Make It Count

A few years ago I attended a photography workshop in San Francisco. I had been photographing families for a while, but found myself in a rut toward the end of 2015—my imposter syndrome at an all-time high, my inspiration at an all-time low.

I carpooled with two other local photographers whose expertise and related income surpassed mine on every level. As we sipped lattes in the car, chatting merrily on our way down the freeway, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake.

I’m such an amateur.
What was I thinking signing up for this?!
I don’t belong here.

Of course at that point, it was too late. I was in the backseat, and the car was driving to the city. I had no choice but to slap a smile on my face and pretend I belonged anyway.

Ninety miles later, we arrived at our destination—a charming house on a quiet street lined with bougainvillea. It was abnormally warm for San Francisco, and I immediately regretted wearing leggings.

Yan Palmer, photographer and workshop extraordinaire, greeted us at the door with the warmth and hospitality of your favorite grandmother. Freckles danced across her nose, and while I guessed she was slightly older than me, she looked like a sun-kissed teenager. She ushered us in and told us to take our seats in the living room where everyone else was already settled.

We sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, each taking a moment to explain why we were there. A few people cried. We watched a video and went through a booklet of Yan’s best photography tips, everything from lighting and posing to editing and workflow.

But the real magic happened later that afternoon, when Yan photographed Robyn and her family (whose living room we were sitting in).

“I’m going to shoot this one on film,” Yan said, strapping a fanny pack around her waist. She made a joke about looking hip while placing a few rolls of film inside.

Intrigued by her choice of camera, I hung back shyly as she started directing Robyn’s family in front of the window. She worked slowly. Thoughtfully. She offered clear direction in a quiet voice, placing Robyn and her husband on the couch into a resting pose. She pushed a side table out of the frame before adding the kids to their laps. Once the kids were in the frame, Yan began to speak in a glorified whisper. The room belonged to her. She metered the light, and began.

Watching her work was like watching someone direct a play. She moved around the room to the beat of her own careful choreography, whispering commands, tucking tiny pieces of candy into Robyn’s bra strap. Her kids, following the trick, climbed into the comfort of their mother’s lap, smiling wide as they dug for treasure on her shoulder.

The final product was a photo of a mother holding her children while they reached up to her face, moving her hair out of their way. It showcased closeness, love.

It was ... genius.

But the most interesting thing I noticed during that session—and the main takeaway I brought home with me—was how few photos Yan took. She was shooting film, and every so often, she’d have to pause to reload her camera. After setting up a scene on the bed with Robyn and her kids, she took maybe 12-15 shots and called it done.

There were huge pauses between each click.

I couldn’t help but compare this to my own photography process. At the time, I typically took 300-350 photos during a family session. I never wanted to miss anything, and the beauty (and curse) of digital photography is that I didn’t have to. I could show up to someone’s house and push click every 10 seconds for an hour. My process was frantic, always overcompensating for the underlying fear that I had no idea what I was doing.

If I just keep smiling and clicking, they’ll think I’m a real pro!
Maybe I’ll start to believe it, too!

At Yan’s workshop, someone else asked a few questions about film. Yan was an open book—she told us how many photos she usually takes during a session, where she gets her film developed, why she prefers film over digital. I made a comment during this conversation about what I had noticed, stating the obvious.

“It seems like you’re a lot more intentional this way. You’re taking fewer images, but you’ve put more thought and care into each one.”

A few of the other photographers nodded their heads in agreement, confessing how many photos they usually took during a session. It seemed I wasn’t the only one clicking 300 times and hoping for the best. Maybe I belonged there after all.

Yan smiled at us.

“That’s true,” she said, “With film, you have to make it count.”

***

When Instagram first introduced Instagram stories, I was vehemently against it. This is so dumb, I thought to myself more than a dozen times the week the change was implemented. First the ads, then the algorithms, now this?! Instagram had been so pure for so long, and I guess part of me had hoped it would stay that way.

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I boycotted for several weeks.

Eventually the lure of the purple circle became too strong, and I started watching other people’s stories. I saw everything from their daily breakfast to their playlists to their outfits to their behind-the-scenes mothering. I was both intrigued and horrified by the people talking into their phones daily, a la selfie mode, creating their own little reality TV show among followers.

I became a regular voyeur, still refusing to be a participant. Every time I logged onto Instagram, I rolled my eyes, annoyed and overwhelmed by the tsunami of other people’s lives being forced on my eyeballs.

(It’s so much easier to blame Instagram for our own addictions, isn’t it?)

I held strong for a solid month before finally giving way to the desire to play the game like everyone else, to sit at the cool kid’s table, to belong.

Having never used Snapchat before, I fumbled around like a newbie, finding my footing. A few weeks into documenting my days via artsy boomerangs and 15-second video clips of my kids being adorable, I started to actually enjoy sharing my life this way, spontaneously and unedited.

I hated myself for liking it so much.

***

A friend said to me recently, “I’ve really been enjoying your long Instagram captions.”

It was a funny compliment, but one I appreciated nonetheless. I’ve been less active on Instagram lately, not necessarily by intentional choice but simply because I have felt quiet. The news continues to devastate me on a weekly basis—just as my heart recovers from one story, a new horror sweeps in to take its place.

A few of my friends have recently given up Instagram, either for the summer or the month or altogether. Their reasons vary from wanting to spend more time with God to wanting to spend more time writing to wanting a break from all the noise.

I’ve taken breaks myself at various points over the past 10 years since I’ve been using social media, and they have always been needed and fruitful. I find it's good and healthy to let my eyes rest, and to give my brain an intermission from the daily inner workings of every single person I know.

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The more challenging part, I think, is learning how to use social media without letting it take over my life—either from the creation side or the consumption side.

I am constantly asking myself:

How do I create in this space, meaningfully?
How do I consume in this space, meaningfully?

The temptation is there, always, to create and consume more than we need to. We have all the power at our fingertips—the ability to frantically capture pictures and videos of anything and everything. Look at me! I’m drinking coffee! I’m walking outside! I blow-dried my hair! My kid is being cute! My house is clean! I’m at the gym!

We could, quite literally, document ourselves all day long—our food, our drinks, our errands, our outfits, our hair, our workouts, our vacations, our children. We can pop our faces on the screen and share our thoughts about politics, motherhood, and everything in between. Nobody is stopping us. Nobody is really holding us accountable to what we share in that space. 

These devices we carry around in our pockets can house thousands of images and videos at a time.

They’re like digital cameras on speed.

And I guess where I’m going with all of this is … aren’t you tired? I am. I feel like I’m living in a crowded amusement park, and every time I think I’ve carved out a little nook for myself, more people come inside shuffling against my body yelling about treats and roller coasters. I feel like I’m suffocating in a space that seems to thrive on more more more.

So, what to do?

Option 1: I suppose I could ditch Instagram forever.

Or,

Option 2: I suppose I could make it count.

I could ask myself a few questions before sharing, like: what is the purpose of this picture/video/boomerang? Am I seeking validation from strangers? Am I simply adding to the noise? Is this content going to encourage anyone? Help anyone? Brighten someone's day?

I could ask myself a few questions before consuming, like: what is the purpose of this picture/video/boomerang? Is this content life-giving for me? Is it adding anything positive to my life? Is it making me feel insecure or inadequate or sad or empty?

If this seems overly analytical, a recent study stated that the average person will spend five years of their life on social media.

Five. Years. Of. Their. Life. On social media.

Let that sink in.

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I can’t help but read that statistic and think of all the other things I could be doing with five years of my life. I could go back to school! I could travel the world! I could learn to cook food that is not spaghetti! I could read 500 books!

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how all those minutes add up over time? 10 minutes on Facebook here, 15 minutes on Instagram there, a few minutes checking Twitter before bed.

It’s ... alarming, isn’t it?

If I’m going to spend five years of my life on social media—and Lord, I really hope I don’t—but if I do, I want it to mean something.

I want to write stories that make you think and pair them with pictures that make you smile. I want to encourage you, I want to cheer for you, I want to spread hope like wildflowers. I want to tell you about the hard parts of marriage and the best parts of motherhood and I want to tell you about Jesus and my new favorite non-dairy ice cream. I want to commiserate over mom guilt and adult acne and the way our kids are all growing up too fast. I want to speak life into you. I want to use this phone, this tool, this platform, this gift, to turn the mundane aspects of my daily grind into a psalm.

I want to walk beside you, on this very weird Internet thing, and be an uplifting voice in your day. I want to take huge pauses in between each click. I want to be intentional. I want to be slow. I want to be a good steward of this space. 

I want to make it count.