Missing the Moment and Digital Overload

Our daughters, Charlotte and Abigail, both had their birthday in the last 2 weeks ; a 6th and 9th, respectively. Needless to say, there has been a lot of cake and candles blown out around our house recently.

That recent bout of parties had me thinking again about an issue I have been bumping against for the past year and that, as society become more technology laden and social network driven, has been gaining notice from others as well: How much should I try to document my family’s lives by photographing them and how often should I leave the camera down and experience things in the moment without it?

It’s no longer a new phenomenon to have a sea of glowing smart phones held high and recording at concerts, speeches, graduations, and all manner of events that used to be enjoyed in the moment[1]. Even family parties. Worldwide we have rapidly become a society that feels the need to document and share everything.

Could it be that hiding behind a camera, experiencing events through the viewfinder or LCD might actually be taking away from our experience of it? Interrupting our formation of memories of what we experience? There is some evidence that taking photographs might obstruct our memories of events rather than assist them. Personally, I know that over time I began to feel like I hadn’t witnessed my kids blowing out birthday candles without watching it through a camera in quite some time. And it felt like a loss.

I suspect that everyone will have a different personal threshold for when they begin to feel that they are missing out on things when photographing them. Lately, I have begun to put my camera down much more during family events. And I’ve been enjoying it. I feel more involved, and there really is nothing like meeting your child’s eyes with your own over a glowing cake or wrapped present and seeing and sharing the excitement you see in them.

I still take photographs at family events just not as many and, if I feel I need more photos, other family members bring cameras and share their photos freely. But how many photos of an event or moment do we need?

Digital Overload

“Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them.”[2]

As I’ve put the camera down more for personal events, I have also begun to relax some about documenting every part of our children’s lives. There are simply too many moments and too many image files produced when I try for that to be possible. And to what end? Most of those images will linger on my computer never to be used. Do I ever go back and look at them all? Rarely. I’ve rated the best ones and sort by those when viewing my archives.

Will my kids want to browse thousands of images when they are older like I used to dig into the shoeboxes and print albums of my parents. Possibly, but those shoeboxes and albums contained degrees of magnitude less physical photos than people are producing today with multiple image files produced from rapid-fired digital exposures (often all of quite similar expressions and moments only seconds apart). It’s much more likely that in the future my kids will page through our yearly photobooks (made from my highest rated images) to reminisce rather than wade through bloated folders of digital files on multiple hard drives.

It’s Personal

I’ve found that I need to remind myself that our family events aren’t paying jobs, it’s personal. I don’t need 100 images from a cake cutting to show a client. I am the client. While I do try to make quality, special, and skillful photos of my family to fill our yearbooks, (we all like to look at pretty photography and it’s still good practice to keep my photography skills active) I don’t want to sacrifice actual memories of the moment to do that. I’ve needed to find a compromise, and, at times, am still seeking it. I still photograph family events but less than before and I play more outside of those events making photographs at other times, or staging them at times with my kids’ help.

Maybe it’s time to put the camera phones and DSLRs down more often and reenter, re-interact with the moments and people around us in our personal lives. Or maybe that boat has long since sailed and we are living in a time and generation in which social interactions have evolved through technology into something different than they were. Maybe part of socially interacting has changed to include the immediate or post-event sharing of images and videos with each other and absent friends. It has become obvious to me that, as my kids grow, my wife and I will have to constantly monitor and evaluate the invasiveness of technology in their lives. Road trips that used to involve board games and reading when I was young, for my kids involve movie and electronic time limits and repeated urges by me to look away from the screens to the beauty outside. My wife and I will have to guide our kids in finding a balance for technology in their social lives. In the safe, respectful and even ethical use of the making and sharing of media that is so easily produced today on pocketable devices as we also make concessions to a rapidly changing time when technology is becoming more ingrained in everyday life.
We will have to show our kids that the moment isn’t within the pixels of a screen but behind it. Show them that a captured moment isn’t the same as an experienced one, and, at the same time, remind myself.

  1. It’s not a new phenomenon but it is increasingly annoying. Bear in mind that most of the people attempting to document whatever event they are at are in conditions and distances that will result in files that are nearly unusable or really indecipherable.  ↩

  2. “Taking photographs ruins the memory, research finds.” The abstract for the actual research paper by Dr. Linda Henkel can be found here.  ↩