Deborah Paul: Am I Living Life, or Merely Documenting It?

She sees the bigger picture.
Situated on an end table in my living room is a burnished-wood picture frame holding a photograph of grapes. I took the picture with a real camera, not my phone, on a trip to Tuscany a few years back. The grapes are plump and purple, hanging in a perfect inverted triangle from the lush vine. As photographs go, it’s pretty good—not calendar good, but good enough. When people come over and glance at it, though, I’m pretty sure they figure it came with the frame.
The reason for displaying such an impersonal shot is simple: I no longer have any current printed photographs to use. Family photos taken eons ago are scattered about on various shelves and tables; if I want to see how my parents looked on their honey-moon 80 years ago, I can. My adult kids have changed a lot since they sat together on a grassy hillside for a picture at the ages of 5 and 2, but the image has been there so long, it seems like sacrilege to take it down.
The problem isn’t that I no longer care about capturing my experiences or family members—you would know that if you scrolled through the 805 pictures in my cell-phone gallery. I’ve been busy snapping away anytime something seems like it might be memorable. There are vacation pictures, of course: countless beach scenes, including a series of a flock of seagulls that changed position every few seconds. Pets appear in funny poses, although viewing my beloved cat that is no longer here breaks my heart. And, of course, there are scads of my three grandchildren, from the hospital room, just-delivered; to birthdays with icing-smeared faces; to apple-picking; to sitting proudly beside a completed floor puzzle of Thomas the Tank Engine.
My phone also contains a nice selection of videos: my older granddaughter spelling out “I Heart You” with a stick in the sand, the baby of the trio laughing uproariously for the first time, and, a few years later, twirling about in a tutu singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. When I am bored or alone, it is fun and poignant to view the collection and relive the progression of years. When my husband and I dine out with friends, we all pass around our phones, admiring one another’s progeny.
Some overdo it, sharing 24 pictures of the same rascally toddler standing upright in a freezer drawer. Most of us, however, understand the unspoken rules of restraint.
Considering the plethora of pictures in my camera roll, I began to wonder if I had been living life or merely documenting it. We carry our phones everywhere, consulting them dozens (and dozens) of times a day. The convenience of pulling out the device makes it easy to snap everything that catches our eye. We are too busy photographing to listen and look.

The convenience of pulling out a device makes it too easy to snap everything.

I tested this theory in the backyard on a gorgeous sunny day last summer. While her parents lay prone on the thick grass, our youngest grandchild, Clara, garbed in a baby-blue polka-dot twirly dress, danced shoeless on her tiptoes while waving a bubble wand, a cascade of iridescent bubbles following her. After each dip, she would glance backward at her bounty, giggling at the steady stream, delighting when one or more landed on flowers like so many delicate butterflies. I was dumbstruck by the pure, old-fashioned joy of the moment.
And so, I reveled in the experience, soaked in the beauty, and resisted the urge to run inside to retrieve my phone. I don’t have a record of the interlude, but I remember—and I think, possibly, that’s enough.
Since then, I’ve practiced using my mind instead of the button on my phone. That same summer, I sat in a rocking chair on the front porch and watched my two granddaughters throwing a yellow ball, the 7-year-old sweet and forgiving with each muffed catch by her 3-year-old cousin. At the end of the match, they fell into each other’s arms and wound up in a happy pile on the ground. Although I do not have the moment on “film,” I did not miss any of it. As long as my brain functions properly, I can call up the memory as vividly as if it were happening all over again. I might lose my phone and all the photos in it, but I do not plan to lose the memories.
I follow a few friends on Instagram. It is nicely nosy to monitor their lives, but I am struck by all the photos of luscious plates of food—a glistening rack of ribs, buttery langostino, pastel macarons. The culinary art is masterful and the shots perfectly staged (if showing off is the point, I get it), but I wonder why they didn’t just savor the dish, right then, when it was set before them. Early in my career, I spent nine years as a restaurant reviewer, a job friends coveted. They needn’t have been envious, however, as I was so busy chronicling every bite, I never appreciated a thing I ate.
A recent article in AARP The Magazine (I confess) detailed a study by a cognitive psychologist who found that students on a museum tour remembered objects better when they merely looked at them rather than taking photographs. At my advancing age, memory is paramount. I used to watch my grandmother sitting in an upright chair admiring the flower garden outside the window, and wonder what she must be thinking. Knowing how sharp she was well into her 90s, I suspect her mind was full of deeply etched recollections.
Last summer, I hired a photographer to take pictures for my frames. She trailed after my grandkids as they plucked bouquets of dandelions, raced each other, and sat side-by-side atop a picnic table slurping melty ice-cream cones. I left the documentation to a professional, cherished the freedom, and later replaced the grapes with a portrait of the young threesome, their chins dripping with the fluorescent-blue frozen treat. And I don’t just have a photo to remember—I have the memory, too.
Email Deborah Paul here.