Do you live this moment, or capture it? Facing an everyday digital dilemma

Photo by Tom Simpson, via Flickr.

Photo by Tom Simpson, via Flickr.

We took our 10-month-old son to Disneyland on Monday. When my husband watched video I’d taken of the day, I apologized. I didn’t think I’d gotten a lot of great stuff.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “It probably means you just enjoyed it.”

Every now and then I think of what life was like before cameras. You’d go out to do things and just do them, I guess, without pausing or even thinking of pausing to capture … anything. I don’t know that world. Neither do you. Capturing moments has been a part of living them as long as we’ve been around. Today the urge to has never been stronger, the rewards never greater and the act of documenting never easier.

“Take lots of pictures!” my mom commented on Facebook when she saw where we were headed.

Monica Guzman

Mónica Guzmán

Well of course.

We took mobile pics we posted that day on Facebook and Twitter. We snapped digital SLR pics we added to our photo hard drive. I took pics I texted straight to my parents and parents-in-law. And we shot video, here and there, of the baby trying on a Mickey Mouse hat, saying hey to Pluto and looking over the rope on Tarzan’s Treehouse, where his dad, as a kid, dropped strawfuls of lemonade on unsuspecting visitors.

Every day an app running in the background of my mind scans for moments to memorialize. On milestone days, it moves to the forefront. It’s a personal calculus, but I hardly ever stop to ask: How do I know I’m striking the right balance between documenting and living?

There’s nothing like having a baby to make you scared you’re doing it wrong.

On the one hand, he changes every day. I’ve never been more angry with the passage of time. Blink and you miss it. Take video and you’ve captured it.

But did you leave time to experience it?

There’s no understating the significance of a personal archive. Last month my dad posted a video on his Facebook page that I couldn’t believe. In a couple minutes of scratchy 1960s reel, three little kids walk around, pose, then walk around some more. I got a close-up of the face of one kid, a four year old. That big grin looked familiar. Oh my God, I realized. That’s dad.

He was lucky enough, as a near toddler, to be friends with a kid whose father made movies. My mom was jealous. She doesn’t have any video of her kid self at all.

takingpicture

Photo by Joe Parks, via Flickr.

Documenting is more social now, which can make it oddly emotional, even competitive. When I was pregnant, I posted weekly pics of my belly on Facebook, complete with growth info scribbled on a whiteboard behind me. Other, more clever pictures of growing bellies made me just a little bit cranky. How dare they, I thought, secretly and behind an otherwise enthusiastic “like.” They’re remembering better.

It’s keeping up with the Joneses … and their milestone Facebook pics.

Of course, memories are ultimately personal, and despite the social layer and its complexities, that’s still where the big value lies. When I was 11 or so I asked my Mom for a scrapbook. I put maybe three things in it and that was it. Remembering, then, was heavy. Today it piggybacks on something light — sharing. The short-term rewards of quick status updates unlock the long-term rewards of a collection of moments to look back on and love.

I couldn’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in a nostalgic trance, clicking through Photos of Me on Facebook, back and back and back through eight turbulent years of my 20s. Sometimes it’s an accident. I load the latest photo of me, click the wrong way through the gallery and land on a black-and-white pic of me from 2005 where I’m sitting on a lousy chair I need to give away before my terrifying move to Houston. More often it’s to relieve something bottled up, some drive to go over, once again, how that nail-biting college graduate in New Hampshire got to be a married writer in Seattle with a kid.

It’s tempting to say documenting in the digital age fits neatly in the nooks and crannies of life, but we know we widen them too much at times to try to make it all fit. See things through your eyes or your phone’s. You can’t do both.

It’s tempting, too, to say that just living is enough, that this surge in documenting is a distraction. But I’ve seen even ordinary moments transform for the better. After a friend’s wedding Sunday I was happy but achy and a little frustrated. I’d had to sit far away in heels on the grass to give my cranky son his puree at a safe distance.

When the ceremony was over and we got up, my husband pulled out the SLR and took some pictures. One is now my absolute favorite photo of me and my son. Him in my arms, huge, sunny smiles on our faces. A silly irritation gone. A deeper joy magnified.

That’s what I’ll never forget.

Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist, freelance journalist and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

  • http://about.me/dillieo Dillie-O

    I read a blog post about a year or so back where the author kept a “three photo” rule, or something to that effect. Take three photos of the event, and then sit back and enjoy it.

    I’m trying to do that myself (still failing a lot 8^D) but I think it is good because you do get your digital memorabilia, you do get to enjoy things, and maybe it’ll even force you to plan your shots a little more (I’m an excessive “paparazzi and pick out the best ones later” type) since they’re limited 8^D

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      That’s not a bad idea. I know what you mean about taking lots of pics and picking out the best ones in postproduction, if you will. More disruptive than the act of documenting, though, can be the questions about what to document, when, how. You might take just two pictures, but you might have thought a dozen times, “Do I take this?” “Is this a better picture of that?” Even those thoughts can get in the way of the experience. And the easier it is to take and share those pics, the more tempting it is to lose the moment to them.

    • KyleKesterson

      I have a “10-20 photo guideline”, where I’ll take 200-600 photos (traveling) but have to edit them down to 10-20. Usually I fail and end up with ~42. :)

      But this is also when I’m toting around my DSLR, vs my phone. On my phone am more reserved, despite the 3600 sitting in my Library. For me, I’ve noticed that by having the intent to capture my experience, I see my world in different shapes and contrasts of light, and from different angles, than if I were just floating along.

      The balance I find is being mindful to stop, breathe and appreciate and the snap.

      • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

        “I see my world in different shapes and contrasts of light, and from different angles, than if I were just floating along.”

        Yes! I remember when I started using Instagram how everything looked different. I was looking for beautiful photos to take, and so the whole world presented submissions. I noticed the texture of a wall, the flowers in a garden. The act of documenting can help you notice what you would not have otherwise noticed.

  • Eventiles

    Unlike shooting video, that prevents from enjoying the moment, snapping pictures is not necessarily a distraction (unless one uses a DLSR, tripod and so on…) But sorting through the pictures and sharing them on the spot… that could wait a bit, couldn’t it?

  • GG002

    I think it’s quite dependent on the person you talk about. For me, personally, having a camera in my hand helps my ADHD brain target in on the things that are actually important. Narrow down my vision, so to speak. Otherwise I try to take in everything and at the end of my trip it’s a complete mess in my head. I do, however, practise putting down my dSLR for a while at regular intervals so it’s not permanently stuck to my face. And I revisit recorded memories like a 100 times in the following years.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      It is amazing how often we’ll go back and look at pictures, over and over again. I wonder if we do it more now that opening Facebook or Flickr takes a couple clicks, or about the same as with photo albums we’d have to grab off the bookshelf.

      • GG002

        I certainly am quicker to FB or Flickr than a physical album.. big reason being that I can also see what people said, where stuff was shot (by following the geotags to their respective places on a map) and because of higher res.

  • guest

    I think it depends on what you enjoy. I grew up in a family where photography was part of our trips. My parents were not professional, but taught by National Geographic photographers back in the late 60s when they were in their 20s. Dad always had his Yashica 35mm with massive telephoto lens, Mom had her twin reflex lens camera (which still to this day has some of the most amazing negatives to print from). My sister and I grew up with cameras in our hands. It’s rare you find my sister NOT behind the viewfinder when on a trip or at an event. Passion for learning how to take a better shot, lighting effect, how to frame it in the viewfinder, what lenses work best for each scenario, these are things we enjoy. My older daughter naturally poses for photos now and asks for us to take pics of her doing the funny and cute things she does. We still enjoy being where we go, enjoy being with who we’re with, but we also enjoy capturing the moment in a still. Digital has made it much cheaper. I might be rolling around with a 5D MKii, but I spend $0 on developing pics now so it has paid for itself over and over. The phone is good because it’s always on us, but even the Nexus lacks a lot of the ability to capture a pic how I want to. A pic you take with a crappy phone is better than the pic you miss by not having any camera.

  • http://thinkspace.com Peter Chee

    With my kids I’m afraid I’m going to miss capturing and then I won’t be able to share it back with them when they are older. Thus the 1000 photos a year for each of my kids.

    As for other random things, I kind of like the three photo rule that was suggested in the other comment! Capture something but then engage and remain present!

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      It is freaky how quickly kids change. I mean, I’d heard this all my life, but WOW. What a way to remember that life is short, you can’t go back, and yeah – the picture is a treasure.

  • http://www.krishworld.com/ krishnan

    Google Glass might solve your problem :-)

  • Ken

    I think we’ll see several advancements in the coming years to help resolve these dilemmas. Going hands-free (#projectglass) may be a tipping point, if not at least show us what we’ve been missing (literally).

  • http://www.gearlive.com Andru Edwards

    You know what sucks though? Forgetting your digital capture device of choice, going to one of your child’s special events and taking it in without the device, and the sudden realization that comes over you that you’d been ejoying all his previous special moments by watching them “through” the display of a smartphone or camera, and how much worse it is than sitting there and actually watching him.

    The brain is funny. Since then I noticed when I am holding up a device to record, I am watching him through it, but what is on my mind is if the video or image is in focus, if someone is getting in my way of shooting, how is the lighting in here…so I am more concerned with the memory than something like “Oh, he looks nervous, but he is doing a great job!” or “Look how cute they all look” or something like that. You really are more “in it” when you aren’t looking through a lens or viewfinder.

    I never heard about the 3 picture rule, but I like it. I also have since pared down the amount I try to capture. Before I felt like I had to capture EVERYTHING OR ELSE!!! 20 years ago, people didn’t have these devices. They took a few pictures (likely until the roll of film ran out) and had their memories, and also enjoyed being in the moment. :)