Erin Sullivan
1,582,646 views • 8:23

What is the most beautiful place you have ever been? And when you were there, did you take a picture of it? Here's a place that tops that list for me. This is Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park in Utah at sunrise. It's the traditional homeland of the Pueblo, Ute, Paiute and Navajo people, and when you are there, it is absolutely stunning. The sunrise illuminates the bottom of the arch orange, and then behind it you see the buttes and clouds and cliffs.

But what you might not see from my photo here is the 30 people behind me who were also taking photos. And these are just the committed people, the sunrise people, right? So when you think about that, there must be hundreds if not thousands of photos of Mesa Arch taken every week.

I've been sharing my photography on Instagram for years, and it started to become really interesting and funny, even, just how many similar photos of the same places I started to see online. And I was participating in it.

So this made me wonder: Why are we taking photos in the first place? Sometimes, I visit a popular landmark — this one is Horseshoe Bend in Arizona — and I see all the people with their phones and cameras out who snap a photo, just to turn and get back in the car or walk back to the trailhead. And sometimes it seems like we are missing the point of going to this place to experience it for ourselves or to see it with our own eyes.

When I'm behind the camera, I notice the smallest details: the layers of light in the mountains as the light fades at the end of the day; the shapes that nature so expertly makes, abstract and yet completely perfect. I could go on and on here musing about the intricacies of this planet and the way that it makes me feel.

Photographing the beauty and complexity of this world for me is like making a portrait of someone that I love. And when I make a photograph, I have to think about what I want it to say. I have to ask myself what I want it to feel like. When you're communicating through an image, every creative choice matters. Sometimes, I plan to share my images, and other times, I take them just for myself.

I currently host a video series on the future of the outdoors, and for one of the episodes we wanted to explore the relationship between photography and outdoor spaces. I learned about the research of Kristin Diehl and her colleagues at USC, who studied photo-taking's effect on enjoyment levels. They found that when we're behind the camera, when we're the ones taking the picture, we enjoy our experiences more, not less. But it wasn't true all the time. If the person took the photo solely with the intention of sharing it, there was no increase in enjoyment, because they didn't do it for themselves. So this points to an important distinction: photography can enhance your experience if it's done intentionally. The intention piece is what matters.

As a photographer, I've really had to check myself on this. When does it help me to have my camera out, and when do I just need to put it away? On a trip to Alaska, I had the opportunity to photograph Alaskan brown bears. I was on a boat with four other photographers, and we were all having our minds blown at the same time in such close proximity to these animals. It's an emotional experience. Being eye to eye with these bears gave me a feeling of connection that transcends words, and having my camera with me in this case enhanced that. We were all creating independently but also all completely in the moment, both with nature and with each other. I so clearly remember capturing the water droplets and the motion as the bears swam and the cute cubs following their mothers. That group and I will have that experience together and these images to look back on time and time again, and photography is what enabled us to share this in the first place.

Other times, I choose to leave the camera behind, and I think that choice ultimately improves both my experience and my work. I recently flew to the South Pacific island of Tonga to swim with humpback whales. I noticed myself feeling pressure and a certain obligation to take the camera with me, when sometimes I just wanted the pure experience itself. And the experience is seriously amazing. You're talking about being in the water with a curious baby animal the size of a station wagon while you are surrounded by particles that float around you like glitter, and the mom swims gracefully below you. There were times, obviously, when I did take my camera with me, and those were really amazing to capture as well. But the setup is pretty big. It's like this big box. This is what it looks like. And so this is between me and the whales, and at times that feels like a block between you and reality. Is there a difference when it's just your phone?

Last year, I went to Uluru in Central Australia, which is this massive rock that towers over the desert. This is sacred land to Anangu, who are the Aboriginal people from this area and the traditional owners of the land. There are particular spots in Uluru that you cannot photograph professionally, because they are culturally sensitive, equivalent to sacred scripture to Anangu. So because of this, most of my photographs are from either far away, like this one, or from specific angles in the park. You could say that some of the most interesting and beautiful visuals in Uluru are located in these sensitive areas, but the request not to photograph them is an explicit and direct invitation to learn more about the land, its importance and its people. Isn't that what we should be doing anyway? So my visit to Uluru quickly became not about me but about connecting with the place. Ironically and unsurprisingly, I have found that presence and connection also happens to make for more compelling images.

We can probably all point to social media as being a good place to share the images from our travels and from our lives. We not only share pieces of the world that we have seen but also parts of our day-to-day experiences. And if we're applying intentionality to the photos we take, then hopefully we're sharing intentionally too. For me, allowing people to see pieces of my story and my perspective online has reminded me that I'm not alone. It's helped me build support and community to do the same for others.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to discourage you from taking photos. Even if thousands of people have been to whatever exact location and taken whatever exact photo, I encourage you to get out and create too. The world needs every voice and perspective, and yours is included. But what I'm trying to show you is that the phone or camera doesn't have to stay out all the time. What I'm trying to encourage you to do is to put it away, just for a moment — a moment for you.

So let's go back to Mesa Arch, the way that the rock glows orange and the lovely layers of blue in the background. What if the next time you were somewhere amazing, you couldn't bring your camera or phone? What if you were not allowed to take any pictures at all? Would it feel like a limitation? Or would it feel like a relief?

So what can we do? Well, the next time you feel the impulse to take out your camera or phone, or, in my case, once you realize you have already pulled it out —

(Laughter)

First: stop. Pause. Take a deep breath. Look around. What do you notice? Are you experiencing this moment with someone else? Remember that this moment only comes once. Photography can be part of a beautiful experience. Just don't let it be a block between you and reality. Be intentional, and don't lose a beautiful, irreplaceable memory, because you were too focused on getting the shot.

Thank you.

(Applause)