Like most people, I’m used to snapping photos at every event I attend and of each of my child’s small milestones (yes, playing with play-doh for the first time counts as a milestone). On the rare occasions when I am having so much fun that I forget to pull out my phone, I later worry that I missed my opportunity to properly “document” the fun that I had. It’s a common trend: when the iPhone was released in 2007, the sheer number of digital photos taken by individuals dramatically increased, making photography more accessible and more habitual.
Although almost everyone in our country has the ability to “be a photographer” and take their own beautiful photos, some research suggests that taking an abundance of photos could have harmful effects on our social, emotional, and mental wellbeing (as well as the wellbeing of our children). Furthermore, as editor Laura Loker has discussed at Verily, documenting our lives may not be the best way to preserve memories for the future.
One (perhaps unintentional) effect of this new accessibility and focus on personal photography, is that the overall standard of photography seems to have gradually increased, especially the photography we display in our homes and share with others on social media. I’m not the first person to notice the growing obsession with hiring photographers to document every important (or, sometimes, not so important ) life event. Simply having a camera phone is not enough anymore, and we are growing increasingly unsatisfied with our own picture-taking results.
The surprising consequence is that, despite the fact that “everyone has a camera” now, professional photography is on the rise. Because the standard for “share-worthy” photography has dramatically increased in the last decade, the desire for professional photo shoots for everything from childbirth to buying a new home to first birthday parties has increased alongside it.
And this is not a bad thing, necessarily. There is nothing quite as satisfying as capturing that perfect moment—that perfect photo—and being able to share it with others. There is absolutely nothing wrong with hiring a photographer to take those beautiful photos we are generally incapable of taking ourselves.
However, while such “perfect” photos are beautiful treasures, they are not necessary. In fact, there is a lot to be said for the more “imperfect” family photos. By turning my focus in a few other directions, I’ve gradually come to a place of contentment with our family’s photo collection—photos that (in the words of Marie Kondo) truly do spark joy for me.
Looking through my childhood photos
Happily splashing in a blowup pool in my diaper in our backyard. Playing in a very messy playroom with with children who eventually became my life-long friends. Peeking out from a camping tent set up in my bedroom as requested for my birthday party.
It doesn’t take long to realize that these photos’ aren’t my favorites because of their quality. Most of these pictures were taken on my parents’ old film camera and printed at Walmart, and the one shot they got was “the” shot. There were no do-overs or sitting still for dozens of photos until they got the “perfect shot.” Even if they could see the photos as they were taking them, they couldn’t afford to print out a million of them to find that shot (life before the digital age was rough!).
Unsurprisingly, what makes these childhood photos some of my favorites are the memories they contain (there’s a reason we used to call photo albums “memory books”). Because my parents didn’t keep their camera on them at all times (like we do now), the moments that they did bust the camera out for were truly memories they wanted to capture and remember. The quality of photos was lower, and the quantity was less. Yet the photos are certainly not any “less”; in fact, they are worth even more.
We no longer have to conscientiously carry along a camera when we think we might want to take a picture. (Predictably, smartphones have had a devastating impact on the camera industry.) Yet, somehow, preserving memories through photos is in many ways harder now, with a camera always on hand. The easier it becomes to instantly shoot and share photos at any time, the harder it is to stop and consider each photo, and the less each shot becomes valued. Just like today’s parents, my parents wanted beautiful photos of their kids all looking at the camera, but they seem to have been more satisfied with the best that they could get, since the standards weren’t as high as they are now.
I recognize that I can hold myself to the same standard that my parents did when it comes to capturing photos of my family, rather than comparing myself to Instagram. I can aim to preserve the most important memories, rather than aiming for the highest-quality, perfect shots.
Analyzing my old Facebook albums
I recently went back to where I first began my “love-hate affair” with social media: Facebook. At its onset, Facebook was used mostly for sharing photos and messages with friends and long-lost loved ones. It was quite common to do a “Facebook dump” of all your photos taken on your digital cameras into “photo albums” arranged by event, month, or some clever title (such as, “random pics!!!!”).
Looking through the high school and college photos I shared in these Facebook albums, I remembered how I used to share my pictures solely because I wanted to share the wonderful memories, and not because I wanted to show off the “one perfect shot” I captured—as I’m often guilty of doing now for Instagram. Don’t get me wrong—Instagram has the ability to inspire real positivity in our lives, encouraging us to live a more active lifestyle, organize our homes, or even empowering us to learn more about our feminine health.
Yet, as Laura Loker reminds us in her article, “It’s time we started keeping memories for ourselves, not for other people.” The current trend certainly seems to be sharing the goofy, imperfect, everyday “real life” shots in Instagram Stories or Snapchat, where they will live only temporarily, and saving the “beautiful” pictures for our actual Instagram feeds. I’m certainly guilty of this, and I don’t think it’s necessarily terrible to want to share our very “best.”
However, because photography is now in real time, we tend to share photos in real time to show others the more interesting aspects of our lives, rather than taking them as memories to save for the future. I’m realizing that it’s also important to share, save, and print the “real life photos” as the precious memories of our daily lives that they truly are.
This past Christmas, as I placed our family’s Christmas cards into their respective envelopes, I was not upset or resentful that the photo on the card was one my sister-in-law had quickly snapped of us on our slipcovered couch in the toddler’s bedroom. All of us were snuggled together, smiling, and looking genuinely happy—and we were. I won’t care what I looked like (or what the house looked like) in these photos when I’m old and gray; I’ll only care about the people and the joy-filled memories contained within them.