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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.

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.

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