The Tyranny of Too Many Photos
When I got married, someone gave my husband and I a “Christmas, Year by Year” photo album. Every year we stick our Christmas card in there as well as one or two photos from Christmas. It is a beautiful thing in its engineered edited-ness. As I ordered a few photo prints recently from this Christmas (and last, as I, of course, had fallen behind), I realized how grateful I was to whoever gave the photo album to me. (Also how sorry I was that I don’t remember who that was!)
Because in a world where family photos have, like everything else in life, migrated to the “too much” column, this simple little book provides a perfect, digestible compendium of important family memories that I know will one day fall into the possession of one of my children.
In the digital age, the overwhelm creeps into everything.
Mine is the first generation of parents that has been completely let loose in a world with infinite family photographing and video-recording capability. We have handled this power as expected — without restraint, thoughtfulness or editing skills.
Social media has convinced us that there is a reason to take all these photos because there is a place for them. If we are sharing them online, and our friends and family get to see our child’s every mildly interesting moment, then all these images and videos have a reason for existing. But at what cost?
What do we really want from our family photos?
When I was a kid, my mom busted the camera out once in a while, but not as much as some moms. She was a classic 70’s / 80’s mom and I was the third child. I don’t think there is a single photo of me in a Halloween costume in existence. And that’s probably a good thing because she didn’t put a ton of effort into my Halloween costumes either. But I do have some precious family photos of my childhood and my family, and as I make my way into my middle 40’s, I am realizing that its… mostly enough.
I do wish there were more video of me as a small child, especially to see my grandmother and my parents when they were young. And a few more photos would have been nice – in particular, ones that showed the rooms in our house, as they were. I have a habit of taking photos of rooms in our apartment from time to time, especially if something changes. When I look at old photos, I always find myself scrutinizing the background – the toys, the wallpaper, the furniture. I can’t get enough of those details. Remembering the places helps to build out memories with crucial context and color.
This is why we take pictures.
To help us remember. Recording childhood moments will help my children process their memories in a place they can reach as adults. This is a gift whose value cannot be overstated. Most of my childhood memories are pretty hazy. I wish they were clearer. This is the point of photos – to preserve memories. To help keep things in your heart and in your head, where they are most needed. Think of a strong memory. A photo cannot compare. The mental always has more power than the physical. This is why I’ve embraced the philosophy that keeping physical objects as memories is a burden that is not worth it. A few priceless treasures, yes. But I don’t need every cup, bowl and spoon of my grandmother’s to remember her. She is in my heart. Memories lift you up. Mementos weigh you down.
My children will have a lot more clear memories of their childhood than I did.
Which means they will have many more of those moments in life when something – a book, a movie, a smell, a place – leaves them with the warm, deep, beautiful feeling that comes with a vivid momentary pathway to a childhood memory. I want that for them.
And I, of course, desperately want to remember them as they are now. When I see videos of my 10 year old as a 2 year old, I almost can’t remember that being him. The videos of those small moments of childhood… they are truly precious. Will my children watch one of these videos one day as adults, and remember something precious that had been forgotten? Precious, priceless treasure. I would never tell anyone not to record their children’s childhood.
But like any possession, too much is a burden.
Before I even became a mother, I was a proud aunt to my two sisters’ children. My husband and I snapped hours and hours of video and stills of my nieces and nephews. We had a robust digital family archive sitting on our hard drive long before our children made an appearance. By now, like millions of other overwhelmed parents, we have thousands upon thousands of images and videos.
So many that I fear I will never have dominion over them. And if anything should ever happen to my husband, god forbid, I have no confidence in my ability to save them from digital oblivion, or pass them on to my children in any meaningful way.
I used to create quarterly photo books. Eventually, I fell so far behind that I stopped. I could not get through all the photos. And since I don’t go through them regularly, I don’t even know where to find them. They’re on the computer in some mysterious place. My husband always shows me where, but I have a mental block. It bothers me that I am so disconnected from the management of our family archive. I have allowed myself to become overwhelmed to the point of complete mental shutdown. How did this happen? Too many photos.
Getting the family photos under control.
There are important conversations to have about organizing your digital archives, backing them up and figuring out ways to display them. But for me, the first and most important thing that needs to happen is to take a more minimalist approach to family photos in the first place. To cut some of the overwhelm off at the source.
I was just lamenting how I didn’t take many photos of my son’s birthday slumber party. But then I realized, do I need 75 photos of 10 year olds shooting each other with Nerf guns? I got one good shot of my son with his best friend. It is enough. There is no way you can contemplate the problem of too many photos without arriving at the notion that you should… take fewer photos.
Realization number two is not news: delete your rejects. I can hardly think of a problem to which “delete” is not an excellent solution. The only advice that is better than delete is, delete immediately.
Learn to be, not just an editor, but a ruthless editor.
Delete images the way you throw away your 2 year old’s art work. Ask yourself… what purpose is this image serving? Is it my child, who always looks cute, just looking cute in a different outfit? Do I need two (or 16) very similar photos of the same moment, when one will do fine? What memory am I capturing? Is this actually something that we need to remember?
And there is the root of it.
Our brains can only remember so much – there is a limit. Would you want to remember every single moment of your life if you could? For me, the answer is no. There is a reason we do not remember everything. It would be an awful burden at an untenable cost. We need to spend most of our time connecting to the present to be happy and fulfilled. Some of life’s most precious moments are best served by leaving the camera in your pocket, being present, then letting them go.
Imagine your parents handing you a box of 500,000 images of your life for you to go through.
I don’t think it would be enjoyable. It would be exhausting and after the first 500 images, it would be diminishing returns. Sounds more like a potentially very dark Twilight Zone episode than a fun afternoon. Perhaps we should contemplate this when we think about what we want to pass on to our children of their childhoods. Will it be so much that they can’t even deal with it? Or can we find that sweet spot, where it is enough to keep their precious memories safe, but not so much that they mentally reject the burden outright? Food for thought…
If you’ve let your family photos get too far away from you, if you only interact with them to post online, try pulling a few important memories back to the physical world.
Print out some photos, even if it’s just two or three that are still in the relatively accessible universe of your phone. Even if most of your photos remain in some faraway computer folder. Even if you are so behind and haven’t done it in a long time. Do not attempt to catch up first. Have some old framed photos that you don’t touch, but keep some updated every year or so. Remember the past, but celebrate the present too.
Growing up in front of a camera…
There are more photos from my history as I got old enough to start taking my own. Back in the the 20th century, this generally meant high school. As opposed to my children’s generation of phone-stealing 7 year olds. (How much time I have spent deleting photos of toy “set-ups.”) I am forever thankful that I was able to pass my teens and twenties before the phone-as-camera / social-media-sharing era. I shudder to think at the regrettable images that I might have shared with the world. Or worse, that others might have posted of me.
My children, however, are growing up in a constantly photographed world and those photographs are constantly shared. I don’t look forward to the challenge of trying to help them manage that responsibility and steer them away from mistakes that could live online forever. I have a few years before I have to deal with that in earnest.
In the meantime, the task is clear: delete, delete, delete. Put the camera down. Then, delete some more.
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