This piece was originally published in Slate on Oct. 8, 2015.
My children are vampires. I don’t mean that they are going to dress as vampires for Halloween. I mean that, like vampires, they cannot be captured on film.
I came to this revelation about six months ago, when I took it upon myself, as I often do, to take a picture of my children, ages 11 and 13. I looked at the image on my phone and could see the room, the sunlight, and the space where they were supposed to be, but I did not see the image of my children. In subsequent attempts, I was able to capture a blur where they once stood. I pretended for a time that these were images of my children, but I felt like a phony. I was the sad man on Ghost Hunters pointing to a picture of a suburban basement and insisting the smudge was the ghost of Mary Todd Lincoln.
The infrared camera has been no help.
The walls of our upstairs hallway testify that we once had photogenic children. There are rows of framed pictures that show them playing baseball, basketball, holding a toad and smiling in the sunlight at their eager parents. Everything is orderly and bright.
But these are pictures from another time. The children in those aging frames don’t look like the giants clomping around the living room and leaving their dishes all over the house even if I’ve told them a thousand times. Those older forms bolt the minute I incline toward the camera. Sometimes when I take out my phone to check email, the little Garbos vanish. The email icon and camera icon are right next to each other, and my children can’t be too careful.
We do get a school photo every year, which demonstrates something, but by law those photographs are not allowed to look like your children. This is fortunate, because this year, the photographer suggested one of our children flash two thumbs up, like the Fonz. I was happy the droopy result didn’t look like my child. School photographs are the visual equivalent of listening to a recording of your own voice. You can’t believe you sound like that. No one admits to being the blood-drained inmate of the school photo.
I’m not just trying to photograph the kids now to look at them later. I’m photographing them now to look at them now. They’re never in one place long enough, and neither am I. It is pleasing to look at their faces while bouncing around in the dark on a plane, alone.
That’s only part of the story, though. The real reason I am doing this was identified by Susan Sontag, a writer not known for her parenting books: “To take a picture is to have an interest in things as they are, in the status quo remaining unchanged.” The photograph is obviously an attempt to halt the advance of time.
Parents are always a bore with the camera, from the minute that new voice is added to the delivery room. But when your kids are young, the instinct is not so desperate. You snap photos the way you spend the first days of a long vacation. You have plenty of time. You luxuriate. Then, without warning, the dwindling number of days before you have to go back to work is always present in your mind. The number of pictures in the thin hallway upstairs contributes to this countdown feeling. Photographs pile on photographs, and as the cairn builds, its size makes you conscious not only of how much time has passed but how quickly. All that’s left on the trail to add to the pile are the little stones. If you are not careful, this realization can make you susceptible to heavy French theorists. “If photography is to be discussed on a serious level,” wrote Roland Barthes, “it must be described in relation to death.” We’re not just trying to stop their growth, but we’re trying to stop our own.
Meanwhile, the kids just want to keep hiking through their lives. The photograph is not simply a stupid interruption of whatever they were doing in the moment; it is reductive. It defines them at a time when they are trying to be the author of their own image. They don’t want to be reminded of what they were, because they’re something new now. And even though the picture taker thinks he’s the most benevolent auteur in the world, by taking the picture he is asserting his definition of them. The way a tourist gains control over a strange town by photographing it, the parent-photographer puts some order into the disorienting life of raising children. But for the poor subjects, it’s like that time when they made a stray comment about a building and their grandmother announced that they were going to grow up to be an architect. You like to be able to have an impulse and not be held to it for eternity.
At this point, some helpful person will point out to all of us that our experiences with our children are to be lived in the moment, so stop trying to photograph them. But it is possible to live in the moment and photograph it. Experience is not limited by the search for the photogenic. The fellows who were able to capture the moment at Rouen Cathedral in the daylight and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence at night almost certainly felt those moments deeply as they were taking place. They couldn’t have created those images otherwise.
Photographs of your kids have an almost wounding sweetness when looked at later—a version of the emotional intensity felt from photography that is so moving that Barthes gave it its own word: the punctum. It is a rich joy to meditate on the person captured in that moment and where he or she is now in life. A picture excites the love of parenting that comes through meditation on a child.
Also: Picture-taking is not necessarily a sign of helicopter parenting. If you are a Pony Express parent whose interactions are interrupted by long quiet periods, it makes it all that much more powerful to document the moment when you hear the hooves at the edge of town again.
A better argument for not taking photographs is that it gets in the way of a larger parenting project. If all parenting after age 10 is an elaborate con game to introduce kids to the Larger Life without their knowing it, then the camera gets in the way of this. Kids are like rookie literary critics, always on the hunt for sentimentality. The camera becomes a worrying signifier to them that tells them that they are engaged in something that is good for them or Meaningful. They don’t want to be engaged in any activity that is worthy of being photographed.
For example, when you force them to join you on a walk in the woods, they might forget for a moment what an injustice it is that they’ve been put on this forced march. They might play in the creek the way they did as toddlers. Let this be. If you try to capture that moment of invention and creativity and spontaneity, you will snuff out the romance they are experiencing. And it’s that romance you were trying to stir in the first place. Letting them alone will set the hook to draw them back to the woods when you aren’t there to force them.
So I am resolved. Soon there will start to be more pictures in which they are looking into someone else’s eyes and having experiences other than the ones we’re in. Nevertheless, it’s hard to stop scheming. I just have to open up my timelines. One day, they will have kids, and for some number of years those kids will enjoy being photographed. I will play the role of the tiresome grandfather, and while their parents aren’t looking, I’ll take a few pictures of them too.