Official Photographer

I’ve been thinking about presence lately, consciousness, the deep desire to more fully inhabit the hours of my own life. This has engendered some interesting questions in the comments and on other peoples’ blogs. Clearly there’s a nerve here, a seam of emotion and anxiety that is common to many people. Some of the dialog has really framed my thinking.

For example: Kristen asked, provocatively, “Is it possible that being mindful of the need to be present is in fact a manner of being present?” And I’ve been thinking about that. And then Aidan shared her similarly thoughtful question, “I can’t figure out whether we bloggers – by trying to memorialize the tiny details – are bowing to the present moment too often missed OR whether by documenting every existential twist and turn, we are missing it even more.”

I am turning both of these questions over in my head, letting them fall slowly from side to side, examining their edges. I don’t have answers yet, but it does bring to mind one aspect of my history and personality that I think wrestles with this debate. I am the photographer. I have always been the one who takes the pictures.

From all the way back at Princeton, I took the pictures. Every weekend I’d take my old-school boxy camera out to Prospect Street, and the next morning I’d take a roll of 24 or 36 pictures to CVS. Everybody would be annoyed at me, “Oh, God, not more pictures, Lindsey!” and then within days I’d be fielding requests for my negatives or reprints (oh, technology of the olden days!).

I am that person now, still. Of course there are no negatives anymore, but I still take the pictures. An event is not really real until I’ve uploaded the pictures onto my favorite photo site. There are a couple of ways this role, this identity as Recorder of Events, has rippled through my life.

The first is pretty obvious: there aren’t very many pictures of me. This is, I think, by subconscious design. By taking the pictures I don’t have to be in them.

The second is more complex. I suspect my relentless pursuit of a record of my life is further manifestation of my desperate effort to be present. If I record it, it’s real, right? Becca wrote about her memories of her childhood, and her confusion between actual memories and memories of pictures she has seen over and over again in old albums. This is something I’ve talked about before too – am I remembering that excursion in Paris to buy a Christmas tree, or the picture of Hilary and I standing there, smiling with our scarves and hats on, snow-dusted pine trees behind us? I don’t know.

So, in a weird way, if I create the pictures I feel I am assuring the memories. I am sure this is somehow driving me. Photographs were a big part of my childhood: my father has always (and still does) created careful photo albums, captions written in fountain pen under ever picture. I do this too (though I confess I’ve slid downhill to ballpoint). I get mocked a lot for still printing out 4×6 prints of my favorite pictures and putting them into old-fashioned albums.

Of course, though, being the photographer also removes me from my life. I am always off to the side a little, framing pictures and organizing groups of people into smiling, arms-around-each-other portraits. I am not quite ever actually AT the party, but rather floating above it, observing. I have this feeling in my life a lot. And on the rare occasions that I didn’t have film (old days) or my battery was not charged (new days) I have definitely, though I’m loath to admit it, felt relieved by the absence of obligation to take pictures.

So, somehow, in my obsession with recording every detail, in my unwitting assumption of the role of official photographer, I have actually made myself less present. In some ways. I don’t know that it’s entirely that clear-cut. But definitely it functions that way some of the time. Maybe the answer is for me to put down the camera more of the time. To let go of my need to assure a permanent record and just trust that my memory will be sturdy enough.


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5 Comments

  1. Kristen
    Posted November 22, 2009 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Husband and I talk about this same issue vis a vis our obsession with digital photography. By documenting each moment (frame by frame by frame) of the boys' lives, are we missing out on the experience of living those moments?

    There is a metaphor somewhere in your dad's and now your habit of making physical albums out of your photos, just as I think there is one in our culture's frenetic tendency to take hundreds of candids that we never really revisit.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  2. Aidan Donnelley Rowley
    Posted November 22, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for publishing my question, my curiosity, about whether we bloggers are in some sense too afraid of the present moment to simply live in it and soak it up. Recently, I am plagued by this question and so many others.

    This serves as a wonderful extension of this question. Are you by taking pictures capturing the moment or fleeing it? I don't pretend to know. Probably a bit of both?

    I love how you end with a question about memory. Is it sturdy enough? Or is it battered by the cruel passage of time? Are we, by blogging and snapping pics incessantly, plugging the holes in memory or creating them? No clue, but these questions sometimes scare me.

  3. Sarah
    Posted November 22, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I'm late! I'm sorry! Been a little busy. But I'm going to catch up on all the posts I missed, don't worry. Everyone will get more like 15 minutes from me today. 🙂

    Pictures.
    There is so much meaning in photographs. They document our lives. That we were here. They help to job our memories. They stand in where are minds cannot remember. They allow us to live on after we were gone. They capture the beauty of our presence.

    Hmm. Let me repeat that.

    Photographs capture the beauty of our presence.

    If we do not feel present, is there no moment to capture? Is there only the moments of others? And we are simply the observers?

    There are enormous questions here. But I have to say, I have reached a point in my life where I ask fewer and fewer questions. For a long while this disturbed me. Was I losing my drive, my reach, my mind? Was I content to live without questioning everything? Philosophizing? Extending myself?

    And now. With three kids. I have simplified. I keep the camera on a ledge in the kitchen. I have it in my mind to send you a picture of this. I grab it when there is a moment. I place it back on the shelf so that I jump into the moment and be a part of it all, knowing full well that there is no one there to catch the pictures of ME enjoying the moment with my KIDS, because I am the photographer, too. Jen and I talk of this often. There are little to no pictures of us and our children. But many, many of them with their father.

    When I jump in and leave the camera behind I have to trust that even if I don't remember it exactly I know that we had times like those – and that my kids will remember their childhoods fondly because of it…even if they don't know WHY they are so fond of the remembering.

    Does this make sense? (I think I have a migraine coming on. Oh.My.God.NO!)

  4. Ronna Detrick
    Posted November 22, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    I've really struggled with this post, Lindsey. So much in here and so much I want to say; even more I want to ask.

    Your questions and musings are significant AND there's something in me that wonders if your very questions (and even your capturing of life through a lens)IS the way you are present.

    Whether we can be aware of it or not, there is something about our deepest, truest self that becomes embodied over and over again in our actions – even if we're unaware. Sometimes we recognize it through a litany of photographs through time: a particular smile, our placement in the photo, the positioning (or not) of others around us. Sometimes we hear it in the voice of someone from our past who tells us something about who we were then that reverberates right up to the present and surprises us with its consistency. Sometimes its in the way we create – whether writing, blogging, photos, events, meals, birthday parties; where our presence shows up in HOW we build and shape in these contexts.

    I could go on and on. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I think you are deeply, powerfully present all the time…AND…that the presence you bring and embody is one of observance, capturing, keeping, sharing, reflecting, refracting, treasuring. My hunch is that those who know you well would use words that might echo these traits…beautiful truths about your presence – your lens – you.

    I'm grateful for your thoughts, Lindsey. They are beautiful…treasures, really. Undoubtedly, reflective and refractive of you – and yes, your presence.

  5. Posted May 14, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Obviously it’s a round and round thing. Without pictures the past IS allowed to fade a bit from memory. But, when we chase too hard, the thing itself evaporates.

    Like all of life…it is the heart of the paradox we seek, right?

    But I am also intrigued by something else you write: by taking photos of others…you disappear yourself. Hmmmm. I’ll ponder that one.