The BLOG: Lifestyle

Our world and its photos

Doesn’t it seem like people are sending their Christmas cards late this year?” my friend asked as we made dinner for our families late in December. It did. And there were fewer of them, too. We string our cards up on a line across our kitchen as a kind of garland, and this year for the first time, the cards didn’t make it all the way across. If I use our garland as a measuring stick (comes in handy that way), there were probably 25 percent fewer this year.

Christmas card-sending has been on the downturn for years, but I wondered: why the sudden notable drop this December? The answer, I think, could be Instagram. While Facebook’s been going for years, Instagram’s popularity is newer… And because Instagram’s only about photos, it functions as a steady stream of select-the-best-moment images of daily life. Once you’ve shown the best, up-close pictures of your people, what’s the point of a Christmas card? It almost seems redundant. Christmas cards send cheer and an update: here’s who we have. Here’s what we/they look like. Here’s what we’re up to. Today, though, Instagram takes care of all of this for us. Three-hundred and sixty-five days a year. With two-way dialog (in the form of comments). For free. Making Christmas cards feel almost obsolete.

I like photos and community. And I’m new-school and old-school — I like Instagram and Christmas cards. I want both worlds to stay. But I wonder if they will. Christmas cards are specific, intentional, and proactive. They offer something limited — limited number of photos, limited run of cards. Social media photo feeds are most often general, sporadic, widespread … and basically unlimited. That’s the point — and the appeal. They’re the post-and-go corkboard photo display of our virtual lives. It’d be nice if the two trends worked well together, but their very natures makes it hard for them to line up.

If I have 500 photos on my phone, just transferring them to my computer feels like a lot more work than I want to bite off on a Saturday afternoon. Transfer, review, compare, file, delete. Taking them was so fast, but dealing with them is so tedious.

There are For me … and for most everyone else.

This month I’ve been consolidating an old photo library with a new one, and taking on the task reminds me why I put it off for so many years. Storage challenges abound. Reviewing the files takes ages. The whole thing is the worst. Ten years of modern life equates, for me, to 12,000-plus photos. What on earth, I ask myself?

A hundred things could be said — and are being said — about photos and modern culture. I think the discussion’s one of the more important ones of our day. When I’ve recently asked myself the question, “Why do I take so many photos?” two observations surprised me. (The quick answers that didn’t surprise me were: my kids are cute; it’s fun; it’s easy since my cell phone’s always with me; the connection that comes through social media’s worthwhile; I like documenting our lives. And downsides of frequent photo-taking I’d considered included: it can contribute to cell-phone addiction; it can take me out the moment; it contributes to social media-prompted jealousy; it can convey a sense the photographing an event means somehow ‘conquering’ it; it works against simplicity and minimalism). Here are the two surprising ones I found to be true in my case:

1. Extensive photo-taking can end up serving nearly the opposite purpose of what I think photography’s for. Because, why do I take a picture? I take it to honor a moment, to remember an event or a person at a certain stage, to highlight and cherish a relationship. But when I take many pictures, I just end up awash in scores of photos that cause all of them to mesh together like a vague blur. I deal with my photos less; I even look at my photos less. Volume demands this; I really have no choice. (Perhaps if I utilized a disciplined culling strategy, I’d have more of one.) Because who has time to look through 12,000 pictures? And if I start trying, the searching process takes me away – paradoxically- from the very experience of living events and enjoying relationships that photo-taking prompted in the first place.

2. An interesting relationship can exist between photo-taking and forced positive thinking. Not long ago I read a quote by the peerless Henry Cloud (one of the more insightful leaders of our day, in my mind) about positive thinking. I’ve searched for it but alas, the search button on his Facebook page fails me. He said something about how positive thinking is helpful, unless you have unresolved issues that you’re not addressing. Then positive thinking should be substituted for “dealing with the issues” kind of thinking. Then I realized: taking pictures can be a compulsive kind of ‘count your blessings’ move in modern culture. This issue in my life’s out of whack, but hey, look at that rainbow! Click; let’s capture that. Don’t get me wrong — counting your blessings is fabulous, and gratitude is literally one of life’s elixirs. I know Henry’s right, though, because once I started wading into some hard issues in my life, I suddenly found myself taking fewer pictures. I could see the way I’d been using that venue as a mood-booster and a distraction. And I found that, once I started working through areas of challenge instead of back-burnering them, I didn’t need that internal boost anymore.

No neat little bow to tie up these musings with, I’m afraid. Life with photos is a topic that, for all of us (and certainly our children), will probably always need visiting and revisiting. Will I keep sending Christmas cards, and if so, for how long? I don’t know. Will I stay on Instagram? Yes. Will I keep taking pictures? Yes. But it sure has been nice to take fewer of them. To ask myself, “Does this really need to be documented?” Just say no on the photo front feels, sometimes, really good.