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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Taking family photos is worth more than meets the eye

Published: Sunday, July 22 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

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SALT LAKE CITY — I have mixed feelings about cameras.

On one hand, they freeze moments in time, capturing with certainty the images I want to remember (but inevitably will forget), and they preserve my memories with proof.

On the other hand, looking through a lens for too long can be isolating; it makes me feel like I'm not really in the moment I'm capturing because I'm so preoccupied with capturing it.

But this week I learned a valuable lesson about taking pictures.

It started when my parents joined my family on vacation in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park. It was their first time visiting the park, and I could tell they were excited and nervous and anxious all at once to be there.

The cabins where we stayed — located within the park boundaries — didn't have an address to plug into my parents' GPS system, and it took several frantic phone calls over several hours to guide them in. The rustic nature of our lodging eliminated some creature comforts like the Internet, computers and television, which my dad was hesitant to be without. And the fact that my parents completed the five-hour drive to Wyoming almost immediately after getting off a plane from Virginia, under the influence of jet lag, made the first day very exciting.

The next morning, we decided to take a little hike up to see a waterfall. My dad isn't much of a hiker, but he figured if my 4-year-old child could do it, then he could, too. So he embarked on the trail, white leather shoes on his feet, a walking stick in one hand, and his Blackberry in the other.

And he started filming everything.

He held the smart phone at eye level and watched the trail through the screen, narrating little things along the way, like, "There's a stream over there," and, "Here we are at a bridge."

A lot of thoughts went through my head while he did this. My mom and I both tried to tell him to put the phone away and watch where he was walking, but he insisted he could see exactly where he was going. I worried he might fall down. I was annoyed when he held the camera in my face. I told him he wasn't living in the moment. I felt a little embarrassed at the scene and immediately felt guilty for the embarrassment.

And in a few of the shots he took, I was a little standoffish. I had flashbacks to 1986 when my dad filmed a school play and caught video of my highly irritated sister afterward saying to the camera, "Turn it off! O-F-F!" in a thick Oklahoma accent.

Eventually his battery died and he put the camera away.

But a few days later, after we returned home, he showed me the videos he made, the rushing water, the shakiness as he stepped over the rocks, the back of my mom as she made her way in front of him, her floppy hat shading the sun from her eyes.

I was touched.

First of all, he captured the moment as it was. Silent sometimes, and talking sometimes. And watching that video transports me right back to that trail with all of my thoughts and feelings about his video-making. Second, I can see now how excited he was to be there, to hold on to every second, no matter how much we begged him to stop.

And third, the most difficult thing about living farther away from my parents is I only see them a few times a year. Every time I say goodbye to them, my heart is wrenched, because every time I wonder if it could be the last.

Both of my father's parents died by the time he was 29 years old. When I was a child, I thought you didn't need parents anymore by the time you were 29. But now I know you never stop needing your parents. If anything, you only need them more.

I've been fascinated to see the old photos miraculously taken of my father's mother, who died before I was born. I pore over the black and white images, taking note of her nose, the shape of her eyes, the clothes she was wearing.

And now my father's videos are equally as priceless.

I've since apologized for deriding him in his efforts. In fact, I won't tell him to put his camera away ever again.

I want to hold on to those moments for forever.

And I've decided that when it comes to pictures and what it means for my posterity, my regrets aren't taking too many — they're not taking enough.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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