Family & Education

Taking photos in my mind

We've become accustomed to taking photographs all the time, says Sara Elias. But are our memories diminished as a result?


As I got myself and my children ready for Shavuot, I was struck by the fact that with our phones switched off for the duration of the chag, there would be no way of recording anything that happened during those 49 hours. We would all look our best, many of us with new outfits to show off. But more than that, there would be some very precious moments over the course of those days, moments that would go unrecorded, the sort of moments that, on non-festive and non-Shabbat days, we would leap at the chance of uploading onto the most appropriate social-media platform.

And I thought about how we have quickly become so accustomed to whipping out our phones the instant we see anything remotely photogenic, and what it means not to do that, to be forced to enjoy the moment without any concrete means of consigning it to posterity.

Just a few weeks ago, I was driving down a road on a beautiful spring afternoon. Everywhere I had driven that day there seemed to be an explosion of cherry blossom, and as I drove down that particular road, I noticed a woman standing beneath a spectacular tree, head thrown back, phone in hand, taking a photo of the pink froth above her. It was exactly the sort of thing that I find myself doing — I love nothing more than being able to capture that fleeting moment of beauty of an especially lovely tree or flower. I like to feel that instant will never be lost, the glory of those petals or branches will never fade and I will be able to carry them with me forever if I really want to.

But as I watched that woman I wondered if she, and I, and all the others who do the same, miss out on something quite crucial when we do this. We unhesitatingly, unthinkingly place a lens between our eye and the object we are looking at, thinking that we are preserving the moment forever. But perhaps we are changing that moment, removing ourselves from experiencing it properly by seeking to freeze it in time.

What struck me was the contrast between that moment, and the realisation that observant Jews have no choice — once a week on Shabbat, more if there is a festival — other than to burn those instances, not onto our devices, but into our memories. And I wondered if moments captured in this way are preserved more faithfully. Perhaps it forces us to notice other things more carefully — a smell, the things that happened before and after that moment occurred, the timbre of a person’s voice, a perfume, the feel of someone’s clothing or a child’s embrace. We live in very visual times but perhaps, on these digital-detox days, we experience the world with more of our senses.

One particular memory springs to mind. We were staying with my husband’s brother and his family for Pesach this year. They live up North, and our children relish the time spent with their “Manchester cousins”. On the afternoon of the first day of yomtov — an unexpectedly warm and beautiful day — the adults watched from the house as the children bounced on the trampoline in the garden. They were out there for a long time. As they bounced, the sun began to set behind them, casting a golden glow that even the filters on Instagram would struggle to replicate. Big children bounced with smaller ones, teaching them new tricks, inspiring them with a confidence that we adults would never know how to give them. I remember the sound of their laughter, their hair flying wildly as they soared and plunged, the brightness in their eyes, the raucousness of their laughter. Even now I can feel the air becoming chill as the sun set lower, wondering that the children were still not feeling the cold, insulated from it by the activity, and perhaps, also, by the joy of a day free from structure — no school, no set bedtime, meals at none of the usual hours.

And I wonder, would I have remembered all of this so vividly had I simply taken a photograph of it? Did I watch them more closely, committing as many details to memory as possible, because without a camera, this was the only way to immortalise the moment? And so, as a result, did I enjoy the moment more?

I will never know, and I am quite content not knowing. As vivid as it is to me now, I am aware that the memory may, in time, slip away from me. But then, so might a photograph, lost among all the hundreds and thousands that we keep on our devices but forget about anyway.

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