just rarely worth it.

    Also, this week I discovered the latest rant from Louis C.K. (one of my favorite humans): and I think it’s incredibly poignant.

  7. Thank you all for sharing these stories and insights. I’m genuinely touched by the acts of “intentional unplugging” that you describe here. Whether it’s kayaking through caves, weddings, sunsets, honeymoons, or orcas, I’m glad you all were able to experience them through your own lens, not just your smart phone’s.

    Emma, I definitely had Louis C.K.’s thoughts in mind when I wrote about this (in fact, I talked to my parents about what he said while we were amidst the balloons on Friday). It’s a different take on smart phone use, but it’s definitely worth watching.


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