I have 34,144 photos on my camera roll. Usually, when I tell this number to people, I’m met with the same shocked reactions and questions, all centering around why I would even need this amount of photos and how I manage to still have space on my phone for anything else (I don’t, my storage is almost always full). Whenever I do try to clear my camera roll, I find myself staring at the screenshots and slightly blurry photos that should, by all accounts, be easy for me to delete, but for some reason, I’m unable to let go.
As I grew up surrounded by phones and social media, it always felt like second nature to document my daily adventures, even if it was just for myself. My older family members often made fun of me for being a “typical teenager” of the new generation, challenging me to see if I could live without my phone. I was deemed the go-to person for selfie-taking and vanity. This personal pastime of mine had somehow become an avenue for external judgment. I became conscious of asking people to take too many photos; I didn’t want to come across as annoying or shallow.
But when the pandemic hit in March of 2020, I, just like everyone else, longed for the past, the days of normalcy, of a COVID-19-free life. I found myself increasingly spending time on my phone, watching old videos I’d taken of concerts, of big family dinners, of a sunny day on the Glade, and I scrolled through endless selfies, beach sunsets and terrible pictures of friends. It became a new form of communication and connection for me as I sent these fond memories to friends and family. The same pictures that once seemed so excessive were now a welcome escape from the current reality, and I began to think about why exactly there was so much scrutiny around taking lots of pictures or selfies. What does being “in the moment” really mean?
While it is true that social media is often associated with rising rates of anxiety and depression among users, I don’t think that we should dismiss the potential power that photo-sharing and online communities can have on happiness. I’m not saying that in order to truly enjoy a moment, we need to take a picture or use our phone, but we shouldn’t hate on the people who do choose to document a certain time in their life. Many recent studies show that documenting everyday experiences can bring us unexpected joy in the future. It might make us all just a little bit happier if we allowed ourselves to shed our inhibitions and take a photo or two in hopes of remembering whatever occasion, big or small.
Throughout the past year, perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of being present in relationships, in conversations and in the places I’m in. I want to truly cherish the time I have with every person who I come across. At first, this may seem almost contradictory to everything that I’ve just discussed. After all, how “present” am I being if I spend 10 minutes trying to get a good photo? I often used to wonder if there is a way to balance the virtual and real lives that we lead and if I’m doing it all wrong.
However, just a few weeks ago, as I got ready for bed, I was laughing with my roommate about an old video I’d taken in high school. As I continued scrolling through the album, she commented, “You go through your camera roll so much — it’s almost like a nightly routine.” At the moment, I laughed it off, but the conversation has stuck with me since. I realize now that the way I stay present and value the connections that I have with those who are important to me is through documenting them.
It doesn’t have to be a perfect, in-focus photo that I post on social media. It can just as well be something small; this year, I’ve started taking a quick, one-second video each day to look back on at the end of the year. This is another simple way I’ve been able to use my phone to be present and understand that the two don’t always need to be mutually exclusive. The media often emphasizes the negative outcomes of technology, but it’s good to remember some of the positives that it can have on humanity as well if we let it.
The real beauty of my camera roll is that it is, in fact, very mundane. Life doesn’t always have to be full of travel and large adventures to feel fulfilling. It’s the grainy screenshots of FaceTime calls with my grandmother, the five-minute vlogs of me and my roommates rating the drinks at a cafe and the blurry, zoomed-in candids of my friends that make me truly appreciate the smaller joys of living, grounding me in the present. This is the story that my 34,144 (and growing) photos tell.