For Better Memories, Leave Your Camera Behind


My sister-in-law created such a beautiful setting we felt like we were attending a wedding!

My sister-in-law created such a beautiful setting we felt like we were attending a wedding!

My husband and I were walking our dogs a couple of weeks ago when I looked up and saw the supermoon. I had forgotten that it was due to appear, and it stopped me in my tracks. It was big, gilded, and delicious, and I vacillated between wanting to grab it out of the sky, and wanting to run home and grab my camera. Over the next few days I’d spot it, no longer gold but faded to silver, through the trees on my early morning run. I promised myself I’d get my camera as soon as I got home but the sun and my rising kids got in the way. As it waned, still spectacular, so did my chance to capture it.

I take a lot of pictures pretty much on a daily basis. When my kids were little, I missed entire school shows because I was always behind the camera. I look at the world as groups of compositions and am often compelled to photograph what I see. I ask strangers for their iPhones so I can photograph them when I see a great moment. They never say no. So for me, not to photograph the supermoon was odd but may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I now have a picture of it permanently imprinted on my brain, along with the feeling of delight I had when looking at it.

Some say that when you look at a photograph of an event, it changes your actual memory of it, and when you recall an undocumented memory, it changes according to where you are in your life. If you are in a good place you may embellish your recollection in a positive way. I believe that this phenomenon enriches your experience of the occasion. So I’ve been thinking that perhaps not every holiday or milestone needs to be photographed. Since the moon has left with no physical trace in my life, I have found great pleasure in calling up my memory of it. Unlike a photo to be happened upon, I recall it at will. I turn it over in my head, and like a delicious dessert, savor it. I see its sheer size, glowing yellow, as it sits behind the trees. It makes me believe in magic and I don’t think a photo can’t conjure up that same feeling.

I have tens of thousands of photos that I have made over the years. There are so many that I can’t always find a particular one when I need it. I feel like the well-documented times in my life are the times I remember the least. My wedding day is pretty much contained in my album. It’s as if recording an occasion gives us leave to not remember it. My mom didn’t have a photographer at her wedding and I have a strong visual of how it must’ve been from her descriptions. I can see the huge tea roses that she got cheap because they were in their last bloom, the flowing champagne, and her in her tiny, lace wedding dress.

I’ve often feel regret that I didn’t have a way to record every important event in my life. But would I remember them so richly if I had a photo to fall back on? While I took a lot of pictures of my kids, I never got photos of the more mundane aspects of motherhood, like comforting them, reading them the same book twenty-five times in a row, or nursing them. I mentioned this to a friend of mine and she wisely responded, “Some things are just supposed to be experienced in that moment and then never again. The enjoyment is that it is a beautiful and fleeting part of your life.”

So I’m rethinking my relationship to making photographs, especially as I prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving. I will be with my entire family, something that is rare these last few years. I have brought my camera with me but I’m not sure that I am going to use it.

Afterward: I did end up taking some photos at Thanksgiving; the staged ones of the jumping cousins are keepers but the others are not. It is difficult to capture a dignified photo of your mom, who is well into Alzheimer’s, with her grand kids but it didn’t stop me from trying. I will always remember Thanksgiving 2016 as beautiful and festive, a time of laughter during a post-dinner Family Feud game, and of my mother turning to me after our feast and saying, “Don’t ever change, you make people laugh.”