What Is a Picture Really Worth?

I’ve been spending a good amount of time (and the time has been mostly good) playing with the face identification feature on Picasa 3. Even with over 6,000 people yet to be identified, Picasa has shown me that I have more than 1,000 pictures of each (or both) of my sons. Scrolling through the years’ worth of memories enshrined in digital glory has propelled me to almost weepy levels of happiness.

But then I start to wonder: how many of these pictures are true? How many pictures in the world are true? Are they as valuable as we all think they are? Is a picture worth a thousand words or a million lies?

If the statement these photos make is, “My kids are cute,” then it’s all kinds of true. Most of the time. But my kids aren’t always cute. They’re not always smiling. They are often engaged in less than photogenic behavior. I don’t take those pictures. I don’t save the blurry ones or the ones where I’m making an unflattering face or the ones my wife tells me to delete “or else.” When it comes to pictures, truth isn’t usually the goal. Personal photography is usually more a study in PR than an exploration of reality. Does that make them more valuable or less?

On some level, I guess there is tremendous value in having pictures that remind me how much I love my family, my friends, all my extended relatives, and all else who line up to face my camera lens. I’m not as pleased with the fact that my finicky emotions respond better to forced smiles than to portraits of slobbering rage. Part of me wonders if memories are worth the visual preservation if we save the good ones and delete the bad.

Is holding on to a memory all that valuable, or does it prevent us from forging new ones? Can a bogus smile from yesterday make us too complacent to make genuine smiles today? I don’t know. I try to envision myself in another time when photography wasn’t an option. Did people with no photos have poorer memories of their loved ones, or was their dependence on story telling and camaraderie enhanced by the lack of props? Something that happened yesterday made me think the latter was true.

We were driving to church (late, as usual) and passed a gorgeous, radiantly white swan swimming alone in a pond. My second thought was, “That is beautiful! *gasp*” But my first thought was, “I wish I had my camera.”

That turn of events kind of depressed me. It brought to mind all the times I have seen my kids doing something truly memorable and thought, “Where’s the camera?” My desire to preserve the moment too often outweighs my need to embrace it. I think of how much time I’ve spent lining up for pictures at family gatherings instead of actually enjoying each other’s company.

I don’t think photos are evil. I don’t think they do justice to their subjects, either, but they’re not bad. I just wonder if they make us lazy with our memories as we’re making them.

All I know is, from now on, when I don’t have a picture of a memorable event, I’m going to remember the joy  of escaping my own self-imposed paparazzi. And then, I’ll smile for real.