I document most aspects of my life as they happen and have 74,000 photos on Dropbox. When I’m old and looking back, will this make me happier?
I had cause to think about this very question this week, while walking through the streets of Manhattan. It was the day of the eclipse, and 10 minutes prior to alignment most streets in my neighbourhood were thronged with small groups looking up at the sky. Or, I should say, looking up at their phones which were pointed at the sky.
There was a safety element to this, of course; unless you are Donald Trump, brazen ignorer of warnings, most people heeded the medical advice and were either looking at the sun through special sunglasses, or chancing it through the filter of their phones. Even without the safety aspect, however, the scene would surely have looked the same. Everyone was intending to take pictures.
At the appointed time, I stopped on the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway, held up my phone and stared at it for the next 10 minutes. It was a semi-cloudy day in Manhattan and it was hard to make anything out. Just before the eclipse finished, a neighbour offered me his eclipse glasses and I saw the sun reduced to a slender crescent with the moon eerily parked out in front.
It was pretty underwhelming. But it was at least the thing I was supposed to be looking at, rather than a patch of grey screen with a hazy blob in the middle, surrounded by a black plastic frame.
This frame provides a border for a great many of my most precious memories. When I cast my mind back to the first weeks of my childrens’ lives, I have three iterations of recall: how they looked; how they looked through the camera on my phone; and how they look in the photos I took and have subsequently re-looked at hundreds of times.
Of these three, by far the most prominent are the memories I have of the photos. This makes sense, I guess. I can’t always summon to a mind an accurate image of my daughter at six months, but I can summon an image of the photo in which she is propped up on cushions with a weird John Malkovich look on her face and tufts of hair I didn’t notice at the time.
The question I ask myself – and which I understand you to be asking – is this: without the photo as an aide-memoire, would I have fewer mental images of my daughter and would they be of an inferior “quality”? And the corollary: to what extent does the taking of the photo affect the quality of the memory itself?
Another example: we were at the children’s petting zoo in Central Park at the weekend and one of my daughters was bothering a llama. It was very funny, the animal grimacing like Lady Bracknell while my two-year-old tried to shove a food pellet in her face then got frightened and skittered away.
I spent the entire episode trying to capture it on my phone, and honestly, it ruined it for both of us. I was anxious and then I got annoyed. I kept pestering my daughter to look at the camera. The photos were rubbish.
But even if they had been great, I was labouring under a misapprehension. In the age of the iPhone, many of us have come to believe that the only way to lock in a memory – to hold on to these precious moments – is to capture them on film and I don’t believe this to be true, not only because the thing that is captured is not the memory itself, but because the act of capturing it compromises the memory.
I don’t have all that many photos of my mother. It didn’t occur to me to take them during the last year of her life; the iPhone didn’t exist then and I never had a camera to hand.
Almost 15 years later, the exact proportions of her face sometimes elude me when I try to bring them up. I remember other things. I remember her hands, how her wedding ring was slightly too embedded in the flesh, and I remember the freckles on her arms. I remember the way her feet looked under the blanket while she sat in front of the TV. I remember the outline of her back against the kitchen window as she sat at the sink peeling potatoes for lunch. I remember these things without filter or frame and the texture of the memory is different to those triggered by photos. I am inside them and they bring her back in ways a frozen image does not.
In answer to your question: it is nice to have photos to remind us of things. But they are no replacement for how the mind processes events and stores them in ways – for now – technology can’t replicate.
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