A Certificate Of Presence: On Why I’m Obsessed With Taking Photographs, And Happier For It

July 29, 2011

There’s a post at Babble this week by a mom who regrets having been too obsessed with photographing every moment of her family’s life. She forced herself to put the camera down, and, she says, is happier for it. “While I still desperately want my boys to be able to look through photo albums of their childhood and feel a deep sense of love and family,” she writes, “I also want them to remember that I ran into the cold Maine surf right beside them, that I danced the night away with them in my arms at their auntie’s wedding, and that I simply sat with them while they talked about cars and firemen and bugs. That I did not leave them to grab my camera — no matter how adorable they looked. Instead, I stayed and I listened.”

Which is lovely, really, and I get it, I do. There is a difference between living a moment and documenting a moment, between being in and aware of the lived experience of a moment and being an observer of that experience. Here’s the thing, though: each of those experiences is a discrete and unrepeatable experience. It happens once, and only once. Which is, perhaps, all the more reason to just live each experience as fully as possible. It’s also, however, an excellent reason to seize those experiences – some of them, anyway – and do whatever we can to hang on to them. Photographs are one way of doing that.

Roland Barthes argued that the essence of photography was to facilitate the experience of time as a singular and unrepeatable event. A photograph underscores the fleeting character of any given moment in time, inasmuch as it freezes that moment and makes it – as Barthes would have it – spectral. I think that it’s easy, even intuitive, to grasp this: you know that feeling, when you look at a picture of your child as an infant, of holding in your hands (or seeing on your screen) an artifact of loss. You recognize, in looking at that photograph – you feel, in looking at that photograph – deep in your gut – that that moment – that age, that stage, that era – has passed. To put it in the grimmest, most Barthesian way, it’s a kind of micro-experience of death. Whatever moment a given photograph captures is, was – like life – singular and unrepeatable, and were it not for the photograph it would be beyond your reach. Photography both affirms and denies the passage of time, the unrepeatability of life’s moments, the fact of our mortality.

Why is why I am borderline obsessive about photographs, and have no intention of trying to overcome that obsession in any but the most basic ways. I love my moments with my children, and I strive to live as many of those moments as possible, but I also want to hang on to many of those moments as possible. I want to be able to relive them, repeat them, freeze them in time. And I want to be able to see and appreciate the passage of time. I no longer picture, in my mind’s eye, Emilia and Jasper as infants; I close my eyes and think, Emilia, and I see her as she is now. Or I see her as I see her in photographs; I’ve dwelt upon those images, and so they endure in my memory. But baby Emilia – Emi as we called her in the days and weeks after her birth, Emi as she was in those moments that we didn’t capture – she’s harder to seize hold of, bring back. She’s gone, for the most part. And that loss would difficult, if I didn’t have the photographs that captured and held her and allow me to see her, again and again, as often as I like.

There are moments that one can’t photograph, of course: the tight hugs and the sloppy kisses and the snuggles in the dark at bedtime. I don’t lament not being able to capture every moment. I don’t need every moment logged and catalogued. I just need some of them. Lots of them. All or most of the ones that I will cast my mind and my heart back to, that I will seek out in recesses of my memory. That’s a lot, I know, and it’s why I have many tens of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of photographs in my digital archives (so many that I can’t always find the ones that I want, which is another story for another time.)

But I would argue, too, that my impulse to photograph everything, or almost everything, has caused me to look at things, to see things, in such a way that allows me to hang on to them a little longer. Barthes calls the photograph a ‘certificate of presence;’ I think that photographic attentiveness compels one to always be looking for those moments of presence, and that that attentiveness matters, regardless of whether the would-be photographer ‘certifies’ them by releasing the shutter. I look at so much through the lens of an imaginary camera, imagining the image that would result if I had a shutter to release, that it has become possible to freeze those moments, and to wrap them in descriptive words, without a camera or any other recording or documentary device. Because I’m living so many moments in documentary mode – taking real or imagined photographs, filming real or imagined video, narrating with real or imagined words – I’m retaining those moments more effectively. I’ve got a vast archive of stories and images in my mind, and I can wander that archive at will. And when its corners get murky with shadow, I turn to my real archive – my photographs, my videos, my posts – and the lights come ablaze and illuminate everything.

So I don’t think that I’m missing anything by being a photo (and story) obsessive. If anything, I think, I experience my own life, and my children’s lives, more richly for living through that experience with my attention tuned to its highest frequency. I will, of course, like the author at Babble, run through the surf with my children and splash and play and live in the moment. But I will also have a waterproof camera stuffed in my top, and a narration running through my head, and so that I can relive that moment, again and again and again.

Do you have trouble putting the camera down? Do you care?

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Share!
  • email
  • Facebook
  • StumbleUpon

    { 16 comments }

    Charlene/crazedparent July 29, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    I regret putting down my camera. I was looking at my boys’ baby albums last night and I can tell the difference, not between what happened between the first and second child, but when I actually stopped taking as many photos. I use my iPhone to capture some moments, but I am trying to make an effort to bring out my Canon and get back to basics. The zoom lens, being so up close, has let me see expressions, thoughts, eyes that I would have never seen by just “being in the moment.” Miss that.

    Hunter Ford July 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I’m with you on taking as many photos as possible. How else will you ever look back on what you did. And on another note, sometimes kids don’t remember when you took them to say—Disney World at four years old. It’s something to show them so that you can guilt them into living by the rules, because who really wants to disrespect a good Mom or Dad?

    Kelly July 29, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    I definitely think there is a balance that is right for each person… I love taking photos (and have turned it into a business) and definitely try and capture lots of moments. But I also choose at times to put the camera down – I just weigh it in my gut and go with what feels right. I always bring the camera – would hate to really want the picture and not have it! [Or at least a camera, maybe not the big camera...]

    I would regret not having so many of my favorite photos of them…

    thatgirlblogs July 29, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    I photograph everything – EVERYTHING! No excuses, explanations, or apologies. People’s jokes about it don’t matter because I can truly say I have a photographic memory.

    Caleb July 29, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    Some photos are “micro-experience of death” – others are ones that never seem to die, e.g. my junior high yearbook photos.

    Ado July 29, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    I just loved this post. I’m definitely in your camp – my kids call me The Momarazzi – and although it irks my husband that I compulsively record everything, he so enjoys having those photos. Great post – thanks.

    Joan Washington July 29, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Fantastic read! Photos are your way of telling your own story, documenting your life. Don’t ever apologize for that. My mom used to tell me as a child: the story you tell will be be the story of your life. Pictures tell the story for you.

    In fact, when I went through a program ‘Climb Wyoming’ (http://climb.seeyourimpact.org/) I realized that I need to start telling my story. You’re doing the right thing. Don’t anyone tell you differently.

    Cupcake's Mama July 29, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    I gave myself the task of taking at least one picture per day for the first year of my child’s life. She’s almost 10 months now, and I have every day accounted for (a few have come from phone pics or other people’s cameras though). I found that this gave me the freedom to enjoy each moment without worrying about capturing them ALL. I have a daily reminder of how my child is changing and maturing, and photo memories of many events, visits and milestones. And if I miss any special days, well, it’s part of the soup. More pictures to go around.

    Some situations are fun to photograph, some others are better to experience.

    Her Bad Mother July 30, 2011 at 8:44 am

    “I found that this gave me the freedom to enjoy each moment without worrying about capturing them ALL.”

    THIS. This, totally. BECAUSE I take a lot of pictures, I’m not bothered about the ones that I miss. I have, for example, very few birthday party pics of Emilia, because I’m always more busy helping her party than allows for indiscriminate photo-taking. But I don’t mind that – I’ve got so many pictures of her in other situations. Having lots of photos frees me up to NOT worry about taking pictures of every little thing, for sure.

    Alexicographer July 29, 2011 at 11:43 pm

    I’m in the “other” camp; we recently went camping (OK, RV’ing) and I realized I’d not bothered to bring a camera. I could, of course, have gotten one — a one-use one, or one from my home, which was an hour from our campsite (no, closer), and to which I went twice while we were camping. I didn’t. Yes, it would be a joy to have the photos of my son, all but his head submerged in the lake, his delighted and confident swimming. But it is OK not to, also … we will go back to the lake, we will swim again (and if for some reason we don’t, for I do not know the future, that will itself be so horrible, it will mean our lives have been altered so drastically, that the absence of a photographic record will be the least of it).

    I do, at times, wish I were better about taking pictures of DS with other family members, especially those we see rarely, so that he would have a better visual record of those interactions.

    Kristen July 30, 2011 at 12:48 am

    I’m totally obsessed, and pretty okay with it. I think photos play a huge part in the narrative we replay of our childhood. It certainly does for me. Most of my memories are of things I’ve seen in photos. I am always taking pictures, but my kids really love seeing the pictures of themselves. And while I supposed it can be argued that it’s taking me out of the moment, it’s also caused me to see the beauty in the details, too.

    Lisa July 30, 2011 at 7:51 am

    I think you are fooling yourself that you aren’t missing out on anything. I am trying to figure out why I care and don’t just leave you to it. I guess it’s because I care about you. And I’m bossy. Or something else altogether maybe.

    BUT YOU ARE MISSING OUT! :-) . Even when you don’t have a camera in your hand, you are sitting back and watching, not living, not being in the moment. I get what you are saying about capturing a moment but you don’t need tens of thousands of snaps to do that. Hundreds would do.

    For some reason, I find myself thinking of the exchange we had a while back where I said I couldnt see you in a pic behind your glasses and hair and you said, that yes you hide behind them. Interesting how you hide, but you are obsessed with seeing and capturing your kids. I do think that is a photographer thing, hiding behind a camera, or at least I’ve read of more than one pro who says they hate getting their picture taken.

    And while I’m analyzing you – free of charge! :-) – it is so interesting to me how exposed you are in your writing yet how you hide behind your glasses & hair. Makes sense, really, you need some place to feel safe and a mask can certInly be emboldening, like a shield or anonymity.

    Whatever you do that’s working, keep doing it. Your writing and insight and willingness to be vulnerable is such a gift. And you are raising such lovely little human beings, you must be doing a lot that’s right.

    roo July 30, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    I have camera inertia. When I don’t have a camera, I don’t go looking for one. When I do, I have a hard time putting it down.

    But for years, the work I did in theatre was so transient, and I didn’t get good photos, and I see huge portions of my life, my consuming efforts, are just… gone.

    So I have a feeling that when my son arrives, I might have a camera semi-affixed to my left hand, at all times. Or, failing that, that I’ll be scribbling out notes to myself. Or failing that, thinking to myself– Stop! Look! Remember!

    [click]

    Mother Ruckus July 31, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Beautifully written! I completely agree with both sides – like you’ve said. As moms, we want to be present in every fabulous moment. And yet, as humans we want something to hold onto long after our darlings have grown.

    I’m just beginning to write a blog, and I love the way it makes me view and reflect on my normal life as a mother. I’d love to learn more about photography. Do you have any books you’d suggest?

    Marian August 1, 2011 at 12:27 pm

    I think, too, the writer was not only putting the camera down to jump in the waves, but to be in the photo with the children, since there weren’t a lot of her and her mother–especially sad, since her mother died so young.

    Rachel - A Southern Fairytale August 1, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    Catherine -
    I’m a mom constantly capturing, but.. I also dive into the surf with my kids (waterproof camera in had) – I photograph the heartaches and the joys of childhood and the silliness of our every day lives.
    For me, it’s capturing the moment- both for me to relish in again later, sometimes with more clarity, and sometimes with surprise at an expression a flash of something I would otherwise have missed and also, as proof for those fleeting young minds.. proof, I was there. I dove into the water with you, I rode that ride, I tumbled down that hill. WITH YOU. I was once young and I was more present than your young mind can remember.

    Also, I have seen and lived the horror and devastation of a mind ravaged and destroyed by alzheimer’s. I’ve seen the faint flickr that occurs rarely, but still there, when a photograph sparks something. It may be fleeting, but it’s there.

    There is power in images and memories and if I can capture something that will help to solidify a smell, a flash.. I am blessed to be able to do it.

    This is different for everyone, we all experience and see it differently, but me and my camera(s) that’s how I choose to do this.

    <3 you dammit

    Comments on this entry are closed.

    { 1 trackback }

    Previous post:

    Next post: