The Courage to Put Away Our Cameras


Oh, to have been present at San Diego’s Glorietta Bay on July 4, 2012.

If I add up all the Fourth of Julys, Friday Nights at baseball stadiums, and New Years celebrations, I bet I’ve seen close to fifty different fireworks displays over the course of my life. I’ve seen them from my seat in the third balcony at Busch Stadium, from the bed of a pickup truck in rural Indiana, and from a community college front lawn in Kansas City. There was even the fortuitous occasion where I was sitting in the window seat of a Delta flight over St. Louis thirty minutes after dark on Independence Day. Dozens of bursts of light dotted the landscape below as far as I could see. I was surprised by how small they looked from 30,000 feet.

Then there was the time I lay on the pavement of the casino parking lot on an Indian Reservation in central Washington where my suburban county’s zoning and safety laws did not apply. The rockets burst in the sky directly overhead, raining down little bits of acrid paper all around us.

But nothing I’ve ever seen could come close to what the people of San Diego witnessed on July 4, 2012. What was supposed to be a twenty-minute display ended up lasting just fifteen seconds as a malfunction in the detonators caused the entire display—hundreds of individual fireworks—to all go off at once.

Here’s the thing. And I promise you this is true. I am not a fireworks enthusiast. I don’t buy them from roadside stands. I don’t angle for the best seat at the fairgrounds. I don’t purchase patriotic t-shirts. But when I think about those thousands who gathered at Glorietta Bay, I get a little jealous. Why? Because those fortunate folks in San Diego witnessed what will likely be the greatest fireworks display of my lifetime. And I wasn’t there. They got to see something no video or picture will ever do justice to. You can’t capture moments like that on film or phone. You just have to be there.

So many things in life fall into this category—events you simply cannot bottle for later—like the birth of a child, the funeral of a loved one, a sunset, the presentation and enjoyment of a great meal, a surprise party, a concert, climbing out of a cold tent in the mountains and restoking the campfire as you watch the sun come up, sifting through the rubble of a flood or a fire, kissing your daughter’s forehead as the nurses wheel her off to surgery, asking your girlfriend to marry you, or watching a thunderstorm roll in.

In our amazing era of digital immediacy, I can tell the world where I am and what I’m doing while I’m doing it. I can present myself as a busy man living a rich and full life. I can take pictures of my meals, log my locations, snap photos of the people I’m with, and weigh in on what’s happening around the globe 140 characters at a time. But none of these things mean I’ve been paying attention.

The degree to which we are able to be present in the moment, psychologists say, is one of the chief indicators of mental health and security in our personal identity. I can buy that. And I would submit that this takes courage—courage to believe an experience itself is of greater value than documenting that it happened.

Every day of my life is filled with moments that cannot be captured—moments more glorious than what took place on that San Diego night. We have to hold these moments with an open hand and pay attention. But it’s hard to pay attention, isn’t it? When it comes to wonder and glory, if we’re honest wouldn’t we have to confess that there comes a point where we run out of the energy needed to remain engaged, where we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home comforted by the fact that we took a lot of great pictures?

Take all the pictures you want. They’ll only serve to instruct you in the truth that none of your clips or still images managed to capture what was really happening in the moment. Go ahead. Watch this pretty awesome video of the 2012 San Diego fireworks and you’ll know, as amazing as it is, that you’re not seeing anything close to what those who gathered there in the bay that night actually experienced.

Life is filled with wonder and beauty. Tonight’s sunset is a gift we cannot preserve for tomorrow. But tomorrow, we’ll get a new one. And another the night after that. It’s okay to put away our cameras.

“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”  —Annie Dillard, Total Eclipse

Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).


  1. Peter B

    Russ, thank you for putting flesh on a motivation that has been calcifying in my consciousness.

    Lately, I’m starting to get the feeling that I’m missing out by always trying to take pictures so I won’t miss anything. It is far too easy to hide behind a viewfinder and miss the grandeur, the gravitas, the presence of life.

    And yeah, I’m a bit of a fireworks enthusiast, and I wish I had been there too.

  2. Janna Barber

    The whole song doesn’t necessarily apply, but there’s a few lines from “Dead Man’s Hill” by the Indigo Girls that go well with this post. (I almost quoted them on my own blog yesterday, but changed my mind)

    We went to a Death Cab show last summer and there were several kids around us whom I almost told “put ur camera phones away — this is happening NOW! Experience it with all of urself, not merely a 3 inch square.”

    “Total Eclipse” is my absolute favorite essay of all time, Russ. Thanks for the reminder and encouragement to be more brave as we engage the wonders of this life.

  3. Jen

    Janna, yes! Absolutely one of my concert pet peeves. Now that we all walk around with cameras in our pockets, it seems we’re driven to think if it’s not on YouTube it didn’t happen. I’m still learning this lesson now. Experience the moment.

    Wonderful thoughts Russ!

  4. Lindsey

    Yes! I’m mothering small children right now (3 and 1 1/2, both of whom are blessedly napping), and I am so sad when I see parents trying to capture memories instead of making them. My sweetest memories with my babes aren’t the staged moments I have photos of 🙂

  5. Thomas McKenzie

    When I was 19, I went to the 4th of July fireworks display in the small town I went to high school in. The whole town of Canyon, TX gathered on our lawn chairs in the park, which sat right up against a field of dry grass. The fireworks started–and all went off at once. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Not only did they all blow, but they all blew on the ground. This caught the field on fire. The guy on the loudspeaker was frantically telling everyone to be calm, be calm, be calm and leave in an orderly way. No one left. We just watched it burn.

  6. April Pickle

    I’ve already read Thomas’s comment out loud twice to people, and am still laughing. I am quite sure that there is no such thing as moist grass in Canyon, TX on the 4th of July.
    As for the post, I’ve pondered it throughout the day. We had a blessed thunderstorm this evening and the temperature went from 102 to 79. I am happy to confess that when I had to run an errand after that, I cruised on country roads singing to good, loud music with the windows all the way down. No cameras needed. Thank you, Russ Ramsey, for the post. Thank you, God, for moist, cool air, for good music, and smooth, Texas roads.

  7. Renee

    I just love stopping by the Rabbit Room! Russ, you put to words very much of what I have been pondering and also putting to written words lately! I am a busy mama always trying to stay one or two steps ahead. The problem is, I often get lost in those steps and forget about the one I am supposed to be on. A nice bit of encouragement. Thanks.

    A little excerpt of what I just finished putting on paper:

    If I could only just get this and get it for good. Today is what matters. Being content in the moment. Making the most of our time here. Whether we like to admit it or not, our days are numbered. No man or woman knows the future. Tomorrow is not promised to any of us. Why do we get so tumbled up in the tomorrows? Like our anxious thoughts are really going to make a difference anyway.

    We need to appreciate today. All of the beauty and joy in every crack and crevice. It is there, waiting to be discovered and embraced. A gift from our Creator. Always living two steps ahead is empty and is always going to be unfulfilling. Think about it.

  8. Nathan

    Being from Dalhart, TX, I can attest to the dryness of the grass in Canyon, TX. My granny lived in Canyon, so I have many fond memories in that wonderful little city. Although, being from Dalhart, I always thought that Canyon was a big place. Now I live near Washington, DC and have been relieved of my misconceptions.

  9. Caleb Morris

    Excellent post.

    I recently read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the first time. It was a good reminder to live in the present. Or at least to keep trying. Here’s a great quote:

    “The Present: Catch it if you can.”

  10. Carl Anderson

    Love this post. I love to hike and take many, many pictures along the way. Sometimes the continual hunting for the next panorama to capture gets in the way of simply sitting still, enjoying the wonder, and meditating on the creative beauty that God put in place all around us.

  11. Jonathan

    I’m going on a backpacking trip this weekend, and I’d pretty much decided to leave the camera behind…much to my chagrin, because it’s just too heavy. Well, this post confirms that decision with a better reason than weight. 🙂

    Thanks, Russ!

  12. whipple

    It is wonderful that, of the five senses, over half of them are not subject to digital facsimile. How good for those of us who are photographers and musicians – and I am both – to be able to share our perspectives to those who are at a distance and can’t make it to the show or stand breathless on the canyon rim in person. How much better, though, that taste, touch, and smell force us to be more present.

    It is harder to ignore things when they’re in your mouth.

  13. Eowyn

    Just watched the video – it could only have been better if, when the sparks faded, words appeared in the sky saying: Gandalf was here. 😀

  14. Matthew Benefiel

    One few of my favorite memories are from this one spot in Conkles’s Hollow in Hocking Hills State Park in the state of Ohio. This spot is on the top of a 100 foot cliff where one can sit and gaze out over the tree tops. I sat in this spot years ago with my father and years later (still years ago) with my wife and just absorbed the scenery, the wonderful Beauty that God has made. Those moments will stay with me, even if my brain changes the scene in my mind. That said I’ve also been to Wales in the UK and Acadia National Park in Maine where I took some pictures, and seeing those pictures reminds me of the other mental ones I have in my head. In the end it comes down to enjoying the moment God gives you, which is why I love nature and hiking (of which I do neither very well these days), but a few snapshots can be nice to have.

  15. sarah j

    “I know for some, the only solution is to abandon the online world entirely and keep out of the public eye. But as I’ve been thinking about how to apply these teachings to my own life, I’ve realized that perhaps the trick to reclaiming the value of secrecy is not so much to share less, but to keep more—to pay more attention, to hide more in our hearts.

    To name something a secret, and then honor it as such, is something of a sacrament, a holy moment set apart as sacred. Perhaps to stay truly human in this digital world, we need to reclaim that sacrament, to get better at naming and keeping our secrets.”

    -Rachel Held Evans

  16. Jesse D

    Great thoughts, Russ. It’s been one of the reasons I’ve never really had any deep interest in photography or really cared whether events get photographed. While I appreciate good photographs, the price it takes to get them sometimes seems too much.

    I also enjoyed the shout-out to Toppenish’s fireworks display. It was a good one this year.

  17. Katelyn Beaty

    Thank you so much for this reminder, Russ.

    It reminds me of the poem by Wendell Berry titled “The Vacation”:

    What both Berry and you have rightly identified as our inability to stay in the present is only compounded by the constant hum of the Internet, and the subtle pressure to prove that one’s life is endlessly exciting and meaningful.

    The irony is that when “meaning” is sought as a thing to be bottled up and captured, it slips through our fingers. Thanks for calling our attention back to the gift that life is, a gift that can only be received if we “show up.”

  18. Mark

    I was at a Hillsong United concert where Brooke Fraser asked people to put cameras away…. She said,” Sometimes we are so busy trying to catch the moment that we miss it…”

  19. Loreli

    I would say you are absolutely right, because at the moment we are out of whack and the tilt to over-documenting without experiencing the moment is an issue. Ideally, there would be a balance where you can both experience and photograph events and the balance might be found in our motivation for taking the pictures. Is it to present a certain image of ourselves to the world, or is it to preserve a memory? I often have a camera in front of my face, especially at family gatherings, where more than one person will chide me about it… until I send them the photos and they use the pictures for their Facebook profile.

    Thanks for writing this and helping us evaluate our actions.

  20. Liw

    I remember being on top of the Eiffel in June 2011 initially feeling completely lame for dropping my camera in my hastiness to get a picture with a replica of David in Florence and hence, just being there while other tourists were busy clicking away. Or walking along the Seine the day before just getting lost and making small conversations.

    In the end, it was one of the things I remember most- soaking in the sunset and the view of Il De France from my own eyes and not from any lense. Me and the city of lights, sans any camera during my last two days in the city.

    After that, I always allow myself space to be in the moment wherever I may be.

    There is a time though for everything: a time to soak it all in with your senses and to preserve (and share) the memories by yes, clicking on your camera 🙂

  21. Karen Butler

    I have always been the only mom at a recital, cameraless –looking careless, or like I don’t care– and this piece captures well why my facebook page looks very bleak.

    But I’ve given up trying to keep pace with the proverbial Jones’– Those Jones’ will always be better, faster, stronger! But I don’t think the Jones family knows what’s happening here……do you?

    Mr. Berry does, I think: “He showed/his vacation to his camera, which pictured it”

    What a nice room you keep here, so well stocked with provisions for thought. Thank you…I will stop by again.

  22. Travis Stewart

    Great observations Russ. I had similar thoughts watching the opening ceremonies for the Olympics. So many of the athletes walking in had their phones/cameras on I wondered if they were able to really be present with one of the most exciting moments of their lives. I wonder the same thing when I’m trying to video my kids activities.

  23. Kathy Toth

    This is exactly what I was thinking as I watched the athletics entering the stadium in London…so many focused more on taking pics with their phones and seeing things through that little screen…missing a wonderful opportunity to look around and burn memories into their minds.

  24. dean

    I love taking photos, the older i get the more they help me to remember where my mind or memory fails….Often I travel around by myself following a road or an idea…but like you say, they can only do so much.

    I dont know how many times I have sat in church & thought, wouldnt it be great to share this experience that is working in my heart right now, no video or image comes close.

    The moments that are precious to me I treasure in my heart & God is able to fill it time & time again with wonders unknown to the physical world…

  25. Michael Doran

    Photographs and fireworks: I have taken my share (too many at times) and have seen manifold displays. You use fireworks as the object and photographs as the vehicle to get us where you want us to go…deep inside. I might have used the word ‘honesty’ to describe the conundrum of living in the moment while being aware of the moment. Regardless, I am grateful for your attention to this subject, and for the way you presented it. As you stated, there are too many “…events you simply cannot bottle for later”. I love your examples. After further thought, perhaps ‘courage’ is the right word which describes our journey beyond the hustle and bustle of our lives. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to slow down and reflect. Your followers offer some keen insights, as well. Bravo.

  26. Lyn Tang

    i don’t know if i agree with this in full..maybe in part..
    but i see the value in photos and capturing moments that would never ever be “replayed” again…

    there is much joy and value in looking back on photos and reflecting on the goodness of God, and to be able to pass on memories to our children and grandchildren

    my childhood and teenage photos were somehow “lost” or “destroyed” whilst relocating countries and moving from place to place..and i feel as though many of those moments have been “lost” in my memory..and i am not able to share images of important milestones and events with my children..

    i never saw photos of my parents/grandparents growing up etc..and i think it would have added another dimension to my appreciation of the circumstances they went through, if i could capture some of that visually

    yes, i admit, i am a visual person…and i really treasure the value of photos

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