The old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” sometimes rings very true to me. I remember looking through my great-grandmother’s closet as a teenager and carefully opening an old photo album full of black and white photos of another time. I stared in amazement at the fresh, young faces of my elderly family members, and I tried to imagine what life could have possibly been like back then. I thought about what their personalities were like. Did they have the same problems, hopes, dreams, and questions about life that I did? Did they share inside jokes with their friends like I did with mine? Did they think about the day when they would be aging grandparents and great-grandparents?
I have an old picture of my great-grandparents when they were teenagers in the mid-1930s. They are standing on a wooden bridge together, dressed in what was probably their best clothing at the time. As I study their faces–hers with a slight hint of a smile and his almost expressionless–I see few recognizable features. Their eyes are the same as I remember, and my grandfather’s black hair is still as I remember from my childhood, but while the physical features intrigue me, they are not my main focus. I wonder all of the things the photo can’t tell me. What did they talk about that day? What did their voices sound like? How did they spend their time, and how did they interact with their families when they got home–the great-great grandparents and great aunts and uncles that I either didn’t know or only knew after they were approaching the end of their lives?
I can only imagine that having this picture taken was a rare treat for my great-grandparents, who understood that doing without amenities meant much more than not being able to afford satellite television.
I’ve often thought about this as I fill photo album after photo album with my children’s pictures. With digital cameras, cell phone cameras, and video cameras, it seems that almost every moment of our children’s lives is documented in some way. And you only have to click on a few of your friends’ Facebook pages to see hundreds of pictures of their daily activities.
I remember trying to take a picture for the family Christmas card a few years back. At about 3 and 1, the boys found it difficult to pose and smile on command until I got the perfect picture. With each photo, one would smile and the other would look away, or one would decide to tackle the other, and I grew more and more frustrated that I wasn’t getting a good picture. The boys were getting fussy, I was definitely not enjoying myself, and then I realized how silly it all was. It suddenly occurred to me that we would not have all that many holiday seasons together while the kids were small, and I was wasting part of this one by making everyone do something that nobody was enjoying. We put the photo shoot off, and we just spent the afternoon playing.
It has since occurred to me that I often spend so much time recording and taking pictures of the events in my kids’ lives that I am not fully present to enjoy the moment. I still want those pictures, and I know I will enjoy them one day. I hope my boys’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren will also enjoy them, but do I really want them to have so many hundreds of pictures of our lives that there is no mystery involved? Will old pictures be so commonplace that they won’t be special to future generations?
I still love taking and looking at pictures, but I have decided that real life is even better. Maybe one picture of the kindergarten program is enough, and I can spend the rest of the time taking in every moment of my child’s performance and seeing him with my own eyes instead of through a camera. Maybe the Christmas card can be a candid shot of the boys just being boys. Maybe simply enjoying a cute moment in my child’s life is more important than jumping up to find a camera to record it.
I’m sure there will be no shortage of picture-worthy moments in the years to come, and I’m sure I’ll have my camera ready, but I may just be a little quicker to put it down now. I still love my pictures, but I don’t want to live my life through photographs.