To Record, or To Experience?

October 7, 2014
Tyler Lawrence

One of the best parts of being on campus this time of year is the changing foliage that signals the coming of autumn to New Jersey. Princeton is one of the more beautiful places I’ve ever lived in or visited (check out the Instagram hashtag #princetagram if you want proof). The abundance of pictures of the campus, and the annual rush to capture it on now-ubiquitous cellphone cameras, reminds me of a particular moment from Oman this summer.

It had been a gloriously beautiful day, and so naturally I’d spent most of it as the Millennial in me is supposed to: trying simultaneously to experience it, and to record that experience. However, I eventually found myself in a place that forced some reflection on that dual urge.

We were visiting Salalah, one of the Arab world’s premier tourist destinations. We’d been looking forward to the trip for weeks—every local to whom we spoke said Salalah was the one place we had to visit while we were in the country. Hugging the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, most of Oman is unsurprisingly arid. But Salalah was different, they told us. Salalah was rainy, cool and most amazingly, green.

Midway through our visit, I found myself standing on a hilltop about an hour from the city, in a place as sacred as any to be found in this part of Arabia: the purported tomb of Nabi Ayyub, the Prophet Job revered by all three Abrahamic faiths. The hills rose high above the city and coast, thick with decadent foliage that came as a shock after the sparse desert. An otherworldly mist enveloped the hills, making the verdure seem almost fluorescent in the light.

As I’d done in countless other places, I wandered around with my iPhone at the ready, prepared to capture the perfect image. But frustration set in quickly, because my phone camera seemed inadequate to capture the beauty around me. The green didn’t pop enough, the mist looked too thin on my screen. I snapped away, deeply unsatisfied (I clearly lacked Job’s patience for the task at hand). In surrender, I put my phone in my pocket, defeated.

I’d thought the place beautiful before, but now that I could see it without the incessant buzz at the back of my mind compelling me to find the ideal new cover photo, I could marvel at the misty view. Wandering down the hillside a bit, away from my friends, I stopped on a knoll overlooking a sharp drop off. I stayed there still and quiet for a long while. After a time, I looked around and realized that one-by-one, several others had made their way down to me and had all, without exception, also stopped to steep in the silence.

I stand, arms outstretched, on an improbably green hillside.

I kept only one picture from Job’s Tomb, which a friend offered to take as we were walking away. It doesn’t come close to capturing the hillside as I felt it, but the fact that it exists at all reminds me that I was there, and that memory is enough. We do not need the perfect picture, for most experiences will never condense cleanly to a set of pixels. But I cannot fault the urge to try, because when that fluorescent green fades from my mind, I will always have a snapshot to jog it from the mist.

I’ve put several more of my best pictures from Oman below. I’ll have an update on Princeton life here soon!

Several young men, including yours truly, crowded around a plate in a very cramped dining area.

My language partner, Ahmed, and I with the ornate ceiling of a mosque above us.