My favorite family photo is an impromptu shot of my mom, my brother, and me at the MoMA while we were waiting for my aunt and cousin to meet us in the lobby. We had been sitting on ottoman-like chairs when we squished our heads together and took the picture. I developed it later that month. Although it was blurry and our faces were unfocused, there was charm in the image.
Whenever my family goes somewhere interesting, my parents have to document it by having everyone pose in front of a breathtaking view or a distinguished statue. There are albums filled with these outdoor portraits. I never really smile in those pictures. There is always something forced about the four of us blocking pedestrian traffic and looking like tourists wherever we are. The occasional photo is wonderful, but neither my mother or father can get enough of us standing stock still as they try to angle the shot perfectly as to capture everything from person to background, taking multiple shots until they are satisfied with what they see on the tiny LCD screen. Cheek muscles begin to fatigue and attitudes turn sour as the quick picture becomes a major interruption to the original intention of whatever trip we are taking. The focus is not really on us or the experience anymore, but on preserving the idea of the experience so that one day we can find the picture twenty years later and have it intravenously feed us memories.
The best pictures are the ones you just decide to take in an instant. The process takes about two seconds. Find. Focus. Shoot. Usually, everything comes out perfectly and the photo has more flair, as if the impulsiveness of the moment could be captured on glossy paper. For all its fuzziness and poor lighting, that picture of the three of us at the museum has a spark of life that the rest of the other pictures lack. Cameras are great for recording what you want, but they just have to be unobtrusive about it. Then, when you smile, it looks real because it is real. The photo does not become the representation of a whole experience, but a sliver of it. It is a trigger for memory, not its substitute.