Christmas was a great this year because all of my family got together under one roof (including 17 grandkids). It was messy, loud, and incredibly fun. We all wanted to enjoy it and remember it forever, and that was obvious by how often all our phones were out recording the antics of a grandchild. As I sat there on Christmas morning recording my son opening gifts I though, "Why am I really recording this?"
In a series of interviews last year, NPR covered a topic that strikes close to most of us. Why do we take so many pictures and videos, when we often don't look back at them AND they take us away from the every day experience of living in a particular moment?
Psychologist Linda Henkel explains:
"As soon as you hit click on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory," Henkel says. "Anytime we kind of count on these external memory devices, we're taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own."
So we should never take pictures? Just live our lives and enjoy every moment? No, I am not saying that. As both a filmmaker and an aspiring qualitative researcher I think there is quite a bit of value in keeping records and memories. But as is the case in just about every area of life, balance and discipline can not be overstated. How can one balance the strange and strong desire to whip out the phone and record everything that appears slightly interesting with the important ability to enjoy life as it happens?
Consider these three questions:
1. Who Am I Recording This For?
As the Gaffigan quote I mentioned above illustrates, what is the use of having loads of digital images in your closet if I never see them or enjoy them? If you aren't planning on using the images to edify others then you should probably consider what you are really planning on using them for. To be clear, I am not calling for a rigid checklist to be pulled out every time you hold your phone up for a picture or video. I am grateful for the vast amount of footage my Dad took as I grew up. Without it I could have never completed this assignment! But just consider, do I need 30 pictures of my kids with the dog? Or will 1 work? Do I need 15 minutes of the choir concert? Or will 2 minutes give my family and friends the same experience when watching home videos?
2. Why Am I Recording This?
I have a hunch that within each of us is a deep desire to capture reality and stow it away for perfect keeping. We want more than just images, but experiences to stay with us and be available if we have the fancy to call them up. That is why we take pictures and videos, to trigger experiences and feelings of a particular day and age. But the problem is, if we spend so much time taking pictures - what are we actually experiencing? If all you have of the grand canyon is 3 GB worth of pictures but no memory of hiking along the rim or allowing the sense of awe wash over you as you just sight and stare for a few minutes, than what do you have? Nothing but 3 GB worth of images that will probably sight on your hard drive till the end of time.
Often I realize I am taking a picture or video for a very prideful reason. Maybe I want to show off something, or tell the world how proud I am of my son. This is not helpful to anyone including myself. The world doesn't care about how many words my boy can say at age 18 months, or how my old dog barks at us when he wants to come inside. If all I want from taking a picture is someone to say "YOU BABY IS SO DANG CUTE" on my Facebook post, then I need re think my purpose for recording my world.
3. Is My Recording Of This MORE Important Than Experiencing It Right Now?
Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it?
Sean O'Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O'Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.
My son will never have his childhood back, and if I spend the whole of it taking pictures of him I am never in it. A life worth living is a life worth recording, it is true. But a life worth recording is also a life worth living. Often the most precious and important moments of our lives are best experienced without a mini-computer lodged between us and the world.