Living in the Moment, or Living for the Photo?

If we don’t take a picture, did it really happen?

Photo Op. Photo by Julián Gentilezza on Unsplash

So I was listening to UnErased, a podcast series about gay conversion therapy, featuring Jad Abumrad from Radiolab. Awesome podcast. But that’s not what this piece is about.

Rather, I want to talk about the ad I heard at the beginning of the episode.

It was an ad for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s The Nutcracker. We live two hours from Seattle and wanted to take my ballet-loving 4-year-old to see The Nutcracker, but it’s just too expensive for us right now.

Here’s what the ad said:

“The Northwest’s favorite holiday tradition…With a cast of 50 professional dancers, a live orchestra, and the season’s best family photo opportunities.

I paused it and ran it back. Ran it back again. Ran it back again and wrote it down to write about later.

“The season’s best family photo opportunities”

We have gotten to the point, culturally, where the way to market something — something as breathtaking and awe-inspiring as ballet with a live orchestra — is to assure prospective audience members that they will in fact have a great photo to share.

Your photos will be epic. Your friends (and frenemies) will be like, Whoa.

Sure, go to the ballet to see a showcase of art and talent and hard work and all that blah blah blah. OR, go, because, seriously, it’s gonna look great when you share your photo on Instagram. People are gonna be totes jealous.

Wait till my followers see this! Photo by Nadi Whatisdelirium on Unsplash

A recent study showed 40% of millenials chose their travel destinations based on Instagrammability. From an article by Rachel Hosie for The Independent:

The survey by home insurance company Schofields Insurance asked over 1,000 UK adults aged between 18 and 33 — AKA millennials — what was most important when choosing a holiday destination, and ‘how Instagrammable the holiday would be’ has been identified as the number one motivator.

Sure, not a huge study. But admit it: you sometimes imagine your life through the lens of your smartphone. It’s just so easy to take and share photos now; why wouldn’t we?

I do it too.

I take photos, mostly of my kid, when we’re doing something photogenic. I did it today when we ate at a restaurant where we made our own vegan pancakes on a griddle table. It was SO COOL. I fought off the photo urge for a full 10 minutes.

Just be in the moment. Just be in the moment. Let your child see you just being in the moment. Model it for her. Don’t get your phone out of your bag.

With my right hand, I flipped and ate pancakes, drank coffee, and spoonfed my kid tofu scramble (so she’d have more in her belly than just pancakes and syrup). Meanwhile, the other half of my brain worked hard just to keep my left hand at my side. I felt it jonesing for my phone. Just one photo.

Finally I gave in, snapped it as quickly as I could, before my kid noticed. Trying to get the perfect photo would take too long; my kid would put on her fake smile posing face — which, yes, she already has — and the magic moment would be gone. And instead of the photo being a memory of a wonderful day, for me, it would be a shameful memory of how I take my phone out too much and how I feel like a failure of a parent.

It really was a great day.

Griddle table at Backwater, in Melbourne, FL. Photo Credit: Author

Sometimes I intentionally leave my phone at home to completely ensure I will be present, and then I wish I had it, because OMG this is such a Kodak moment.

I actually make some income selling videos, so I tell myself that’s why I need to film our lives. And I do get a ton of joy from rewatching old movies and videos.

Some people want to HAVE the photo; some people want to SHARE the photo.

For me, it’s all about the having. Photo evidence gives me the ability to remember. Having a photo makes it real to me. Depression clouds some of my memories. That combined with loved ones who don’t want to acknowledge hard times exist can make it tough to remember what was a good time and what was not so much.

So I’m not one for posed smiles. I don’t want to try to convince myself (or anyone else) a shitty time was actually awesome. Well, except maybe the months of post-partum depression where I tried to capture my baby making an unintentional smile, just so I could survive.

I only want to get the camera out if I’m legitimately having a wonderful time. I want to make sure that time is immortalized, so no one can take my happy memories away from me. (I’m not claiming this is a sane way to approach life, but it’s my personal experience.)

But for lots of people, the sharing seems to be the most important thing.

Jealous? Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

Gotta get that happy-looking photo whether you were actually happy or not. Show others the objectively exciting thing you did. Prove to everyone that your life is impressive, beautiful, exhilarating; and if you get enough likes, maybe you’ll be able to believe it yourself.

How many likes did you get?

I enjoyed Colin Horgan’s story We Don’t Judge Our Kids by the Likes They Get Online — Or Do We?, about “mommy blogger” Katie Bower, who got a ton of flack for posting on her son’s birthday about how sad she is that photos of him get the least likes of all her children.

From Bower’s since-deleted Instagram post:

“ Guys I am gonna be perfectly honest… Instagram never liked my Munchkin and it killed me inside. His photos never got as many likes. Never got comments. From a statistical point of view, he wasn’t as popular with everyone out there. Maybe part of that was the pictures just never hit the algorithm right.”

Bower blames herself, but I don’t blame her. She’s clear in her long post how much she loves all her kids. She’s realizing this cruel image-obsessed world might not love one of her kids back, and she’s worried, because she can’t protect him from that.

I assume she’s making money from people wanting to look at her real life family, so she’s in a weird position; she probably can’t just stop posting family photos. More and more people are making money in this weird way. I just used the word weird twice, but I’m not going to edit it: It is super-weird. Capitalism is weeeeeeird: All the ways we sell ourselves to get by.


As I was writing this, I looked out the window and saw a glorious Florida sunset.

My husband was playing with our 4-year-old in the other room of my parents’ house. I called to them to come outside with me, to see the sunset. I did not bring my phone.

Sunset Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

“What colors do you see?” I asked my daughter.

“Pink. Blue. Maybe…purple? And over there, an orangeish beige.”

Half my mind thought about going inside to get the camera. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Just be in the moment.

My mom came outside. She had no idea what I’d been writing about or thinking about.

“I know you probably don’t want me to get my phone out, but you’ve got to see this sunset we had another night. It was like this one, but it was the whole sky!”

She showed us all the picture. We looked at it. Wow. We looked back at the real sky. Wow.

My daughter — my dear, sweet, amazing child— assumed my mom’s photo was of tonight’s sunset, and she said,

“I’m so glad we got a photo of it.”