On a recent sunny June afternoon I accompanied my daughter and her family to a local swimming hole on the Puntledge River. The weather had attracted quite a few families to the beach. Relaxing in a folding chair beside my 15-year-old granddaughter, amicably passing a potato chip bag back and forth as we watched children and their parents splashing in the river, I could not shake the feeling that something was missing.
Then I remembered.
“It’s the strangest thing,” I said to my granddaughter. “I seem to have left my cell phone at home.”
“Good,” she said. “Now you can’t take any pictures. You’ll just have to sit here and enjoy life.”
My grandkids are resigned to their shutterbug grandma. Visits to my home are punctuated by the command to look up and smile. Whenever we head out on a walk, my trusty iPhone XS nestles in the back pocket of my jeans, ready to be whipped out the moment the grandkids do anything cute, or interesting, or annoying. Walks may be interrupted at any moment by the cry of the matriarch: “You kids keep walking, I’ll catch up with you! I just have to take a picture of the river…. this wildflower… an interesting bug… that perfect cloud… a rock shaped exactly like a heart…” Recently the grandkids decided to hold an intervention. I am now restricted to three photos per walk.
I blame my mother for my obsession with capturing life on film. On my ninth birthday she presented me with her beloved Brownie box camera. It was—literally—a box with a lens on the front and a postage-stamp-sized viewfinder on the top. The shutter was a tiny lever that stuck out from the lower right side of the box. You braced the box against your chest, peered down into the minuscule viewfinder, and ordered your subject to hold verrry still. The challenge was to depress the shutter without tilting the camera. I found this nearly impossible to accomplish, with the result that my photos were always slightly askew. Undaunted, I took pictures of anything that would hold still long enough, restricted only by the number of rolls of film my tiny allowance would afford. I was hooked. A shutterbug was born.
In my teen years I acquired a slightly more sophisticated camera and branched out into artsy shots of chain link fences, water droplets on leaves, deliberately unfocused photos of friends, and the occasional unplanned closeup of my exuberant poodle’s nose.
As the years flew by, my repertoire expanded to include a husband. Various dogs. Scenery, at home and abroad. And then, in November 1979, an event occurred that ushered me into a new photographic era: the birth of our first child.
As wee Sarah grew from wrinkled newborn to chubby-cheeked toddler, every infinitesimal milestone was obsessively chronicled: first smile, first tooth, first step, first birthday, first Christmas, first taste of applesauce. And random cuteness. (Soooo much random cuteness!) Sarah “reading” a book. Sarah cuddling her favourite doll. Sarah playing with the dogs. Sarah in the bathtub/in her snowsuit/on a playground swing. Our bookshelves began to fill up with photo albums.
As our family expanded to include five additional children, the bookshelves groaned under the weight of more and more albums. Birthdays. School events. Camping trips. Sunday school pageants. Christmas mornings. Sports. Easter egg hunts. Vacations at home and abroad. Random cuteness. (Soooo much random cuteness.)
There are 25 photo albums. The last one is dated 2005. Digital photography had, and subsequent photos were entombed in the memory chips of our digital devices, displayed, perhaps, on computer screensaver slideshows, or shared on social media, or called up on one’s cell phone to impress strangers in cash register lineups (“Oh, that photo of your niece’s baby is adorable! Now, let me show you the cutest picture of my youngest grandchild in a kitty costume… wait…I know it’s here somewhere…”)
The advent of digital photography has also freed us from the constraints of film. No longer do we need to ration our picture-taking! As I write this, I blush to admit that there are 31,029 photos and 2,001 videos on my iPhone XS.
I recently had occasion to hunt through the old albums, while tracking down a photo of an adult son’s seventh birthday party to share in our family’s Signal group. When I located the photos of the event, I was struck by the fact that there were only three of them. Not eight, or 12, or 27. Just three. At such an event nowadays I would take at least a dozen photos and a handful of videos as well.
It makes me wonder: what is this compulsion to capture every moment of our children’s and grandchildren’s lives? When we look back on that birthday party years from now, will twenty-seven photos of a child blowing out candles really serve our memory better than three? And in the process of taking those twenty-seven photos, are we actually missing the very moment we are trying so desperately to capture?
I would love to continue pondering this philosophical question with you, but I must run. My cat is doing the cutest thing. Now, where did I put that cell phone?