It was a simple enough equation. The bride and groom-to-be were broke. Wedding photos were expensive. A family member who owned a small photography business offered to shoot the wedding for free, and the couple conceded. But once the honeymoon ended, the bride was crushed when her images didn't compare with the charming wedding photos uploaded by Facebook friends.
She and her husband elected to fly in a photographer to "retake" the wedding pictures on their six-month anniversary. The pictures conveyed everything the wedding photos hadn't: the ease and sweetness of their interactions. The euphoria of being young and in love. The promise of friendship in the years to come. The bride finally had what she wanted: photos she loved and loved to show off. But at what cost?
Now, before anyone accuses this couple of vanity, let's admit we've felt a similar tug of disappointment before, whether for a group photo ruined by a silly facial expression or a close up captured at an unflattering angle. Why do we care deeply about how our photographs turn out? Why do we treat beautiful photos as the ultimate markers of special events?
We live in a culture that values images, immensely. We give images permission to influence our ideas, shape our identities, and saturate our daily routines. The speed with which we share our photos, the social obligation by which we post them ("These are going on Facebook, right?"), and the masses with which we share them signify their value. Each day, we upload more than 5.2 million photos to Instragram and 100 million to Facebook, with no signs of slowing down our snapping and sharing. In an age of camera phones and digital photography, we can all become photojournalists documenting our own lives.
In a sense, this is totally natural. Photographs speak to the age-old custom of physically marking spaces and moments in thanksgiving and remembrance. Old Testament Jacob did this very thing upon dreaming of a heavenly ladder and God's divine utterance: he set up a rock and named it "Bethel." No one told him to do this. Rather, something within propelled him to physically mark the space with an altar, a visible reminder that God was with and for him.
The danger of using photos as markers is that images appeal to our vanity. We become quickly obsessed with accumulating experiences, capturing them in photos, and publicly displaying our photos as trophies. If we aren't careful, our Facebook pages and blogs can become trophy cases of our own accomplishments: Me, on a church mission trip, lumped in with a group of smiling ethnic children. Me, presenting a paper at a conference to the wild, raucous applause of my colleagues (okay, okay, that didn't actually happen). Me at the altar with a man, and, nine months later, at different stages of my pregnancy.
When we revert to amassing moments and their accompanying photographs like trophies to stack in our own Facebook shrines, we treat the photograph as though it were more valuable than the event and those with us in that moment. This internally focused gaze hinders postures of service, gratitude and contentment. In our scramble to obtain that perfect photo, we have glorified the wrong person.
There is nothing wrong with capturing gorgeous photographs as markers of life events, but this becomes a vain pursuit when we are more concerned with displaying the photograph as a symbol of our own status and power instead of God's. We ought to treat moments as though they were altars. A moment photographed is an opportunity to give weight to the truths of Scripture in the present and call these truths to mind in the future.
When we capture and display photographs in this way, the mission trip photo says, "Look at the Compassionate God who cares deeply for all children," not "Look at my own compassion." The career photo says, "Look at the Clever, Omnipotent God who cultivated my talents and orchestrated circumstances so my strengths would coincide with this company or organization's needs," not, "Look at my own brilliance." The marriage ceremony photograph says, "Look at the Benevolent God who has united me, body and soul, with this man to carry out His Divine Purpose," not, "Look at this elegant dress and stylish hair accessory."
Whether or not it is evident to our Facebook friends, our beliefs about God will manifest themselves in the content and frequency of our posts. If you're concerned that you might be using your photographs to gloat rather than give praise and thanks, ask yourself, is this a God-honoring photo landmark or just one more voice added to the noise of self-congratulations? You might also prayerfully consider limiting how often you "show off." For instance, unless you're advertising your culinary business, do your Facebook friends need to see daily photos of the meals you labored over?
If vanity is a sin, and sin is the wedge that oh-so-subtly shifts us away from intimacy with God, let's be on guard against the temptation to glorify self in this ubiquitous image culture. Let's strive to tear down the high places we've erected to ourselves and instead, process to the house of God where we can kneel down and place these photographs—these thankful, commemorative reminders of how bountifully He has dealt with us—at His feet.
Lyndsey Gvora works in a library and runs self-esteem building programs for girls. She graduated Cedarville University with a B. A. in Language Arts Education and blogs about faith and American culture at http://camandlynds.tumblr.com.
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