Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Photographs and Memories

I watched video on YouTube recently that asked the question, "How many photographs have been taken?" (The first few minutes are about photos. After that, he goes on to other topics, also interesting, but less pertinent to this article.) The answer was staggering. He reports that there are an estimated 3.5 trillion pictures taken since the invention of the photograph almost 200 years ago. Even more incredible, an estimated 4 billion of those photos were taken in 2012 alone, and 10% of all photos still in existence today were taken last year. And, finally, the statistic that made the biggest impression on me? Approximately 20% of all photos taken today end up on Facebook. Cat memes, anyone?

The reason we take so many more pictures these days than in the past is obvious: digital cameras are easy to use, inexpensive, and we can take as many pictures as we want. In the days of plain old film cameras, we had to ration our picture-taking so as not to waste film or spend money developing poorly focused pictures of a cat's tail or mom's torso. Now? Just point and shoot, point and shoot.

Having relatively high quality cameras on our phones makes picture-taking even more ubiquitous. Though we may not always carry a separate camera with us, most of us always have our cell phone nearby. I know I do. In fact, I don't even have a working camera right now aside from my phone, and without it, I probably wouldn't take many pictures at all. Case in point: Not long after S was born, our digital camera broke. There is a three-month period when S was a baby in which I took no pictures. Then, when we got camera phones, I started taking pictures regularly again. And it's a good thing, too, or I wouldn't have many pictures of baby S, or toddler N, or baby G, or toddler G, or our vacations, or the new cars we bought, or our new house, or the interesting dinner I made, or the pretty brownies with the raspberries on top, or the way G puts his head on the cat, or the first day of school, or... or... well, you get the picture. To put in terms of numbers, the phone I had from February of 2011 until December of 2012 (22 months) had over 1700 pictures on it by the time I retired it in favor of my new phone, with a better camera. That phone, after two months, has 265 pictures on it. Click, click, click.

There's this urge to capture every moment, especially when you have kids. Before kids, we took pictures of our cats, vacations, and the occasional event. Now? Every day is something new. The baby sits up for the first time. The toddler chooses his own crazy outfit. The kindergartner writes his first sentence. Or, sometimes, it's just, "Aren't my kids so amazingly cute?" or "What a sweet smile!" With film cameras, it wasn't always possible to take a picture of every moment that passed, but we could, at least, capture some of the best ones. With camera phones, every moment becomes a "Kodak moment," an opportunity to create a lasting memory for all the world to share.

One Sunday a few weeks ago, we took the kids to the park. It was cold and rainy, but it was also sunny. It was very peculiar weather, and it led to a perfect rainbow arching across the field. My husband captured the most beautiful picture of our two older boys standing together, holding hands, admiring the rainbow.

I'm in awe of the beauty of this picture, the fact that my husband could simply pull out his phone and preserve such a touching moment. How many moments like this were missed in the days before we all had a camera in our pockets?

But when we can snap a picture any time, preserve every moment, do we end up in picture overload? I find sometimes that I scroll right on past friends' vacation albums on Facebook, bored with the idea of looking at yet another several dozen pictures. Of course I'm interested in your African safari or trip to Israel, but I've just looked at three baby albums and 20 pictures of someone else's cats and dogs. I'm out of picture-looking stamina. And when it comes to our own kids, how many memories are lost because we took a picture? How many little events that could have been just ours go out for public consumption and lose that specialness of a precious moment shared just between the two of you?

I was sitting with G on my bed the other night, watching him play with a toy keyboard. He quickly worked out how to turn it on and off, how to make it play a song, and how to bang along on the keys to add to the music. He had this adorable expression on his face, poking at each button with such purpose and smiling with delight when music would play. He found which button made the music stop and pressed it, watching intently as the flashing lights ceased and the music stopped playing, then proudly pressed another button to make the music start again. It was so entertaining to watch him, to see his expression change as he made his discoveries and tested them, the little scientist. My instinct was to grab my phone, sitting on the table beside the bed, and try to capture the look of pride, the sweet smile, the grin of triumph. But then... I didn't. Instead, I just watched him, enjoyed the experience, relaxed. Sometimes the camera can be intrusive, distracting from exactly that which you were trying to photograph, changing the mood, the dynamic.

Now I have only my own memory, complete with how I felt, my impressions of each twinkle of his eye, each quirk of his lips. No photo would completely preserve the entirety of the few minutes he spent exploring that keyboard. No picture could perfectly reproduce the quiet enjoyment of simply watching him as he played. My memories may fade. I may not recall forever those few minutes spent with my toddler son. But for now, it's a private memory, all my own, a time I shared with him and only him. I think there's value in that.

I still take plenty of pictures. I want a record of my kids' childhood. I want picture-perfect reproductions of N's hair when he was 2.5, of S's big brown eyes, of how they've changed as they've grown. 

But I don't need every minute. I don't need every smile, every funny outfit, every new discovery on film (or disk). Sometimes, I just want the image I have in my mind, the pleasure of the retelling, and the integrity of seeing my baby without a lens between us.

1 comment:

  1. I think about this a lot too. With my phone it's so easy to snap picture after picture. Just today I synced my phone on the computer and I had 1100 pictures since the last time I synced... About 6 months ago. I try to capture so many little moments because my parents live so far and kids grow so fast.
    But think of all of the other little things I've missed because I was too busy trying to capture the light or edit the pictures. :(
    Time to put the camera phones down and just enjoy life.