Memories without Photographs

How do you remember without photographs?

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At the grocery store this morning, the Billy Joel song “For the Longest Time” came on over the PA, and I was immediately transported back almost two decades to the Key Club regional convention of April 1995.

There was a talent show, and one of the performers was an all-boy acapella group called The Argyles, which performed this song. (I think it’s impossible to be an acapella boy band and not do this song.) I don’t remember if they won, but I still remember being touched by their performance.

I also remember a really gay boy who told me the meaning of life was comfortable shoes.

I remember the hotel (it was at the big hotel in downtown Little Rock) messed up our reservation and we got to stay in the governor’s suite, which was huge and we were ridiculous in it because who wouldn’t be?

I know it was the weekend after the Oklahoma City bombing, and I know there was probably a boy there I fell half in love with over the course of the weekend, because that’s how it worked back then.

I don’t have a single picture from that weekend. I don’t remember that sweet boy’s name. But it was a weekend to remember anyway.

We Live to Remember

It was appropriate to be thinking about that today, since my friend Sarah last night shared a video about how we all take so many pictures and put them through vintagey filters because we are living both in the now and in the anticipated memory. By taking pictures and adding filters, we’re choosing how we want to remember things as they happen.

And of course because we all have phones and video cameras in our pockets, we’re choosing to remember everything.

I’m not sure that’s such a good thing.

For one thing, it’s not possible to remember everything, and trying to makes it seem like every moment is of equal importance, when it’s just not true.

For another, we’re creating these huge digital archives of our every move that our kids will have to deal with some day. I called it a vast digital burden.

No one wants to see every moment of another person’s life. No one wants to see every cute video of their own childhood either, probably.

The photos and videos we have from past generations are precious because they are so rare, but our kids will have so much to choose from when it comes to remembering us, from our Instagram feeds to terabytes of digital photos, blog posts and videos, they won’t be able to decide what was most important to us.

I can see future kids throwing their hands up and deleting it all, or throwing an external hard drive full of “stuff” into a drawer, never to be looked at, much like we might throw our hands up and say “sell it all” because we’re so overwhelmed by what’s left of other people’s lives.

This line of thought, by the way, makes me rethink how I’m dealing with the girl’s art. I wanted to take pictures of pretty much everything, but who would want to see that? She doesn’t need the burden of photos of every squiggled line and splotch of paint she ever laid on paper. It’s silly to think she would. It’s silly to think I would, too, because when would I ever look back at it? The physical stuff we choose to keep is a lot more fun.

The Perfect Unphotographed Day

How do you remember without photographs?
I think this was the fall in question, though this was not the day. (This was Halloween 2011.)

And I’m reminded of a perfect fall day a few years ago when the girl and I were playing in the front yard waiting for husband to come home. We were out there for a couple of hours, making leaf piles to jump in, throwing leaves at each other, sitting in the grass singing songs and telling stories.

There were lots of hugs and kisses and flushed cheeks and perfect golden light as the sun started to go down.

As we were sitting there, a guy in a white Hummer stopped in front of our house, rolled down his window and said “I wish I had a camera so I could take a picture for you” because we looked so happy and it was such a pretty scene.

I was briefly sad not to have a picture, too. But I knew this was a memory I would keep regardless of photographic evidence. And even though the girl might not remember that exact day, she will tell you jumping in leaf piles with me is her favorite part of fall.

She won’t need pictures to remember that, either.

What do you think? Is documenting everything good or are we placing an unnecessary burden on our kids to remember everything? I’d love to know your thoughts.

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  1. I think about this too. When I was teaching, kids would take tons or photos or video a whole experience, and I would wonder, “How often are you going to look at that? But also, how much is documenting the event preventing you from actually engaging with what’s happening right now?” I think the point you make about how too many photos makes them all seem equally important is really astute. It’s something I can identify in writing because I have had to help students edit to make things shorter, but I never thought about how that can apply to all of the digital items we collect. It’s great to have them, but how often are you going to go through them, especially if the collection seems so large that it feels daunting.

  2. There are so many frivolous photos now they have little meaning. Photos of special events or sharing times are great. Photos for the sake of taking a photo are a waste of digital storage. We don’t curate our photos any more, we don’t have to stop to make sure we have the shadows, the light right as we aren’t using film. We can store millions, so we don’t need to focus on storing and showcasing the good ones. As with everything, a few great photos are far more valuable than rooms full of dated images. We need to learn to be more selective, to get back to putting value on photos, not just snapping everything in case someone, somewhere might be interested.

  3. I really value my photos, especially the ones I’ve taken since my son has been born. I look at those old videos and I’m so happy I caught the way he’d just laugh and laugh when I made silly faces, or the way he looked at 3 months, or six. I wish I had more, not fewer. Is absolutely every photo a keeper? No, of course not. But for someone with a lousy memory, my camera is a cherished tool. I love being able to pick it up, snap off a couple of dozen shots, and if there are a few great ones, fantastic. Otherwise, the rest can be deleted.

  4. We barely documented our child’s life, but she remembers it intensely. I think, in part, because we were all living it with her. We weren’t staging photos or watching her from behind a screen. We were right there with her doing whatever it was we were doing. Those moments are what bonded us. I may not have photos, but I have a lasting and loving relationship that happened without me looking through a viewfinder to capture it. To me that is priceless.

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