Documenting for safekeeping

I am a person gifted and cursed with very strong and plentiful memories. I can see, vividly before me, scenes from the past as though they were happening at this very moment. Sometimes I wonder why that is. Because I’m very emotional? Because I think a lot about the past? Maybe it’s because because I’m so afraid of forgetting anything at all.

From age 13-21 I kept an almost constant diary. I’ve been taking photographs since my dad passed his first digital camera down to me when I was ten-ish. Documenting, documenting, documenting.

A bumblebee, not analysing its habits.

I’ve filled storage containers with letters, external hard drives with photos and film, and blogs with travel writing. Archiving is second, third and fourth nature to me. Constantly reaching for pens and cameras.

I think it used to be fueled by an anxious compulsion, but it has become a deliberate practice.

I’ve been thinking about writing something along these lines for years, but found it hard to start. It feels impossible to put into words just why it is I insist on putting everything into words.

My wild-haired darling.

But, staring out the window of my husband’s grandmother’s house on the Swedish west coast, overlooking the ocean through huge, pine-framed windows, I was struck by a modest revelation. The house and ocean are irrelevant, but possible catalysts.

I document to package away moments for safe keeping. I capture tiny slivers of everything I experience so I can come back to them when I can better understand them.

When I’m stressed, tired, busy or sad, photography is more accessible than writing. I use it to create future triggers for hundreds of memories associated with the frames I capture. A sense of relief that they’re there for later.

Messy, painty baby hands.

There’s lots of talk about people putting away cameras to truly experience a moment. I can understand that sentiment, but I don’t think it takes into consideration the huge array of reasons people document.

During my babies’ early months – especially Elsie’s – I deliberately photographed the beauty and love in the quiet moments. I wanted to be able to access them later, when I recovered from the postnatal period, and would be able to appreciate them. It has worked. I was also careful to document the hard parts to avoid longing. That has also worked.

I look back at blog posts I wrote during early motherhood and feel an intense sympathy for my past self, as well as a strong sense of gratitude for where I am now; mentally, emotionally and physically.

Sympathy and a bumped head.

Sometimes, people ask me for writing tips. They say they like my unique voice. I’ve been thinking about this, and I have what I would not call advice, but more a description of what I do.

I write like I would talk if everybody in the room were gazing intently at me and truly interested in what I had to say. So, I write like I’m really trying to explain. It’s a conversation, and responses are simply encouraging murmurs, as though you’re saying “Oh, how interesting!”


You might not like my unique voice, but now you might have a better insight into why that is.

Something I do not do is proofread. That’s why there are typos, and why things go in strange directions. If I looked over my writing, I might not like it anymore, and then I might not publish it. That would not only be a waste, but it would also be a shame. I like to not let good be the enemy of done.

After-dinner beach play.

In photography, my tips are as follows: I use aperture priority on wide open for portraits, macro, and still life. I have no tips for landscapes. I shoot darker than is necessary because I like dark photographs and it’s easier to pull the shadows up in Lightroom than to take the highlights down. I am not the world’s most accomplished photographer, but that is what I do. Both of those things felt like pleasant tricks to learn when I came across them, so I share them with you on the off chance you feel that way too.

Photo by Felix.

Rambling is what I do best, but I will leave you here with what I imagine might be a bit of confusion and a thought or two about how and why you do – or do not – document.

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Lily Ray
Lily Ray

Journalist, photographer, traveller and knitter. Mother to a small but demanding infant, Lily's life is messy but generally lovely. She has a lot of thoughts. Here is where she puts them.

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