Happy Day

Photographic Tension

The members of my family have a wide range of responses to the camera. On one side of the spectrum is Haley, who loves doing photo shoots and of whom a photo is taken nearly every day by someone. Nathan and Kaleb are sort of neutral; Nathan takes a good photo easily, and he doesn't hate it, but he doesn't seek it out. Kaleb is harder to get a good photo of because he can't quite ignore the camera; once he is aware of it his natural smile is impossible for him to form, as if the presence of the knowledge of the existence of the camera in his space makes him forget how to smile—but he doesn't groan about taking pictures, either. I don't love having my picture taken, but I am a staunch believer that the family photographer needs to work on getting in front of the camera sometimes, because our kids need pictures of us, too, so I have been known to sometimes ask someone to take my picture (much to my discomfort).  

On the other end of the spectrum are Jake and Kendell. About seven or eight years ago, Jake decided he hates having his picture taken. He complains vociferously whenever the camera is involved with any experience, photo shoots are an agony of obnoxious behavior, and nearly every photo I have of him either has the duck face or the angry cat frown. Perhaps he inherited this dislike of photography from his father. Ninety five percent of my pictures of Kendell look like this:

Kendell photo

He hates having his picture taken more than almost anything else I can think of. But it's not just having his photo taken; he's also annoyed by having to wait for me to take pictures. Floral photography is a particular annoyance, but taking pictures during a hike is also equally offensive to him. We have been known to argue about photography.  

Maybe it is Kendell's aversion to photography that makes me think about the reasons behind my interest (some might call it compulsion) to take pictures. For me, photography is partly about the art—the making of something beautiful (even though I am far from an artist with my camera). I do enjoy learning about photography, paying attention to light and watching for good shots and trying to capture the unposed and the spontaneous. But it is, even more, the desire for memory that pushes me to snap the lens. I want to remember but I know memory is fragile and so I put my camera to my eye. Sometimes this makes me worry that I am photographing my life instead of living it, so I go through phases when I conciously do not take pictures, even when my Inner Photographer is begging me to. And then I look at my pictures and I start seeing gaps so I start taking more pictures.

Sometimes I think it is scrapbooking that causes Jake's reluctance to be photographed. I had this insight one night last week, when I taught him how to make baking powder biscuits. He's been wanting to learn for awhile, and I finally managed to both make a dinner that went well with biscuits (creamy chicken soup) and start it with enough time to teach him. After we had finished, and were eating the biscuits (which were delicious, if a little bit salty), I thought I should've taken some pictures. I could see the images in my head, a close up of his hands in the big white bowl, forming the dough into a ball; a low-angled shot of buttermilk in a glass measuring cup; an impossible shot (unless someone else was also in the kitchen) of his face, concentrating, while I stood behind him, reciting the recipe from memory. And I could see the layout, too, almost: know the colors and patterns I would use to create a mood that evoked what I felt during the experience.

But then I thought about the outcome of photographing the experience. The camera in the kitchen would've turned it from Jake learning how to make biscuits to Amy taking pictures of Jake learning how to make biscuits. An experience about preservation instead of about the experience itself. And the experience itself is enough. Maybe some experiences are more valuable than pictures. Maybe just writing about it in my journal is enough, instead of allowing technology to change the moment.

The camera would've muddled the clarity (and, frankly, the sweetness) of the experience.

I've been thinking about THIS ARTICLE from the New Yorker and how it captures almost exactly my photographic tension. (Go read it and then come back; I'll wait.) I say "almost" because I don't have an iPhone (nor do I want one). I do have an Android phone, and I do take pictures with it, but honestly: just as my little point-and-shoot camera frustrates me because of its limitations, my smart phone camera doesn't fulfill my photographic needs. (I will forever be, I suppose, the lady with the big camera.) I want to keep using my DSLR (and honestly, the thought of only having pictures from a cell phone makes me anxious), but I don’t think the type of camera equipment matters so much as one’s attachment to it.

Allowances for camera types aside, however, I read the essay saying yes. To the feeling of wanting to freeze moments long enough to grab my camera and photograph them.  Yes to feeling sad over allowing my thoughts about a picture to distract me from the moment. Yes to the power that looking at photographs imbibes remembering with—how pictures make it easier to remember, to see patterns, to understand a thing you didn't when you snapped the lens. Yes to this idea: "if you are taking a picture of your children. . .then are you, in that moment, looking at them? Or are you anticipating a moment in the future—it is sometimes ten seconds in the future but it could well be ten years—when you will be looking at this very moment?"

"Yes" is the answer to that question: it is both. Now, and later. Or at least, for me. Despite the tension, both within my family and within myself, I will continue taking pictures, continue risking the sweetness of right now because right now is so sweet I want to remember it tomorrow.



I loved the article in the New Yorker. Thanks for sharing. I take a lot of pictures. I do not remember much that has not been captured by the lens of my camera. I have several digital cameras, including a nice digital SLR, but my favorite camera is the iPhone 4 because it's always with me.


Great post Amy - thanks for the link to the article too. I need photos to remind me; when I don't have the camera I try to 'get my mind to take a picture' to create a firm memory, but they're so much harder to remember!

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