I take less pictures of my children now than I did three years ago. It’s not because I value their “moments” any less. It’s just that the longer I am a mother, the more I recognize the sacredness of those moments. And one of the most puzzling and frustrating qualities of sacred things is that they can’t fully be captured.
I don’t think that means we shouldn’t take pictures. I treasure so many of the moments I’ve been able to capture. Pictures help us preserve memories and remind us of the beauty in our lives. I’ve especially enjoyed watching my older son learn more about his babyhood and about his family through looking at pictures. I am grateful for our pictures and I don’t plan to stop taking them. But I refuse to be obsessive about capturing everything. Not only is it impossible but when we obsess over capturing all the moments we risk missing them entirely. And besides, I’ve found that when I don’t obsess– when I end up taking less photos– it usually means I end up taking better ones anyway.
So where is the healthy balance? I’ve found a few guidelines to be helpful:
- Taking pictures of the moment must always come secondary to the moment. The phone should be in easy reach but mostly out of sight. A few pictures per occasion is almost always enough. Of course, with small children or big families, some amount of fussing about posing is inevitable, but it shouldn’t take too much time or stress. (I make an exception to this rule for specifically artistic photo shoots where we aren’t really trying to capture a moment so much as an essence of a person or a relationship. Ex. engagement/wedding photo shoots, newborn photo shoots, etc.)
- Editing or sharing pictures should never occur before the moment is finished. This always distracts from the moment and taints its authenticity. You don’t want your memory to be consumed with self-referential thinking about your memory. Neither do you want to be plagued by vanity during a beautiful moment. Finally, practically speaking, if you’re staring at your phone you can’t really enjoy anything else. I have a rule of waiting at least one day before editing or sharing pictures.
- Just because there are beautiful things in your life doesn’t mean everyone needs to see photos of them. There are far nobler reasons for sharing than sheer vanity. Many of us may sense that our lives bring joy and inspiration and we want to bring that joy and inspiration to other people. This can be very good. But there is a real danger when we share so much that we violate the mystery and intimacy of our selves and our relationships. Children need to grow up without feeling like they’re on a reality TV show. And we all need to be able to live and love without feeling like all that life and love will be evaluated by the public. It’s not always easy to know how much sharing is too much but it probably helps to set a specific limit like one picture per week or month. Either way, the default should be keeping things private, as in very close friends or family. You probably shouldn’t be sharing everything with people you never speak to.
- If you feel pressured, anxious, or obsessive about taking/sharing/posting pictures, you should probably refrain. Pictures should be a joyous addition to our lives and they shouldn’t add stress. Moreover, the obligation to document those lives is a small and fairly easy one to fulfill. Think of the days before digital cameras— I imagine most of us feel perfectly satisfied with the amount of pictures our parents took of our childhoods. The point is being able to look back and see that life was good. There’s no need to capture every day or every moment.
- As a general rule, if you’re a parent, you could probably be taking less photos of your children and more photos with your spouse. It’s easy to remember to capture what is obviously changing and growing rapidly. But this often means we neglect to see all the change and growth that happens at a slower pace. Your relationship with your spouse is worth pausing for and capturing. Besides, you don’t want your kids to wonder why all the nice pictures of their Mommy and Daddy were taken before they were born.
I think part of our obsession with picture taking and sharing really comes down to fear. It frightens us that moments pass in the first place. It frightens us that we grow old, that our children grow old. It reminds us that we die. And we feel that if we can capture everything and then piece it all together in a nice little narrative for ourselves and for the world— if we can live our lives through lenses— maybe then we won’t have to face the reality. We won’t have to think about the fact that we die.
But I believe these beautiful moments are just reflections of what is to come. They don’t die; they ascend. And if that’s true, then we don’t need to cling to them so desperately. In fact, when we don’t cling, the moments are allowed to settle more deeply in our hearts and do their work in us, transforming us, and leading us closer to their source and summit.