Life Through No Lens

Why I Take Fewer Pictures And Remember More



Facebook post: “My daughter was in a pageant. It was unexpected and out of the norm for her, and she did really well!”

Facebook Comments: “I want pics!” “Do you have video of her performance?” “Can we see her dress?”

Reply: “Um, gimme a little bit. I know Ben got some nice shots, so when I get copies I’ll share :)”


Twitter post: “My son rocked his trombone solo today! #marchingband #competition”

Twitter comments: “#picsoritdidnthappen” “Video Link?”

Reply: “Sorry. No pics. Maybe try @ULHSBand or their FB page #badmom #nopics”


But what else could I expect? Who doesn’t have a picture?

My friends and family are as normal as most. These comments aren’t unusual or unexpected. It’s just that I don’t often have the photos or videos they want. I know they want to be able to share in my experiences and see the results of my efforts or my kids’ work. I “like” their photos and compliment their kids, too! But sometimes I just don’t have that “in the moment” shot people so crave these days.

I know what many of you are thinking. You’re wondering what kind of idiot mom can’t work her phone to take a little video?  What kind of mom doesn’t even bother to take pictures of her kids during their performances and achievements? What on earth is wrong with her? Probably the same things my Facebook friends and Twitter followers think. Why does a mom who drives half the team to practice, who donates to the fund drives, who encourages rehearsal and is able to attend nearly every game or show suddenly not care when the big moment arrives?


Because I want to remember the whole moment, not the moment through a lens.


Once upon a time, I was the mom who photographed every moment. Even before social media and the ability to share them all with the click of a button, I took them. I documented every single display my kids explored at the children’s museum. I have pictures from a day-long trail walk that are probably detailed enough to connect the trail from beginning to end. Every Christmas gift opened, every candle extinguished from every cake.

A Conscious Life Without Lenses
Caleb decorating Christmas cookies, 2010.

I took these pictures so I’d remember the event. So I’d never forget any of these detailed, precious memories of my children, my experiences, and my life.

There’s just one problem. When I look back on that hike, I don’t see myself climbing up on the cliff where my children had perched in order to “scare” me, to laugh with them. I see the picture I took as I yelled, “Smile and look this way!” Or the  photo I captured depicting George Washington’s name carved in a rock from his travels surveying the land, not my kids’ faces as I told them about the old ways of surveying, and new technology.

“I climbed up here so when you came around the corner you wouldn’t know where I was and it would scare you – hahaha!” Natural Bridge, VA 2010


My most vivid memory of that hike doesn’t exist in a photograph. I had gotten thirsty, and failed to purchase myself water at the last stop, so I drank out of a natural spring I deemed safe (it is/was). My most vivid memory is of how cold and beautiful the water was, and how wonderful it felt to splash it on my face in the heat. I can see my kids’ wet t-shirts as they took a few cooling splashes and drank their own bottled water. It is a memory I can feel, not just a mental snapshot.

The picture I see best in my mind doesn’t exist as data or on film. I can’t go back and “re-live” it on video. But it’s my favorite picture.

When we were on that hike, I had no idea that seeing life though a lens could impact the way I remembered things. I wasn’t testing myself, or hoping to recall one type of moment over another. And when I think about the other events in my life, the ones I photographed are the ones I remember mostly in pictures. It’s as though the photos ARE the memory. When I think back on Hannah’s first concert or Caleb’s basketball game, what I see is not the concert or the game, but the pictures I took. The memory of the actual event is faded and I feel more like someone who watched than someone who was fully aware, mentally and emotionally participating.

The kids doing a project at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. See that third set-up? The one I could have been using to actually participate?

Science seems to support this. Linda Henkel of Fairfield University wondered about the difference between the “mind’s eye” and the camera’s. She studied participants at a museum, each person viewing the same displays for the same amount of time. One group took no photos, one took photos of the whole object, and another took photos of a small detail in each work. The day after, each group was tested on which objects they remembered seeing. The group that had taken no pictures, or taken pictures only of a detailed part after looking at the object, had better recall of the items than did the group taking pictures of the whole object.

Her study was published in Psychological Science, a journal from The Association for Psychological Science. If you’re into the details, a recap of her methods and results of the study can be found here.

Henkel found, in part, “When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences”.

For me, the science is cool, but it’s the part about “not needing to attend it fully” that speaks to my heart. If I am choosing to live a conscious life, if I want to relish these moments and actually have them to remember, I need to do so without a lens between my life and me.

Who’s living fully, and who’s seeing a snapshot? My husband got to live this moment, and I have only the picture. Though it is one of my most favorite shots!

I read an earlier version of this piece to my daughter. Her eyes got big and she remembered the hiking trip, too. She exclaimed, “That’s where we saw the baby goat on the rock in the creek, and… don’t you remember? I climbed down to the creek so I could see!”  Nope, I didn’t remember that at all. But when I went back through my photos, there it was – the picture of the goat in the creek. It had all happened, but I had been so focused on taking the picture that I don’t remember actually seeing the goat.

See? Baby goat, rocks, creek. Just like she said. Because everyone needs to see baby goats sometimes.

These days, I rarely worry about whether there’s enough light when my kids are doing something great. I don’t remember fussing to get them in the frame before they moved again. No mad memories because another mom got in my shot. I remember clutching a program to my chest, rain cold on my face, as my son nailed his part at competition. It is a full-body and full-mind memory. No part of it is focused on whether the rain would hurt my lens.

I remember holding our new dog at the pound, feeling him calm in my arms. I didn’t give one thought about how the pictures would look on social media, because I didn’t even consider a “selfie”. My memory is of snuggly dog and hoping they’d let me take him home.

There are still moments for pictures. I treasure the pictures various people took at the births of my children, my wedding, and other important moments. I honor their willingness to be present behind a lens for my benefit. When I see those photos, I can remember being in that moment and what it meant for me. The same goes for those times when you see something special, the spontaneous things. Like when I “caught” my husband teaching Caleb to trim weeds or saw my daughter walking alone on the beach from our hotel balcony. I wasn’t in those moments anyway, I was already an outsider. But I saw my guys in a father/son moment, and my daughter in a contemplative peaceful one, so I took the opportunity.  When they see the pictures, their memories are of being in the moment.

The four of us and my mom, meeting daughter Charlie and saying goodbye, all at the same time. Photo Credit and Gratitude: Trilby Henderson


I love that technology has evolved to the point where I am able to photograph nearly anything I see. I just take pictures after the event, after I’ve made the memory. We get a picture of the sign or the cabin from the campground, as a reminder of the time we shared. But you won’t find me hustling down an aisle to get the picture at the moment my kid gets a diploma or plays the solo.  I’ll be sitting in my seat, my hand in my husband’s rather than on a device, with proud tears flowing as I fully appreciate that moment, and all the moments that made it possible.

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