Shortly after my mother turned 53, she went through all her family photographs and divided them into three boxes, one for each kid. I was only 19 and was living in a dorm. I had no idea what to do with a large box of family pictures. My mom agreed to store the box for me but when she came to my college graduation, she brought it with her to make sure I took possession of it. She was not a particularly sentimental person and she hated clutter. After her death, my sister and I found she had only kept one photo album of family pictures and a small flipbook with pictures of my kids that my partner and I had given her.

I’ve kept the old family pictures my mother gave me as well as the ones other relatives have sent me over the years. I’ve added to that collection with pictures of my life with my partner and our kids and have several photo albums that document our relationship and the first year of our son’s life. After that, we bought our first digital camera and never took another analog picture again.

We likely have thousands of digital images that span the past 12 years. With the improved quality of cell phone cameras, I expect that number to increase exponentially.

I love digital photography because the results are immediate. I can take seventeen pictures of my kids on the first day of school and keep only the best one. I don’t have to wait to have the film developed to find that everyone had their eyes closed and some joker made bunny ears.

Beyond that, the part of me that is like my mother appreciates that the number of albums and boxes of photos is not growing because all of our pictures are stored on the cloud or the external hard drive we use just for that purpose. I can hold onto our family memories without the clutter.

But there are trade-offs.

When I look through my old pictures, I cherish the spontaneous ones the most. One of my favorites is a picture of my grandmother, my mother and my aunts. It is poorly framed and they aren’t all looking at the camera and only two are smiling while the others appear to be yelling at the person taking the picture. In this day and age, that picture might have been deleted, lost and forgotten, but it lives on and I can still see their personalities in the imperfection of that moment.

The photo albums we do have sit on a shelf in our bedroom and from time to time, my daughter comes into our room and takes one down to look through it. She can see my partner and I when we were young and see the foundation on which our family was built. But if she wants to revisit our family memories, she has to sit on my lap and wait for me to plug in the hard drive before we can click and scroll through our past, which seems less tangible.

My kids have only known digital photography and likely don’t really know what, if anything, they are missing. They expect us to take lots of pictures and delete the ones where they hate their hair or the way they are smiling. They are used to scrolling through albums on phones, laughing and swiping while I miss hovering over an album with my family, laughing and turning pages.

Digital photography is changing our recorded family history and our experience of it. It is convenient and efficient and very tidy. But I can’t help but wonder if it makes our lives seem perfect when, sometimes, the most beautiful moments of family life are found in the mess of it.


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