It’s Christmas morning. My son has just ‘helped’ his baby sister open one of her new toys and is making her squeal with delight. Both have that snuffly just-woken-up look and are wearing their Christmas pyjamas while the tree lights twinkle in the background.
I want so much to take a picture, to capture this moment so I never forget it – but I don’t. Because this Christmas, and from now on, I want to remember as much of my kids’ childhood as possible. And to do this, I think I need to put the camera down.
Like most parents, I am terrified at how quickly time goes. Even 2020, the slowest-moving year on record, has raced by when I think of it in relation to my children. I stare at my little boy and can’t believe he is four. And my newborn? She’ll be a one-year-old soon.
And also like most parents, I feel a constant pressure to savour every moment – because I won’t get it back. While I can rationalise this is an impossible task, it nonetheless strikes fear in my heart. I want to ‘preserve’ this time, so I try to capture it on film and relive the moment whenever I look back on it.
But I’ve started to think this approach is counterproductive. I’ve begun to think that, actually, the more I document the less I remember.
“I look at photos only a year or so old and while I can see it is my son and me, it doesn’t stir anything.”
It’s hard to describe how it feels when a photo stirs a memory. The closest I can get is that it jolts me back to that time. So, for instance, when I look at pictures of my son on the day he was born - I am there. In the hospital. I remember the concoction of crazy emotions, the way he felt, I even remember the smell.
But I’ve taken thousands of photos of him since then, and they don’t have nearly this much impact. Often I look at photos only a year or so old and while I can see it is my son and me, and I know we were at that place at that time, it doesn’t stir anything. I know it happened, but I don’t really remember it. And I think it’s because I have spent so much time behind the lens, rather than in the moment.
It’s an idea backed up by research. Professor Maryanne Garry of the University of Waikato has studied the impact of photography on memories, and she suggests that by constantly documenting our lives we are “giving away being in the moment” and therefore paying less attention to what is going on.
Similarly, psychology professor Linda Henkel conducted a study that demonstrated what she called a “photo-taking impairment effect”. In her experiment, one group of participants looked at artefacts in a museum, and the other group took photos of them. The latter group remembered less details than the former.
The reason for this, Henkel explains, is that when we take a photo, we subconsciously rely on the camera to take in the details for us: “Any time we... count on an external memory device we’re taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own.”
And there’s another reason to put the camera down. While I know it is a part of growing up, I hate the concept of my children becoming self-conscious. I want them to be comfortable in their skin for as long as possible, blissfully unaware of how they might ‘appear’.
“At four years old, my little boy already knows that when that black box is in his face, the expectation is on him to perform.”
Just last month on an (outdoor) meet-up with my mother-in-law, my son started running around a giant decorative polar bear, laughing. My mother-in-law whipped out her phone to take a picture, and immediately I saw a flicker of change in him. He slowed down a bit. His smile was plastered on for a fraction too long. The ‘moment’ we were enjoying had gone, when it was the exact thing we were trying to hold on to.
This isn’t to blame my mother-in-law. On a bleak day, in the middle of a pandemic, it was a moment of loveliness that she wanted to keep. But it definitely solidified what I’d until then only had a vague sense of – at four years old, my little boy already knows that when that black box is in his face, the expectation is on him to perform. And I really don’t want that.
Of course, taking photos has its uses and I don’t plan to stop now. But my aim is to take a less-is-more approach. My parents made do with a 24-exposure film (36 if they were feeling flush) and – with the help of digging out the right photo albums – they can still remember our childhoods. So I think I can definitely stand to strip things back a bit. (After all, am I ever going to sift through the 3,000 pictures I already have of my kids?)
Group family shots are still great, holiday pics are a must and I will always have multiple pictures of frosty morning dog walks. But from now on, when my kids are having a funny, gorgeous or tender moment, I’m just going to watch.
And hopefully, in years to come, I’ll even remember it too.
Cherry Casey is a journalist and editor. Follow her on Twitter at @CherryCasey
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