It’s hard to remember a time before I took photographs. My first camera, a hot pink rectangle that ran on 110 film, was amongst my favorite possessions as a child. I’d loop the thin white rope around my neck and snap away at anything deemed worthy of immortalization: my dolls, the backyard, the stilted man at Pier 39. Most of these shots were fuzzy and boring—often too close or crooked, many featuring my own gap-toothed smile. I don’t remember cataloguing and sorting my photos with any sort of voracity. Mostly, it was about pushing the button, hearing the click, relishing the notion that the image had been captured.
My urge to record moments only increased as I grew older. I have boxes of significant as well as un-noteworthy photos and their accompanying negatives: the awkward adolescent years, the happy faces of my high school friends squished into a tiny frame, prom dresses, university parties, posing backstage before a show. And, as my mom always likes to point out, pictures of my feet—red shoes standing in piles of bright red leaves or yellow rain boots next to a clump of soggy seaweed. Perhaps it is my way of saying, “Here I am,” or, more accurately, “Here I was.”
I can’t begin to guess at a single all-encompassing reason why I and so many others feel this compulsion to document the mundane aspects of our lives. If I speak for only myself, I could say I take pictures because the only constant in my early life was change. I moved almost every year, attending a different elementary school annually, swapping out friends like some people swap clothing trends. This made me adaptable, but also clingy—I wanted to capture time and take it along with me. So I filled journal after journal with words and, upon receiving that handy pink box, took endless photographs. Here was a way to prove to myself that I had, in fact, lived in that place and known those people—people I would never see again, places I have yet to revisit.
But that doesn’t account for the scores of other compulsive picture takers out there. Some people who begin taking photographs at an early age become professional photographers; the rest of us are merely image hoarders, amateurs, hobbyists.
Susan Sontag’s brilliant collection of essays, On Photography examines the many reasons we take photos: to remember, to assuage anxiety, to attain a sense of power, “to appropriate the thing photographed.” She notes that “people robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture takers.”
Today, I rarely leave the house without a camera. Before iPhones, that meant toting along my point-and-shoot Canon or my clunky Nikon. I’ve often been the girl at a party aiming a huge black DSLR at my friends, capturing a candid moment or a smiley couple shot. Now I, and so many others, can hide behind the fact that it’s only a phone, a device we have to carry anyway. And why not take a quick shot of that sunset or beautiful meal? It’s only a harmless finger swipe on a screen. So simple.
But it’s not. My hard drive is completely full of photographs, my Facebook page overflows with albums. Despite spending thousands of dollars on professional photos, I took pictures at my own wedding. My friends rely on me to document parties and outings, to proffer Facebook profile pictures: I, in turn, rely on that definition of myself as a provider of memories. But where is the line? No longer reined in by the 24 shots on a roll of film, everything has become a moment worth capturing. Parents of small children can find this especially challenging. What smile, step or new achievement isn’t photo-worthy?
But are we creating memories before we even experience them? Sontag believes the photograph may be replacing the memory entirely:
Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it, and participating in a public event comes more and more to be equivalent to looking at it in photographed form. That most logical of aesthetes, Mallarmé said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.
Not only are we drowning in jpeg files, we’re quite possibly allowing those images to replace our experiences.
But how do we stop?
Maybe, now and then, by just…stopping. By stepping back and looking longer and harder at the people and places around us, seeing them for what they are instead of analyzing them for photo ops.
I’m getting ready to take off for my annual Labor Day trip to the Okanagan. Usually, surrounded by so many friends and beautiful sights, I would spend a significant amount of time peering through a viewfinder. Not this time. For the next four days, I’m not going to take a single photograph. It’s something I’ve never done before. And already, it feels like a phantom chapter: will I remember the fun I had if there are no pictures? The answer, of course, is yes, as much as we can remember anything past that single frozen moment.
I’m looking forward to a break from the constant horizon-scan. Maybe someone else will take photos. Maybe not. For once, capturing the moment won’t be reliant on that old familiar click.
What about you? Do you take a lot of pictures? Rely on others to document important moments? Have you ever gone on a trip and refrained from snapping a single photo?