Muller Marginalia

The True Worth of a Picture

Published: Dec 14, 2022  |  

Writer, editor, performer and self-producer

With the holidays fast approaching, we’re entering peak photo season. Instagram and Facebook will soon be flooded with snapshots of family gatherings, decked halls, spectacular Christmas lights, santa-hat wearing pets, kids freaking the hell out over presents, and, as I noted last week, epic spreads of food porn. But as Nick Slater and Ross Chandley previously covered—there’s something to be said for putting down your phone and actually experiencing those things you’re so busy documenting. 

I appreciated Nick’s metered approach to the issue of over-documenting—that, rather than encouraging us to fully abandon our cameras to “live in the moment,” perhaps just take fewer photos on average. Like him, I’ve experienced both the up and down sides of being chained—or liberated from—my camera. (Or camera phone, to be more accurate.) 

I was an early adopter of the digital camera, back before my phone replaced the necessity for a separate device. I got my first in high school, and of course went completely overboard with taking shot after shot of pointless things. I constantly took pictures: the camera became an extension of myself—I even came up with the proto-selfie, taking what I called “arm pictures” with friends, figuring out how to aim the camera back at us and frame the shot perfectly. (Considering there was no forward-facing monitor, I was pretty awesome at it.) 

Like Nick said in his article, most of these photos have “end[ed] up metaphorically moldering in [my] memory card,” and admittedly, I do still have a camera roll dominated by duplicate shots of my very adorable dog, though I’ve never regretted having too many cute pictures. But it took a decent amount of learning through my own life experiences before I found the balance he speaks about—finding the line between regretting the “shots you don’t take” (to create a weirdly mixed basketball/photography metaphor) and failing to experience the real world beyond the screen.

The moment I knew I’d taken it too far came during my college graduation. Like many universities, Princeton had a special ritual seniors do upon graduation—walking through FitzRandolph gate, which you are absolutely forbidden to do during your four years as an undergraduate, since it’s rumored that, if you do, you won’t graduate.

Eagerly documenting every step, I walked through the gate with my digital camera in hand, filming the entire process—only to realize, huh… I didn’t actually experience it… I’d been too busy watching what I was doing on my camera’s tiny screen. My regret was immediate and profound. And I haven’t watched that video once since that day—in fact, I’m not even sure where that file is, if it still exists in the hinterlands of some dusty harddrive.

However, like Nick, I’m also not ready to abandon my camera, because the value of my obsessive digital photo phase wound up giving me priceless shots of the loved ones I’ve lost. When I was 19 and my father died, the photo we wound up using at his memorial was one I’d taken during a summer barbecue (see above.) He’s wearing his favorite old Wild Turkey tee shirt, beaming with a just-drained glass of wine on hand. It was very on-brand for him. And when I lost my brother to cancer two years ago, I wound up finding the photo we used for his memorial on my camera roll, too, and digging through the deepest archives of backups of backups of old harddrives, I was able to cobble together a family collage from Christmases and holidays spent together.

I’ve never thought, “Oh, I sure wish I’d taken the same exact photo of that national monument that is on every postcard.” But I have thought, “I wish there were more pictures of me with my Dad and my brother.” The moments we share together, the people who make our lives worth living—that’s what you want to remember. That’s the shot you don’t want to miss.

So yes—do put down your phone and experience the world around you. But also pick it up and snap a shot or two when you’re having a family gathering, or a particularly nice time with loved ones. When you’re trying to remember, it will be a visual aid that brings you right back to that moment. And that is truly priceless.

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