Confession: I’ve always wondered about people taking photos with their cell phones. I wonder: maybe they’re like my sister, who for years was content with using disposable cameras. Maybe they’re just not as camera/photo obsessed as I am. Or maybe their cell phone takes WAY better photos than mine! Who am I to judge their motivations? But when I see cell-phone cameras going off, it always makes me say a little prayer of gratitude that we were able to scrimp and save so that I could get a camera I love.
I never thought that the motivation of a person taking a picture with a cell phone was that she forgot her other camera at home. Not until Monday, when I took my kids to the zoo (on what might just be the only spring-warm day during their spring break. We got two inches of snow today!) and realized, once I’d driven the hour it took to get there, that I had left my camera at home.
I felt like I could throw up, I was so annoyed at myself. I go almost nowhere without my camera. Lots of times, when I’m not sure if it would be too weird to take pictures where I am going, I’ll bring it but leave it in the car. Just in case someone asks. (I took it to Chris’s grandma’s funeral, for example. I didn’t take any pictures though.) I’ve become fairly attached to getting our experiences down on film. (Well, on memory card, to be more precise.) But I didn’t realize just how much I tend to view the world in potential photographs until Monday at the zoo. I probably said “I can’t believe I left my camera home” five hundred times. Haley, busy snapping photos with my cell phone, was sympathetic at first, then annoyed with me. “We know, Mom!” she said, so I stopped saying it.
But I continued to think it.
In fact, experiencing the zoo without a camera gave me an epiphany. Does my photography penchant get in the way of me experiencing things fully? Do I need to strive for more balance? Is it weird that I look at the world in terms of photographs? I think the answer to all of those questions is yes. But I’m not sure I can enjoy experiences without photographing them, honestly. Were I to force myself to not bring my camera, I would just be annoyed and resentful. Which makes me wonder: Just why is it that I don’t just want to take pictures, I need to?
For one thing, I think that what is photographed is better remembered. This preserve-the-moment impulse has only gotten stronger as I’ve gotten older. Since Dad’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I have developed an abiding fear of forgetting things. I take pictures to not forget. The poet Dana Gioia says that “the trick is making memory a blessing,” and taking pictures helps me almost accomplish that; those moments when, looking through pictures, someone says “I forgot about that!” or “look how small I was!” or even “our trees were that small once?” bless me by adding layers upon layers to experiences. You have the experience, and then you have the experiences of remembering the experience, and the remembering makes it richer.
But it’s not only preserving the moment that feeds my desire for photographs; it’s also the need to create something beautiful—to make an image that leaves an aesthetic impression. I’m far from being even a passably-good photographer, but I still try to capture photographs (instead of snapshots). Even if I’m trying to preserve the moment, I am also simultaneously trying to make something pretty. But I also end up with a lot of shots that have no memory value at all, pictures in which I try to channel my inner Dewitt Jones (a photographer whose philosophy about creativity I both admire and heartily agree with; click on that link to read what I mean). I try to bring my vision, my way of seeing the world to the pictures I take. Making something pretty, or interesting, or arresting, makes me happy.
Plus, taking pictures is a form of time travel, a way of ensuring that the now (which will soon become the past) is still accessible in the future. I’m making sure that tomorrow I’ll be able to revisit, in a way, what I am experiencing today. I can open up the photos of Kaleb taken when he was thirty seconds old and instantly remember how I felt. I can look at the photos of Haley’s 11-year-old trip and see, by her facial expressions and body language, how she still felt that hanging out with me was the best place to be, and it is so good to have a visual representation of that time. There is so much in life, and I want to savor it all, want it to not be lost along the way, want it to stay with me, and photographs are almost the only way I know to accomplish that.
But there was a second part to my no-camera-at-the-zoo epiphany. We wandered the trails, and there were a multitude of moments when, if I’d had it, I’d’ve lifted my camera to my eye: the way the cheetah paced along the perimeter of his enclosure, a sleek, lithe, proud thing; the giraffe sitting so elegantly in the dirt that he remind me of a piece of Victorian furniture, intricate and detailed and delicate; the ocelot standing at her full height in her windowed cage, scratching at the glass in the language of desperate paws. Elephants standing on their hind legs to reach their hay, the tiger lifting its head to catch my eye and then lie back down, the cougar prowling in restless circles. The shyness of the orangutan. And of course the people moments, like when I looked down at Kaleb and he was walking next to me with a water bottle tucked underneath his arm so he could hold his zoo map with both hands. Haley watching Eve, the baby orangutan, swing her monkey gymnastics along the length and height of her tree. Jacob sitting next to me with his arm around my shoulder while we watched the elephants eat. Nathan’s disappointment that the lion drinking fountains were turned off, and the way the red-and-green parrot’s conversation—what’s your name?—cheered him up.
I want pictures of all of those moments, and of the myriad other things I could blog about, and of the things I’ve already forgotten.
But then, the epiphany. Kaleb dropped his ice cream cone—he had just the bottom left, and a little blob of ice cream. And without any prompting or even hesitation, Nathan said “it’s OK, Kaleb. You can have mine.”
How do you photograph that? You don’t, of course. At that’s when I remembered that there is an older technology I can use, too: words. Pictures capture something I can’t always recreate with words, but words can recreate the things I can’t turn into pictures. And just like I am fearfully grateful for my camera (fearful because I am afraid if I love it too much, it will be taken away from me), and obsessively afraid of forgetting anything, I am beset with gratitude that there is such a thing as words, and as writing. I almost wrote that words, unlike cameras, can’t be left at home, can never be taken away, but I also know that’s not true, either. My dad doesn’t have any words left. So I’ll keep on taking pictures, but I will also remind myself that writing does the same thing from a slightly different perspective, and will continue being grateful for photos and for words but, more than anything, for zoo days—for experiences I want to remember.