The first time I experimented with mental photography, I was a rising senior representing my college at a church camp in Maine. These were the days of film when you wouldn’t know what you’d captured until you took the film cartridge to the grocery store film counter and waited for the envelope that contained your free double prints.
The campgrounds were nestled between evergreen trees that climbed skyward and a lake that kissed the land. Something told me that if I stared at this scene long enough—maybe a few moments each day—that this beauty before me would not fade from memory.
I stood still. My open eyes were the aperture through which this scenery imprinted on the negative of my mind.
It worked. I can still conjure the trees and still water nearly thirty years later.
I remembered this technique as I stood in the dog park in South London. Overcast skies blanketed the park though the light emitted a glare despite the lack of sunshine. The asphalt walking paths stretched before us mostly smooth. To my left, the trunks of freshly felled trees beckoned me to sit, and I might have if not for the sawdust and the fact that we were at the beginning of our walk. I didn’t need a rest yet. To my right, another group of felled trees tangled amidst each other awaiting a clean-up crew.
I was delighted to be standing here with this man—someone I’d been talking to for ages, but never in the same time zone. We watched his best friend, a yellow lab, frolic and leap in the grass and sniff for his own branches to wrangle between his jaws.
I scanned the scenery for a good shot—something to help me remember the moment. Nothing particular stood out. Each time I raised the iPhone, the battery icon blazed red. I needed to conserve what juice my phone had. I put the phone back in my coat pocket and kept walking.
Months later, I remember so many details of this quiet, companionable walk. Because I wasn’t preoccupied by documenting the moment it meant I was actually present. I remember where I stood at different points in our conversation and what we were saying. He had a particular topic he wanted to discuss with me. I remember struggling to articulate my views. I also remember how it felt to have my thoughts and opinions honored even when I didn’t have them fully fleshed out.
I remember watching the dog’s boundless energy collide with other neighborhood dogs. I remember how satisfying it was to breathe in the same cool, damp air as this man. I remember how I stepped gingerly in the muddy spots to avoid staining my new brown leather Mary Janes.
When we took the train into downtown London a few days later, I approached sightseeing the same way. I kept my attention on the beautiful cityscape. I reveled in the rare sunshine, which made London light up like a prism dazzling in every direction. We walked through Leister Square and SoHo. We passed through Covent Garden, and waited by the curb for an Uber. I opened my mind’s eye wide. I took in dozens of red double-decker buses and black cabs. I noted pedestrians all bundled up—some with masks, but most without. I don’t have many photos, and I’m glad. I treasure the images I collected as I paid close attention to the company I was keeping and the city blocks we walked.
We lose something in the present when we work so hard to document moments for the future. I’m going to continue to keep my phone in my pocket.