At the end of my senior year of high school, I traveled to Paris with three of my closest friends. We had found a connection through a family friend to an empty apartment, and had been planning the trip for months. Through a herculean effort, I even paid attention in French class that semester! As I left for my first trip abroad sans-parents, I reassured them that I’d be fine. After all, “I have my phone!” I told them.
Life has a funny way of messing with you. On the second day of the trip, I dropped my phone on the cold, white marble at the Louvre. My phone gave one last ominous green flicker, turning red and then pitch black with a final sigh. I began to realize what had just happened: I was now in a foreign country, without my parents or my phone. What was I going to do? After some dramatics, I realized it really wasn’t all that bad. I didn’t like social media anyway, I could ask people for directions (and practice my French!) and I could call my parents from my friend’s phones. But there was one thing that I couldn’t resolve: the desire to take photos, capturing the trip for posterity. I was going on the trip of a lifetime, and was upset that I might not be able to remember it. The next day, I found a camera store down the street. With broken French (je voudrais, comment se dit ‘disposable camera?’), I acquired a disposable camera for 7 euros. Now, I had precisely 27 photos to take.
What I thought would limit my trip did precisely the opposite. I was extremely careful about the photos I took, allowing myself only three a day. I realized how my experiences would’ve been diminished otherwise, I probably would’ve spent more time taking pictures than creating the actual memories at hand. When we’re constantly trying to ‘capture the moment’ or post Instagram updates, we forget to bond and converse with others, absorbing our surroundings. As I walked along the Seine, I was able to immerse myself in the sights, sounds and smells — the vendors selling old books along the banks, the wavy golden reflection of the sun in the river, the groups of hip twenty-somethings lounging about on the grass, the rustle of the weeping willows. This newfound ability to observe led to clearer memories after the trip, specific moments filled with emotion rather than hazy outlines. In fact, the best of these memories, I found, often couldn’t be photographed. I remember running in the pouring rain to our favorite cafe, the jangle of the metallic Paris metro as we rattled through tunnels, the fresh dew on the roses in the flower market, gasping at the beauty of a distant storm as we stood atop the Arc de Triomphe, the flakiness of chocolate croissants. It was these specific moments, rather than the token tourist photos, that gave the trip meaning.
I realized that the invention of smartphones and social media also has another hidden effect: the devaluation of photography. When we can take thousands of pictures, they lose their individual importance. Will you ever scroll back through the hundreds of angles of that one cute photo you were trying to get at a party? Having only 27 pictures has made it much more likely that I will return and revisit my memories. And when I do look at those photos, each is infused with significance. Since I had to be picky about when I took them, each one is tied to many stories. One photo, for example, is of my friend holding macarons with a backdrop of the Versailles gardens. Just that single photo conjures up a whole well of memories. I can clearly recall the excitement as we snuck our “lunch” of rose, gold and green macaroons past the security guards, the melody of the live classical music as we picnicked in the park, the crunch of the gravel as we raced through the maze, the animated discussion of our favorite childhood memories, dancing in pavilion of Marie Antoinette’s annex palace, laughing as we tried (and failed) to move our rowboat in a pond. Another photo is of the four of us, smiling in the garden of a restaurant. At lunch, we met a trio of impeccably stylish French grandmas, cooler than we would (and will) ever be. Waving their ring-bejeweled hands and speaking rapid-fire French, they reminisced about their travels to America and described their lives in Paris. After lunch we exchanged emails, and to this day, I’m still pen-pals with one of them. With so many layers in these photographs, each picture becomes more than just a fleeting moment: it holds weighty memories of bonding and adventure.
While I wouldn’t recommend breaking your phone in Paris or forgetting your camera during your next escapade, remember to pause. In the chaos of our busy and interconnected lives, we often forget that the best moments are ones that cannot be shared with the world, beautiful moments that are ours and ours alone. More often than not, less is more.
Rabhya Mehrotra is a first year in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .