Pause or Pose? Making the Most Out of Photos and Memories

I cannot count the number of times when, during a conversation with my sisters, one of us stopped to say, “Remember the time when … ?” The following ...

Apr 11, 2015

I cannot count the number of times when, during a conversation with my sisters, one of us stopped to say, “Remember the time when … ?” The following story would have us bursting into laughter, one person always waiting to jump in and add a funny detail, only for someone else to toss in another joke after the laughter died down.
Other times, however, it would be hard to remember what happened next. We would rack our brains trying to recollect. Whenever we couldn’t, there was always a brief moment of disappointment before someone changed the subject. Those periods of memory loss were not only dismaying, but also reduced an event’s significance, making us feel as if it had almost been erased from existence.
Moments like these are a reminder that, while we can appreciate a memory, we have to strive to engage all our senses so that once we’ve captured it, we can in the future recall not only what it looked like, but also what it felt like.
Cameras help us capture what moments look like: they visually preserve frames of time, making them last long enough for a lifetime. As a child, my family usually took pictures on days charged with emotion; my parents’ wedding, my grandma’s funeral, my naming ceremony. We took them in order to save those particular moments of being and living, to freeze them so that we could come back later to the memories themselves. However, today the ease of taking and preserving photos has changed the way we experience the moment. Pictures are not the emotionally-charged objects they once were.
There is a period of my life that has remained relatively unrecorded, in which I have very few digitized memories. Like the time my forgetful brother had to wear my shirt for a race; his teacher, much to my embarrassment, had taken off my PE shirt in front of everyone and given it to him, leaving me in my thin girl singlet. Or that other time when I had scored an own-goal in a football game, or when I had narrowly escaped mass punishment. Because of the absence of technology and cameras, I think I stored those memories somewhere in my body — mostly in my heart.
Do I wish I had photos that documented these events? I don’t think so; the emotions I felt are triggered mentally rather than visually, and are complemented by peoples’ similar experiences. Coming into contact with friends from long ago, remembering those tiny random moments that I could never really explain to anyone, draws my mind back to the past. Those experiences are written somewhere inside me, because all I had back then was my own personal ability to remember.
Conversely, if there are things that I completely miss or if my memory were to fail me one day, I would be grateful for a photograph’s aid. Take, for example, an amusing story I once heard about a couple that hadn't known they had visited the same theme park years before they met — until, that is, they found a photo. That photograph shows elements and scenes that they could never have appreciated on the day it was taken.
But even though we can appreciate the moment, we should engage with more than just our sense of sight. We should touch and smell and taste, especially when we do new things. Imagine if the couple remembered something else from that day together. They’d have both a photo and a shared memory; their joy would be greater. The human experience is more than just seeing a moment.
Spring break just ended, and people have returned from their travels. If you’re like me, and you spent half of your break in bed and the other half waiting for friends to suggest things you can do together, you'll go onto Facebook and browse through newsfeed pictures from all over the world. This year Turkey, India, Tanzania and Greece were hot spots, and people are coming back with one story or another.
I recently asked a returning friend, “How did break go?” After getting the usual response, my friend went ahead to reach for her phone and show me the photographs she had taken, as if to suggest that my curiosity could be satisfied simply by seeing what she saw. But I could have easily seen the same with Google Earth images and the internet. I could tell the trip had been filled with less being in the moment and more digital documentation, a common phenomenon among many people nowadays.
I think that what drives us to digital documentation is often the necessity to delay or escape the reflection involved in being in the moment and engaging all our senses when we travel, or even when we are going about daily activities.
We like to amass images for a later time, so we can later go through them to recall the experience and avoid the feeling of being mentally over-engaged. The danger of this is that we get so involved in digital documentation that we forget to feel the moments as they happen. We live in a world where we esteem photos as primary in collecting experiences and relegate sentiments and personal memory to the background. Researchers call this the Photo-Taking Impairment effect.
But it goes beyond just missing the experience of being in the moment. Sometimes, photos cause us to deceive ourselves about what actually happened. When we rely on photos to tell us what we have barely experienced, they can fail us, no longer letting distinguish between true experiences and mentally-constructed, false realities. Pictures have the ability to shape what we remember. If we rely only on technology to make memories for us, we may believe false things about our experiences when we look at them in the future.
Although good memories can be saved within ourselves and without the use of photographs, we often need photographs to wrap a moment up. It's a fine balance. When we choose to take photos, we should remember that memories become much stronger and meaningful if we ourselves fully participate in the events of our lives. We should complement our memories with photographs rather than compulsively take these photos before having saved anything in our hearts, minds and bodies. When we look back at our photos, we should have stories to tell about what those moments actually felt like.
Elizabeth Couri is a contributing writer. Email her at
gazelle logo