--2 Mother Tongue: A Thousand Words
Oct. 27, 2016

Mother Tongue: A Thousand Words

How I'm taking family photos differently

February 26, 2014, 1:00 am
By Lauren Whitehurst

Here’s the picture: A large, black rectangle sits in a silvery frame. It takes up significant wall and desk space, yet performs exactly nothing because I can no longer turn it on.

It’s an iMac circa 2008, which means it has insufficient memory to store the thousands of photographs I’ve taken since then. I kept uploading photos until the computer shut down entirely. So now I write on my laptop in front of the 23-inch monitor, whose silent darkness has a disconcerting mirror affect.

The iMac didn’t freeze without warning. Applications grew sluggish, and I knew the hard drive was full. Despite two external drives and several storage DVDs, however, I couldn’t remove photos from the computer. Conflicting technological trust issues resulted in emotional paralysis, followed by computer paralysis.

I’ve entrusted a decade of life documentation to this computer. It knows Adam and me before we married. It knows every random detail—of our wedding, places we’ve lived, hikes we’ve taken, our dog’s aging and accidental shots of our feet. This doesn’t begin to touch its intimacy with the first hours and subsequent weeks of our children’s lives—our family outings, holidays, do-it-yourself projects and hundreds of annual Easter efforts to get kids smiling in sync despite high winds and harsh sunlight.

How can I tell iPhoto to delete all this? Actually, judging from guides to deleting photos from iPhoto, deleting isn’t as simple as simply pressing “delete”—but I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t gotten that far. No guide, by the way, addresses the emotional weight of erasing family photos (gaping market hole here).

We have backed up all photos to a separate external hard drive. I’ve placed deep emotional faith in my desktop’s storage ability, but I cannot trust the squirrely external drives. They seem so unsubstantial! Those smallish, screenless boxes can’t possibly hold multiple years of my life, moments I likely wouldn’t remember were they not captured on camera.

According to Linda A Henkel, a Fairfield University psychology professor, taking photos can lead to the photographer’s diminished recall of the photographed object. Henkel’s study, “Point-and-Shoot Memories,” which focuses on how photography affects memory, finds zooming in on details resulted in better memory retention than taking pictures of the object in whole.

This is good to know because when I start using my camera again, I will take only pictures of the details of my children. Sylvia’s first real bike ride? I anticipate photographing one of her feet on a pedal with an artfully blurred background. Theo’s next lost tooth? Perhaps a close-up of his tooth lying delicately in the palm of his hand.

Since our computer shut down, I’ve taken fewer pictures. There simply is nowhere to put them. I haven’t used a non-phone camera in months. I’m not sure how this is affecting my memory retention, but it may not be a bad thing for Theo and Sylvia.

Just in time for holiday-card season, "Today Moms" ran a segment on how taking and sharing pictures of our kids constantly risks giving them a center-of-the-universe complex, which can increase self-centered and self-critical behaviors.

“We need to keep track of what values we are communicating,” says Purdue University’s Judith Myers-Walls.

Like all children, Theo and Sylvia enjoy seeing images of themselves. They will watch their videos on endless repeat. They ask to see the photo for which they’re posing before I even take it, so my kid pictures are often of mine running toward the camera.

Photographs are great. They’re autobiographical pushpins that help orient our individual and family timelines. They capture detail and context. They remind us about parts of ourselves and where we’ve been. But they’re not the point. The point is living beyond the frame.

In my house resides a wall of picture frames with no pictures. A few do display photographs and one of them holds a charcoal drawing of Theo’s, but most of them have the branded piece of paper proclaiming that the eventual photo will be 5"-by-7" or 8"-by-10." These empty frames have hung here for years.

The frames aren’t empty for lack of photographic activity. I have too many frameable photo options—and I know that they’re all in there in that comatose iPhoto memory bank. Also in there are the makings of the annual iPhoto books I’ve been planning to compile since Theo was born. I have yet to complete one.

This is a problem of the digital photography age, when you can shoot thousands of photos in an afternoon and then store them forever in a digital somewhere. Kids are always being photographed and yet, they mostly view the photos on viewfinder screens and social media outlets, barring select ones printed poster size. The private thumbing through wonderfully awkward family photo albums is no longer the norm. Are they even possible anymore?

They’re not in my current organizational impasse. My dark computer monitor haunts me, and I can’t even start it in order to delete all the photos gumming it up. When I figure this out, I’ll print out some 5-by-7s and 8-by-10s for our wall to augment our family memory bank and to remedy our den’s weird discount-retail décor. I might compile a photo book, but I’m not holding out much hope.

Aside from mustering greater technological trust and more robust back-up systems, my takeaway is that I will happily reemploy my camera, but I’ll try to be more conscious about how I use it. I’d like to rely less on digital memory cards and caches, and more on being actively present for memory-making in the first place—noticing how the snow feels, what the dirt smells like, how the wind sounds and yes, even how our faces feel and look right now in this particular light. I’ll frame that one.

Photo courtesy of Carolineee1991 from Wikimedia Commons.


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