To Smile, or not to Smile.

My life has been documented relentlessly since I was born.  Sitting on a bookshelf, the blue scrapbooks have multiplied through the years as I have experienced more and more in life. From the big moments: the first day of kindergarten, starting high school, college acceptance letter, my grandma’s last Christmas, and moving to Philadelphia; to the trifling: vacations, school dances, sporting events, family reunions, and day trips; my life is neatly remembered in those growing blue books.

Pictures of every event in life imaginable (save the heartbreaks, though I wouldn’t have put it past my mum to try) affixed to colourful paper with a small blurb documenting that moment’s activities.

Some of my most cherished memories sit in those books: the moments with grandparents, my football and basketball careers, moments with friends, and any trip with my family. It truly is a spectacle to have my entire life in pictures and text bubbles sitting in several hundred pages.

Its also a great device to have when sitting around, remembering the ‘good ole days.’ Flip to a specific event and there is a visual to describe where I was, what I saw, people I was with. It creates a much more vivid story. However there is a huge caveat that drives me and my mother nuts:

I absolutely hate having my picture taken.

I am of the school of thought that you have to live the moment. I plunge headlong into whatever new experience I can find without a thought of how I will retell the story or what memories I will keep. I best remember the feeling of an event rather than the actual visual experience. In Independence Hall for the first time, I will forever remember how floored I was by the feeling that I was standing in the same room as titans like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. I, for the life of me, will not remember the physical attributes of the room, save for the drab green table clothes.


Those blue books recount what my experiences looked like but cannot even remotely expound on my true memories.

To put it in basketball terms:

The feeling I remember after taking a charge on the basketball court cannot be properly conveyed by a picture of me laying on the ground.

I’ve had many a fight with my mother over this disagreement of paradigm. I’m utterly convinced she has missed so much in life by focussing on being behind a lens and she’s convinced that I will lose every single one of my memories when my mind begins to go because I spent my entire life avoiding a camera.

We are both probably right.

I remember distinctly having a fight about it in an Atlantic City ice cream shop. She was taking pictures of the ice cream, like people back home wouldn’t believe that ice cream existed in, of all places, New Jersey.


I was more concerned about experiencing the event: warm, salty breeze off the ocean, droves of tourists in stereotypical tourist attire. It was an utterly new experience that was being interrupted by my mum shoving a camera in my face. We’ve all seen the guy from Lilo and Stitch. The picture is pretty much a carbon copy.

Image result for lilo and stitch ice cream

But she was taking the pictures to remember what we did on the shore as a whole: Getting knocked down on our backsides by the tide (which is surprisingly sneaky for being an ocean); walking through a marina with boats that put the Alumnicrafts in Minnesota to shame, the seafood shack where I discovered clam chowder comes in two varieties (Manhattan style is apparently a thing. Comes in a red broth. Blew my mind.), and finally, the stop for ice cream. I can still recount my memories of that day because it was 8 months ago.

Years down the road, she will still be able to tell you everything we did because of the pictures. Still doesn’t stop me from hating having my picture taken. I enjoy moments so much more when cameras aren’t involved.

But I am currently at an impasse. I am about to fulfill a lifelong dream with a trip to Germany. Being Lutheran, having a degree in history, and being extremely proud of my Germanic heritage, I have always been drawn to Germany, but I have never had the opportunity or resources until now to make the trek. I am going alone for a week. No friends, no family, no mother to shove a camera in my face every moment of the experience. Just a week by myself in the land of my Fathers. I will be able to tell you of my experiences, what I saw and felt during that 7 day stretch for a long time. I fully intended to come back with one, maybe two pictures of the entire trip.

But looking at pictures of my family and I’s experiences while writing this has been a wild ride of emotion, evoking memories of things I have not remembered in a long time. As much as I hate having my picture taken at every turn, I am grateful for them. They are windows into my experiences. The insurmountable sense of joy reading my acceptance letter to Concordia. The weird feeling of anxiety and aggression I had every time I stepped onto a football field. I could go on infinitely. None of those emotions can be communicated through the picture to others. What I’ve come to realise is that those pictures aren’t for my mum, or her friends, or her work (Creative Memories), or the dozens of blue books that line my parent’s shelves.

They’re for me.

To evoke the memories of experiences long forgotten and to bring back the feelings that are vital to who I am.

I’m about to leave for the greatest, most transformative experience of my young life; And you can bet a camera will be with me every step of the way.


Written by Josh Ullmann (Son of Melissa Ullmann, Creative Memories Home Office-USA)

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