In March 2019, I found a YouTube video titled “How to Remember Your Life” that proposed the unthinkable: The only way to remember your life is to delete your photos. Instead of keeping hundreds of vacation photos, you whittle them down to a few and turn your camera roll into a highlight reel. Each photo becomes more precious than before, a real documentation of your memories rather than a dump of disconnected moments.
I felt increasingly anxious as the video progressed. I’ve accumulated thousands of photos and videos over the years, documenting every fleeting moment, and even the thought of deleting them seemed insurmountable to me. It would feel like erasing my own life.
Deleting photos felt like cleaning my bedroom as a child when I hoarded anything that resembled a memory — even if it was a broken doll part or an expired gift card. Once in fifth grade, when my floor was covered by at least four layers of clothes, my mom marched upstairs with a trash bag and waded through the mess to throw things out. Years-old receipts, paper snowflakes and scrap fabric all mercilessly went in the bag. I sobbed and told her I was saving them for something, though I wasn’t sure what, and wrote a scathing entry in my diary: “My life is ruined.”
Though I believed I’d grown out of my hoarding phase, finding that YouTube video made me realize I’m still in it. Even today, I would feel as if my life was ruined if I lost my pictures. But it isn’t just about the photos, just as my hoarding as a child wasn’t about keeping paper scraps — it was the fear I’d forget the moments associated with them. It wasn’t about the objects, it was about the memories.
I think I’m a memory hoarder. This means I collect memories like inanimate objects, clinging to them out of fear of forgetting my life. I need to document everything as accurately as possible in case I want to experience it again — otherwise, my life would feel like a collection of single-use moments, waiting to be thrown away after living them just one time.
I’m a photographer, which makes it much easier for me to hoard memories. I can capture moments closely to how I experienced them, find the right angle and edit them to match reality, then re-visit the photos as many times as I’d like. I regret the shots I don’t take if I have the chance.
But my position creates a paradox: Does taking a picture help you remember a moment, or does it distract you from experiencing it?
I lived in Costa Rica this past summer and brought my professional camera everywhere, including when my friends and I went horseback riding. As our horses twisted their way up the green hills of Monteverde, I gripped my camera, leaning back in my saddle and steadying my hand despite the gallop of my horse. I put my eye to the viewfinder and searched for the perfect angle.
When we got to the top of the hill, I got about two minutes with the full, magnificent view — and spent the entire time taking photos. I was desperate to capture the scene correctly, to finally get to enjoy the ride, because the only way I can stay in a moment is if I know I’ve captured it already. But by the time I got the shot, the ride was over.
By now, I’ve spent more time looking at the photos from horseback riding than I did actually experiencing it. Though I can still picture the scene from how my eyes authentically saw it, those memories are slowly being replaced with the photo representations. My fear of forgetting, it seems, might actually stop me from remembering.
In the 2012 movie adaptation of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Walter Mitty finds Sean O’Connell, a traveling film photographer, searching for a rare snow leopard in the Himalayas. When it finally walks in view of his lens, Sean leans away from the viewfinder. Walter asks when he’ll take the photo.
“Sometimes I don’t,” Sean responds. “If I like a moment … I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” The leopard passes without any documentation.
The scene frustrates me each time I watch this movie. Isn’t there a way to capture the moment and still experience it? Doesn’t he want proof? Still, I identify with his distaste for the distraction — I wish I could have taken photos in Costa Rica without having to sacrifice the experience of those moments.
I’ve dreamed of the day when I can take a picture with just my eyes, like the episode of “Black Mirror” where humans have cameras in their brains. In the show, though, this leads to their downfall as they obsessively watch their lives over again, to the point where it’s difficult to justify creating new memories.
Though we don’t have the technology to make this a reality yet, it seems as though the concept is already a trend — we aren’t shooting on film with 24 shots to a roll, but instead, we have phones with increasingly high-quality cameras, connected to the seemingly-infinite storage of the internet. We have GoPro travel videos and 20-minute daily vlogs generating quick clicks for influencers. The urge to capture is always there because the bounds are limitless for what we can remember.
I began using social media as a way to create a highlight reel of my favorite moments without having to sort through my camera roll. But now, it’s transformed into something different; memories become capital to be liked and shared, or to appear on Timehop and be reminded of past memories. In a way, it isn’t just the camera that distracts you, but reviewing those moments is also another distraction.
Maybe memory hoarding is just the norm now, and it’s better to miss some moments if it means you’ll have a digital archive of your life. Or maybe it’s just the new nostalgia, more enticing to capture than not, and we’ll never know how much our digital memories will paint over the analog.
During my last week in Costa Rica, I had to leave my camera behind when I went snorkeling in a coral reef. I remember almost every minute of those two hours swimming with my face in the water, drifting past sea urchins and vibrant fish as if I was part of their habitat. I was immersed — the only filter between my eyes and the water was my goggles, not the viewfinder of a camera. I was free to absorb the scene without inhibition.
Though I don’t have a photo to relive the experience, it’s still a vivid memory. Maybe I should have tried to bring my GoPro, or maybe it’s better to let the memory live and die organically. Sometimes you want the distraction of the camera, and sometimes you have to let the leopard walk by. Either way, the best memories will always find their way in. You just have to let them.