I always have. When I got my very first 110 film camera, I was careful with my photography (after all, I had to have the money for both the film and the developing to do anything with the pictures that I took), but I enjoyed capturing my own memories on film, especially as more and more of my experiences took me away from my family, leaving me responsible for my own snapshot collection.
And while my photography experience has evolved from 110 to 35 mm to an increasing quality of digital cameras, the fact remains that I love taking pictures and capturing snapshots of my family’s memories. But I don’t just obsess over taking photographs; I’ve also made it my personal mission to make sure that our family photos are printed and placed into photo albums, my high school, college, and early years of marriage sitting carefully organized on a shelf in our guest room.
As with many things in our lives, my obsession may stem from my childhood, as I watched my parents go from carefully placing photographs into albums to leaving envelope after envelope of printed pictures in drawers and boxes because of the time and money that it took to put all of those printed memories away. By the time I was in high school, I took it upon myself to occasionally put the backlog of photographs into albums, but eventually gave up the task for my own photo albums, figuring that I could at least keep my own pictures and memories organized.
As technology changed, so did my photography. Eventually I got rid of our 35 mm camera for a digital one. For the first couple years after getting a digital camera and going back and forth between taking photos on our phones and our latest digital camera upgrade, I still selected my favorite photos and printed them, putting them into photo albums with notes on the back of picture or next to them to help me record the time, place, and people in the photos. Shortly after our daughter was born, I discovered that we were taking more photos than we knew what to do with and I was spending exorbitant amounts of money printing out every important picture of our daughter’s early life. (And let’s be honest, for first time parents, every event is an important event.) While I always liked the idea of scrapbooking (I bought a whole pile of scrapbooking materials before she was born and finally donated them before we moved to Texas because I never did anything with them), I didn’t have the time to cut, design, and write notes by hand. However, I wanted her photo albums to have a scrapbook feel and to allow me to put as many photos on a page as possible. Finally, I decided to try making photo books online and having them printed out, just to see what the difference in cost and time would be. I never looked back.
Making the switch to digitally created photo books suddenly opened up a world of possibilities. I no longer had to select the bare minimum of photos that I could afford to print; I could select as many pictures as would reasonably fit on the page. My choice in online companies evolved as I got better at selecting photos, designing pages, and looking for the best deal. I went from Snapfish to Sam’s Club to Costco and now I’ve comfortably settled into using Shutterfly for all of my photo needs. Each company offered increasing quality in paper, binding, and printing and when I added up what I was spending on printing costs for an entire year’s worth of photos, I discovered I usually spent less doing it all in one book as opposed to printing out individual pictures and putting them into expensive photo albums.
Yes, this can be time consuming. Last summer I spent a large portion of the first three weeks of my summer vacation working on starting and completing photo books for 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, in addition to completing books for each of our kids (I’ve made a photo book for each year of our kids’ lives, something they both excitedly look forward to receiving at the end of each summer when I’ve had the chance to get caught up). My summer project drove my husband crazy and I really can’t blame him. Photos have always meant more to me than they have to him and the whole project took way longer than I had expected it to, but when I was finally finished I had four completely full photo albums with memories of camping trips, birthdays, holidays, family reunions, and trips my husband and I had taken without the kids. Now, instead of looking for just the right online photo album, I could page through and look at everything we had done as a family, watching our kids grow with each turn of the page.
The digital age is slowly destroying our desire for a tangible historical record. We all have cameras in our pockets and we have so many different ways to share those photos that many of us have forgotten the surprising joy of going through boxes of photos and paging through photo albums, finding old photos of grandparents and parents and us as babies. Instead of sending letters, we send emails and texts. Instead of keeping journals, we keep blogs and post on social media for the whole world to see everything we are doing at all times. And instead of maintaining carefully organized photo albums, we post to Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat, storing all of our photos on the World Wide Web hoping that the Internet doesn’t someday crash, causing us to lose all photographic proof that we were in a certain place at a certain moment in history.
I get the movement to minimalism and order, getting rid of the things that we don’t need and that keep us back from really experiencing and living life, but I also believe that when we stop keeping a record of our lives that we can touch and pass down to future generations, we start losing a part of our history. Letters, journals, and photographs are the artifacts that help us understand those who came before us and just as we are collecting more and more artifacts, we have stopped putting them in a form that can be passed down from one generation to the next.
No, I’m not suggesting that everyone immediately get onto your favorite photo sharing site and drop hundreds of dollars printing out all of your pictures, but perhaps consider starting small. Pick a vacation or special event and just drop all of the photos into the website and let the website put a book together for you. Or maybe commit yourself to keeping track of the photos from 2019 and see what comes of it. Or if you’re like me and you completely failed at keeping baby books (I have no idea when my kids first crawled, got their first teeth, and took their first official steps because I didn’t have the time to keep track), start with the most recent year of your children’s lives.
And when that photo project arrives in your mailbox, take some time away from Instagram and Facebook and the latest news cycle and instead of swiping left and right to see more and more digital media, simply enjoy spending a couple minutes slowly paging through your compiled memories. Your heart and brain just might thank you for it.
Sarah is a high school English teacher, yearbook adviser, wife to an amazingly supportive husband, and mom to two quickly growing kiddos. When she’s not working to balance life as a working mom, she uses this space to write about the wonderful complexities of life as a wife, mother, and teacher, as well as her family’s camping adventures whenever they can get out of town.
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