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Why Do People Take Pictures?

A Box of Old Photographs

Our boxes of photos live long after we are gone, leaving our descendants to ponder over them or throw them out.

Our boxes of photos live long after we are gone, leaving our descendants to ponder over them or throw them out.

Why Take Pictures?

A photograph is merely an image captured on paper or in a file. It is ephemeral. It's only importance is the value someone puts on it emotionally or monetarily. Many photographs taken before the days of digital photography still languish in boxes which are passed to future generations to sort and preserve.

As one who has inherited several boxes of such family history, I can testify that many of these pictures have no meaning to me except that they were important once to someone I loved or my husband loved. There are unlabeled scenes from far away places where I know my dad worked. There are his coworkers I never knew and his mother's and father's ancestors. As I go through the albums my husband's parents left to him, I see buildings in Europe and groups of colleagues that were important to his dad, and beach pictures from I know not where of people whose names I do not know. I would like to know their stories, but I probably never will. Many of these pictures will be tossed because they have no meaning for us.

Why do we take so many pictures? Most people have a camera of some sort with them everywhere they go. I know I do. I use it , too. I have taken thousands of pictures since I got my digital camera, and hundreds in the days of film. Many are in boxes, waiting for someone to dispose of them after we are gone. They are ephemeral. Only what's on Facebook lives forever, or until Facebook is gone.

So why do we take all these pictures to post on social networks, paste in albums or send to online albums, or just leave in their boxes to be sorted someday? I would submit it's because those pictures are proof we have been here, a representation of ourselves we want to leave for those who have loved and and whom we love, and an aid to others in understanding who we were and who they were in relationship to us. Looking at the pictures and organizing them are also ways we try to make sense of our lives -- our personal history and our significance in the world. A close look at the pictures can reveal who loves us, whom we love, where we've been, what we've accomplished, what we've overcome, what we like to do, and where our imagination takes us.

One of our First Family Outings

We went to Disneyland, a pilgrimage all parents with children seem to make in their lives if they can.

We went to Disneyland, a pilgrimage all parents with children seem to make in their lives if they can.

Photos Document the Stories of Our Lives

In the days before digital photography, we took a lot of pictures of our children, our life together and the places we went as a family. Each child was given his own album for these pictures and his or her own copy of the photos that turned out best. We had family albums in the living room, and the children kept their personal albums in their own rooms. We discovered as time went on, the children often perused these albums. They contained not only the pictures I took, but they also contained the pictures of their birth family contributed by the social worker and family members the children were still in touch with.

Adopted children such as ours are especially anxious to piece together the story of who they were and who was important before they were brought into our lives. These albums really do document their personal histories. They see their birth parents and also pictures we took of the continuing relationship with their father's parents and their half -brother, since we met with them twice a year. There are pictures of their friends as they grew up. There are holidays and family parties. There are milestones in their lives at school, at church, in Scouts, and in achieving new skills and completing personal projects. Especially important were the trips we took. Although we took many trips, the one two counties south to Disneyland in Anaheim, was one of the first. I think this occurred when they were still foster children, but when I remember who came with us, we hadn't met them until the September before the adoption took place in December.

Photos Document Where We've Been

Taken on a trip to Washington,D.C. and Gettysburg in 1985.

Taken on a trip to Washington,D.C. and Gettysburg in 1985.

Proof of Connections to People and Places

When children are young, they don't remember the details of the people they meet and the places they go with their families. They may enjoy the trips and outings, but have no idea really where they were. They may remember that they went to see their grandparents in Oklahoma. I did, when I was six. I remember only a few things about that trip and I have no pictures from it. People didn't take cameras everywhere then. I remember being in a potato shed with my grandmother, and I remember getting sick in the car while we crossed a bridge when we had almost reached our destination. I also remember visiting a farm in Texas on that same trip and seeing some cows up close. That's almost the only trip we took as a family when I was growing up.

I made up my mind when I grew up that I would take pictures on trips and label them so that I would always remember these parts of my life. I wanted to do the same for my children. Most of our trips were designed to contribute to our children's education and knowledge of history and geography, so it was especially important to do this.

The first major trip we took with the children after the adoption was final was to the Washington, D.C. area. The pictures above are from that trip. The purpose was to introduce our children to another family, so we shared many of the outings with them. Among the places we saw were Gettysburg, the usual monuments, the Capitol, where we took a tour, Mount Vernon, and a living history colonial farm in Virginia. The children were seven and eleven.


Across the Country by Car

Jason and Sarah in cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park, 1987

Jason and Sarah in cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park, 1987

Jason with soldier at Valley Forge on the way to Massachusetts.

Jason with soldier at Valley Forge on the way to Massachusetts.

Sarah and Jason on Bridge between Lexington and Concord at Minute Man National Park

Sarah and Jason on Bridge between Lexington and Concord at Minute Man National Park

Sarah and Jason exploring Scott's Bluff as we traveled home along the Oregon Trail Route

Sarah and Jason exploring Scott's Bluff as we traveled home along the Oregon Trail Route

Sarah looking lovely on the nature trail in South Pass City, Wyoming

Sarah looking lovely on the nature trail in South Pass City, Wyoming

Seeing More of the USA

One summer we traveled to Colorado to see Mesa Verde National Park and also to ride the Railroad from Durango to Silverton. We also toured a mine in Ouray, and visited the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert and the large Meteor Crater in Arizona. We took lots of pictures of the children in the places we went, as most families do when they travel with children.

We took more pictures when we lived in the state of Washington for four months. We took by far the most pictures when we crossed the country to Massachusetts by car the next year and spent two weeks seeing all the living history and historical towns and buildings we could. From Boston to Salem to Plymouth, we went everywhere we could learn something. On that trip, Sarah kept a daily journal of our daily travels, states we passed through, rivers we crossed, what crops we saw growing in the countryside, etc. It was all part of our home school curriculum. Jason got to hold the trip-tik from the Auto Club and act as navigator.

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When we got home, we developed the pictures and each child got a set of the best to organize in his own album by state. They also had to fill in an outline map of our route and label everything I considered important to remember. We had taken one route to get to Massachusetts, but we took I-80 home so that we could also see all the places we had read about on the Oregon trail. (I also took pictures of landforms we saw to be used in testing later, after we'd studied them.)

Those trips were a big part of my children's lives. I did not want them to be blurred into a mental collage later on. I wanted them to be savored and reflected upon later and for my children to be able to build more meaning into them as they learned more later about each place.

Each of us attaches our own special meaning to the places we have lived and traveled to. All of those places have become part of who we are. So it's important to be able to revisit them through our pictures when we want to document or validate something we are remembering in connection with a place. As we look at the pictures, even the smells and sounds may come back to our minds as they recreate our experience for us.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch

The year before we went to Massachusetts, Jason had studied Carry On, Mr. Bowditch at a Principle Approach school. These pages show the end-of year party based on that them.  It all made Jason really want to see Salem.

The year before we went to Massachusetts, Jason had studied Carry On, Mr. Bowditch at a Principle Approach school. These pages show the end-of year party based on that them. It all made Jason really want to see Salem.

Carry on Mr. Bowditch

The Custom House In Salem

It's a museum now, and was a high point in the trip for Jason. Sarah, sitting on the steps, was not as fascinated with all the "male" stuff inside the Custom House.

It's a museum now, and was a high point in the trip for Jason. Sarah, sitting on the steps, was not as fascinated with all the "male" stuff inside the Custom House.

Photos Provide Proof of Accomplishments

Jason with big bubble from bubble gum.

Jason with big bubble from bubble gum.

Proof Positive in Photographs

Have you ever overheard a discussion like this between children?

Child one: You should see the bubble I blew. It was so big it went from my chin almost to my eyes.

Child Two: You didn't do that. It wasn't really that big.

Child One: Yes I did. I've got the picture to prove it.

Pictures can prove an accomplishment. Of course back when this picture was taken, the average person couldn't doctor pictures, and they couldn't be disputed as easily. But most people aren't trying to prove things to other people. They want to remember their own accomplishments. Do you remember blowing your first big bubble? It's a small thing, like learning to whistle, but it seems very big at the time. Pictures (and now videos) can bring those magic moments back to us and allow us to relive them emotionally.