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 mom to try) affixed to colorful 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 mom 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 realize is that those pictures aren’t for my mom, 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-US)

30 thoughts on “To Smile, or NOT to Smile

  1. thanks for sharing this Melissa….this is why we are Creative Memories consultants and have albums on our shelves….

  2. This is absolutely fantastic! Thanks, Josh, for giving us the “scrapbooker’s kid” point of view. I’m sure my children feel the same way about always having a camera in their face – but I also know they’re grateful for the scrapbooks of their lives.

  3. Wonderful article from a scrapbooker’s kid. I know my sons will enjoy those albums long after I am gone. I love what I do. It’s important. As Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post once said, “To love what you do and feel that it matters–how could anything be more fun!”

  4. My son was never comfortable being in pictures, but his mom and dad were both photo bugs, and his mom would scrap those pictures and memories as well. ;-)
    Now when he comes home for visits, he pulls numerous scrapbooks off the shelf and peruses the pages. I always wonder if he is thinking he should have smiled more often. :-D

  5. Great article, Josh! It really brings the whole thing together about why we scrapbook and the feelings of those involved. My 21 year old nephew is coming for the summer and loves to pull a book or two down to see what he was up to at 3 or 8 or 16. We always have a great laugh. Seeing those pictures does bring him back to the moment. Thanks, Josh, for putting it into words.

  6. Great blog!! Makes some very good points. Josh has a way with words and those thoughts journaled with the pictures makes the memories come alive. If more people would do that I would be really happy!!

  7. Love this Josh! Sometimes my children will forget a memory and I can go to the shelf and show them a photo with the story and the memory comes flooding back! It takes them back to that time and how they “felt”. That truly is what it is about. Thanks for sharing!

  8. I love this! If my sons were writers their sentiments I believe would be the same. Thank you Josh!

  9. I Love the article you have written Josh and I’m glad you realize The Why of your Mom sticking a camera in your face at every opportunity.

  10. I love that your son wrote this article, I am sure my kids have had the same thoughts over the years. Even though I am usually the one behind the camera I also feel the importance of also being in the photos. My dad passed away last month and I am so glad to have a photo of him and I together (mostly it was me taking all the family get together photos) so every once in a while get in front of the camera even if you have to use a photo stick to capture that special moment with the special people in your life. I love your Germany pictures Josh, I have traveled all through Germany and it is indeed beautiful.

  11. Awesome article! Thanks Josh and thanks to your mom! My daughter has always felt the same way about taking the pictures BUT she loves to look at the albums and recall our “life moments”. Have a great trip to Germany and please take some pictures. :)

  12. Great article. My son and my 2 grands would probably feel the same way because each time I am in their presence, I have to snap that camera! But they are used to it by now and I know……one day, they will be thankful for the memories. Thanks again Josh.

  13. What can one say??? True on both sides of the ledger – both important – so we learn to give & take!!!

  14. Wow! What a great story! Thank you so much for sharing. I had tears in my eyes reading it. When my mother passed away in 2003, I cleaned out my childhood home & brought to my house 32 photo albums. Although they weren’t done in a scrapbook format as we know it, she lovingly had everything dated & labeled. As I look through them every now & then, trying to purge some of the pictures that aren’t really relevant to me, it gets me thinking back to all those times she had a camera in our face! And how thankful I am now, that she did! Enjoy that trip To Germany! That’s where my mother was from, a WWII war bride! And she had an album filled with every piece of documentation necessary for her trip to the US in 1952, to include the luggage tags, menu’s from the USS United States, cocktail napkins, matchbook covers, etc. all meticulously arranged on album pages. What a wonderful snapshot of her life she left for her family!

    1. My son (and the rest of the family for that matter) could have written this story. I knew my son “got it” when he began to save memorabilia during his high school years. He and his friends, and now my grandchildren, love their albums. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story! It is EXACTLY why we do what we do!

  15. please remove me from this

    From: CREATIVE MEMORIES BLOG To: Sent: Wednesday, May 3, 2017 7:10 AM Subject: [New post] To Smile, or NOT to Smile #yiv3539687501 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv3539687501 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv3539687501 a.yiv3539687501primaryactionlink:link, #yiv3539687501 a.yiv3539687501primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv3539687501 a.yiv3539687501primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv3539687501 a.yiv3539687501primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv3539687501 | Josh Ullmann posted: “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 schoo” | |

  16. Yes, Josh, thank you so much for sharing. I hope you enjoyed your trip to Germany. I’m sure your mom will willingly scrapbook the photos you bring back–but you’ll need to do the journaling. Imaging the photos in combination with your words, comments like this one you mentioned above: ” 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.” Words and pictures: a winning combination.

  17. What a great blog!! Josh you have a great talent in writing and I wish you the best on your trek to Germany. I must share with you though, my son when to Germany with his class a few years back. As a scrapbooker and CM advisor, I started preaching to him about 3 months before he left that I didn’t need any souvenirs of his trip other than pictures. It would be the only way I would ever get to see where he had been. We got a better camera with a zoom for him to take. All my talks worked. He made it a challenge to get as many pictures as he could. I believe the final count was over 4000. And the best part came the evening after he came home, my husband worked the electronic magic, got the pictures to show on our big screen, and we watched for over 2 hours as he shared every aspect of his journey with us. A truly magical moment for all of us. Photos not only keep memories alive, they help families share their love for each other.

  18. The main thing is not to get so busy picture taking that you don’t enjoy the trip!

  19. Wow, thank you . Your words I am sure are the sentiments of my 20 something . I have heard a million time ” mom, please do not take this picture or another picture”. Met with a fun response ” what, you are going to thank me one day … I am document ting your lives”. But deep down, I know or at least I hope I know that they really love these albums. Perhaps no so much now, but one day they will cherish these Labour of love and Contentment that went into each and every page . Great read.

  20. Loved your story Josh & I do understand how kids feel! My oldest boy would never smile & would make remarks like “Mom’s at it again” or “Hide here comes Mom” with her camera!! But as he aged, & was happily married, he began to let me take pics & he learned to smile for me. He has such a nice twinkle in his eyes & it’s such a shame it wasn’t in his younger pics. They now have kids to think about & a new grandson & you should see all the camera work going on. Only problem is I haven’t been able to convince them to use albums yet! I must try harder or just grab the photos I can & do it myself!!!

  21. I just shared this in hopes that my poor daughters will understand just a little about why I do what I do. Thank you Josh & Melissa!

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