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It was Lisa del Giocondo who first alerted me to the perils of photography.

I’ve been visiting her for years at her spacious home in the Louvre, and I have always been bemused by the ritual of her admirers approaching her, camera in hand, clicking away furiously. But this summer’s visit, my first in a long while, was different. This time, the shutterbugs were all holding their iPhones over their heads, like candles at a vigil, pressing buttons and zooming in and out with their fingers. Few, if any, were actually looking at the jocund one. I was, and though I can’t be certain, I think I detected a hint of amusement in her famous half-smile: “Can you believe these bozos and their stupid screens?”

Granted, in the litany of things that are thwarted, dinged, or broken in the world, an excessive zeal for snapping and sharing pics may not seem like such a terrible thing. But stop to think of our photographic obsession—Instagram, the popular photo-sharing app, is now valued at $100 billion, which is more or less the GDP of Bulgaria—and you’ll see that it speaks of a deeper rot.

How, exactly, does photography corrupt the soul? The discussion, if it begins anywhere, begins in Exodus 20:4: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” The rabbis, no surprise here, spent millennia parsing the precise meaning of graven images. Some ruled that any form of artistic representation is idolatrous, while others saw no fault with placing a picture of a loved one on the mantelpiece.

But quarrel as they might’ve about how much imagery is too much, the rabbis all agreed that images, those canny catalysts of unbound emotion, possess a mighty capacity to arouse us. Read us a poem, and we’ll be mildly moved; show us a picture, and we’ll feel as if we’re looking at something almost come to life. This is a moral as well as an aesthetic consideration: The pornographic lies ever dormant in the photographic because the very essence of holiness is concealment—the face of God being unknowable and invisible to us mere mortals—while photography is an act of revelation for the sake of titillation. “Show me!” by definition, is a negation of faith.

Is it any wonder, then, that true believers have, from time immemorial, had a rocky relationship with images? Preaching during Lent in Florence in 1494, Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar and iconoclast, thundered at his listeners that “love is like a painter. The works of a good painter so charm men that, in contemplating them, they remain suspended, and sometimes to such an extent that it seems they have been put in an ecstasy and have been taken outside of themselves and seem to forget themselves. This is what the love of Jesus Christ does when it is in the soul.” Which, he continued in a later sermon, was why it was so important that we remain very guarded about what we look at. “The first thing we should do,” Savonarola concluded, “is remove the dishonest figures, and the crude scenes that make people laugh shall not be painted.” Fra Girolamo, I suspect, wouldn’t have been a fan of Instagram.

Nor, for that matter, would Susan Sontag, who famously accused photography of fanning our “chronic voyeuristic relation to the world.” To take photos, she argued in her cri de cœur, aptly titled On Photography, is to render oneself incapable of intervening in the world, which really means rendering oneself incapable of being a moral actor. We may either witness or do, but never both.

Sontag was writing in the 1970s, before cameras were shrunk to fit in our pockets and before anyone had the ability to instantaneously share a picture with the rest of the world at the push of a button. Had she lived long enough to behold an iPhone, one can imagine Sontag escalating her objection: These days, we may either witness or be, but not both.

Do we truly exist when we behold life through the lens of a smartphone? It’s no idle philosophical parlor game: Enjoying a local pool earlier this summer, I saw two young women dipping their feet in the water, their hands firmly grasping their phones. They were snapping shots—of themselves and of each other—for about an hour before they got up, dried off, and left. It was evident from their animated conversation that their goal on that gorgeous July afternoon wasn’t to soak up some sun, or to exercise, or even to enjoy each other’s company—it was to generate an album of appealing photographs, which they understood as the primary means of communicating their truest essence to their friends. Posito ergo sum—I place myself in front of a camera, therefore I am.

It takes little theological training to realize that this way of being in the world is not just immoral but, worse, amoral. When we choose to forgo being in the moment and opt to photograph it instead, and when we make the same choice again and again—in a restaurant, on a visit to a museum, at a family celebration—we lose the ability to see the minute particles of truth and beauty that float everywhere around us yet are visible only when we strive truly to connect, with ourselves and with each other and with our Maker. Being present with a fellow human being is both a miracle and an ordeal; it requires empathy and imagination and concentration, and when it works, which is not always the case, it leaves us feeling less lonely. This “being present” is, in fact, the prerequisite of any sort of moral life. To choose between good and evil we must be able to feel the pull of both, the pleasures of helping a friend in need, say, and the searing emptiness of indulging our basest appetites until we’re ready to burst. Our addiction to photography keeps us out of the human drama, leaving us as mere documentarians of a life that we’ve never truly lived.

Our great poet of souring hopes, Thomas Mann, understood this ghoulish state of being perfectly well. In the final lines of Death in Venice, the protagonist, the famous writer Gustav von Aschenbach—the name literally means “stream of ashes”—sits slumped in his chair, having died while gazing at the young object of his desire. The scene, Mann writes, is observed by “a camera, apparently unappropriated,” a silent witness to the formerly great man’s descent into oblivion. But the English translation robs us of the pleasure of Mann’s real cutting insight; in the original German, the camera is herrenlos, or without a master, an apparatus that is no longer controlled by humans but controls them instead.

These days, our cameras are all herrenlos, independent gadgets that drive us to adhere to their logic and see everything around us as little more than another photo opportunity. We no longer see the Mona Lisa, or the ocean, or even the face of a loved one; we snap it and save it and tweak it with filters, and then share it and review it and affix our comments in the margins and call the whole thing “being.” We need a new Mann to remind us that this way lies ruin, a new Savonarola to insist that we take our vanities and toss them into a big, cleansing bonfire. Or, if the modern age proves too daunting for such seers, we need the resolve to reach deep into our souls and into our pockets, retrieve the cameras within, and give them a rest. If we truly want to see the world and know it, our eyes and our hearts are all we need.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox. 

Image by PxHere, public domain. Image cropped. 

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